By John Irish, Robin Emmott and Belén Carreño
PARIS/BRUSSELS/MADRID (Reuters) - NATO has asked members for more money to finance a salary hike for staff, a request some alliance nations deem disproportionate given the COVID-19 hit to their economies and are refusing, three European diplomats said.
The proposed rise of about 2.2% would be the biggest in four years and comes as the Western military alliance looks to seal its budget for 2021 and European economies face their biggest contraction since the Second World War.
The moves adds to tensions within the 30 country alliance that stem from President Donald Trump accusing European allies of taking U.S. protection for granted and its image worsening after French President Emmanuel Macron said last year the organisation was experiencing "brain death".
"There's an economic crisis because of the pandemic and they are asking for cash for an institution where the lowest salaries are 4,000 euros. It's a joke," said one European diplomat aware of the matter. "Asking states to increase contributions to pay for salaries during COVID-19 is irresponsible."
Governments across Europe will be looking to rein in costs to help finance COVID-19 recovery packages, such as Britain saying it will pause public sector pay rises.
The salary burden also falls harder on NATO’s European allies this year. In November 2019 budget negotiations, Europe, Turkey and Canada agreed to carry more of the annual, $2.5 billion (1.88 billion pounds) budget of running the headquarters, international staff and military assets under NATO command, in a gesture to Trump.
Some 1,000 civilians work within NATO’s international staff, which is composed solely of nationals from NATO member countries. They provide advice, guidance and administrative support to the national delegations at NATO Headquarters.
NATO declined to comment in detail on the negotiations.
"NATO salaries are subject to annual adjustment, based on a methodology agreed by all nations. Adjustments reflect national civil service salary adjustments. This is done in coordination with other international organisations such as the OECD, the Council of Europe and the European Space Agency," a NATO official said in response to Reuters questions.
"DETACHED FROM REALITY"
According to the first European diplomat, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called the Spanish and Italian foreign ministers on Nov. 27 to discuss the issue and was met with a rebuttal of the proposition.
Spain's Foreign Ministry confirmed the conversation but not the content "out of respect for diplomatic relations". Italian officials declined to comment.
A second European diplomatic source with direct knowledge of the matter said that in the conversation with Stoltenberg, Spain rejected the idea of increasing NATO salaries due to the current social context.
"They (NATO) are detached from reality?. It's quite shocking during COVID given the size of salaries and other international organisations don't do this," said a third European diplomat.
According to a Pew Research Center poll last year, Spain is among countries whose citizens have a less favourable view of NATO.
Two NATO diplomats confirmed salary negotiations were under way and that there was unhappiness. They said that all members would have to pay because they had already agreed the overall methodology for salaries.
According to the NATO website the salary is adjusted once a year on Jan. 1 at the time of the annual NATO salary review.
(Additional reporting by Tangi Salaun; Editing by Richard Lough and Alison Williams)