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I expect UK to maintain major international defence role, says NATO chief

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg giving a speech at Lancaster House, London, where he appealed to Western allies to continue to work together in the interests of shared security, despite a series of public rifts between the US and other member states. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 21, 2018. Photo credit should read: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

By Sam Lister and Gavin Cordon, Press Association Political Staff

The head of Nato has called on Britain to continue investing in defence amid claims that Theresa May has questioned the UK's role as a leading military power.

In a speech in London, Jens Stoltenberg said he expected the UK to continue playing a major international role.

It comes after Downing Street insisted the UK remained committed to being a leading military power following a report that the Prime Minister had asked Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson to justify the country's status as a "tier one" nation.

The Financial Times reported that Mrs May had sent "shockwaves" through the Ministry of Defence after telling Mr Williamson he needed to rethink which capabilities the UK needed for a modern military force.

The Nato Secretary General said the UK was able to play a major role in Nato because it has "full spectrum" defence capabilities and it spends more than 2%.

He said: "I expect the UK to continue and to maintain that role.

"To maintain that role, you need to spend and invest in defence."

With many of the participants at the G7 due at a Nato meeting next month, there are fears in European capitals that it will become the stage for another transatlantic diplomatic bust-up.

Since the G7, Mr Trump has publicly taunted German Chancellor Angela Merkel over migration while demanding the Europeans contribute more to the costs of their common defence.

The US president has in turn faced criticism over the separation of children from parents detained as illegal immigrants on the US border with Mexico, a practice Mrs May described as "wrong" and "deeply disturbing".

On Wednesday, he signed an executive order allowing families to stay together.

In his speech, Mr Stoltenberg, who is due to meet Mrs May in Downing Street, argued that maintaining the transatlantic partnership is in the "strategic interest" of all the allies.

He conceded there were "real differences" on trade, the environment and the Iran nuclear deal.

But he insisted the allies had overcome such differences before and warned it is "in our interests to stand together".

He added: "When it comes to Nato, security and defence, the transatlantic bond is not weakening it is actually strengthening."

He suggested that, despite Mr Trump's outspoken comments on Nato, the US was showing its commitment through its deeds.

"Actions speak louder than words," he said.

Mr Stoltenberg pointed to how Nato had stood by the US after 9/11.

Mr Trump is reportedly preparing to meet Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during his forthcoming visit to Europe.

If it goes ahead it would be another blow to Western unity after a bruising G7 which laid bare divisions between the US administration and European and Canadian allies across a range of issues including trade and the Iran nuclear deal.

But Mr Stoltenberg said such a meeting would not "in any way" contradict Nato policies and insisted dialogue was not weakness.

A Number 10 spokeswoman said: "It is completely untrue to suggest that our position as a leading defence nation is somehow in question. The PM is strongly committed to the UK's armed forces and to maintaining their strength and ability to deter and, where necessary, defeat the threats we face."

The UK's commitment to Nato "remains steadfast" and "we have the biggest defence budget in Europe and the second biggest in Nato"

Pic by Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

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