UK says neutral countries should join NATO if they want protection

LONDON — Neutral countries which aren’t NATO members but enjoy its “umbrella of protection” should have to join the military alliance, Britain’s defense secretary said Wednesday.

In a speech in London, Grant Shapps stopped short of pointing directly at non-NATO European countries like Ireland, Malta, Austria and Switzerland which have long prized neutrality. But he made clear Britain would be lobbying for more countries to join the bloc.

“I will make the case for NATO to bring all those who benefit from the alliance’s umbrella of protection into the organization,” he said.

“Some European countries effectively benefit from NATO coverage, they enjoy the benefits of freedom and liberty, and yet fail to sign up to the Continent’s collective deterrence,” Shapps added, pointing to the threat posed by Russia. “Yet when the wolf is at the back door of European security there should be no place for neutrality.”

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine sparked debate in some neutral European capitals about whether to rethink longstanding policy and join the military alliance. Finland and Sweden have both joined NATO in the last two years.

Shapps’ comments came as he urged existing NATO members to increase defense spending to 2.5 percent of GDP. The alliance’s current target is to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense — met by about two-thirds of NATO’s 32 members.

Britain recently made a promise to hit 2.5 percent by the end of the decade, and Shapps has vowed to press the issue at NATO’s 75th anniversary summit in Washington in July.