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UK’s Boris Johnson juggles NATO summit with electioneering

BY JILL LAWLESS
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Britain NATO

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives for a NATO leaders meeting at The Grove hotel and resort in Watford, Hertfordshire, England, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. As NATO leaders meet and show that the world's biggest security alliance is adapting to modern threats, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is refusing to concede that the future of the 29-member alliance is under a cloud. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

WATFORD, England (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson juggled election campaigning with hosting a meeting of NATO leaders on Wednesday, keeping a polite but noticeable distance from unpredictable U.S. President Donald Trump.

The gathering was intended to celebrate the 70th birthday of the 29-member military alliance, but fissures were on display as the leaders met at a luxury country hotel outside London. On Tuesday, Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron sparred over Macron’s criticism of NATO and Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria. The next day, the U.S. president called Canada’s prime minister “two-faced” after Justin Trudeau was caught on an open microphone gossiping about Trump at a royal reception.

Johnson insisted the NATO meeting had been “extremely practical and extremely harmonious.”

The visit by Trump, who is widely unpopular in Britain, was a complication as U.K. politicians campaign ahead of the country’s Dec. 12 election. Johnson — who is ahead of the main opposition Labour Party in opinion polls — wants to avoid being too closely associated with the U.S. leader. He was not photographed alongside Trump Tuesday, though the two met in private at 10 Downing St. and appeared together in a group photo of leaders.

Johnson denied avoiding Trump, saying he was “going to be photographed with every possible leader of NATO” at the gathering.

But when asked whether Trump contributed to the security of the West, Johnson spoke only of the role of the United States, calling it “a pillar of stability for our collective security.”

On Tuesday, Trump praised Johnson as “very capable,” but largely avoided commenting on the U.K. election. He denied that the U.S. intended to include Britain’s state-funded health service in negotiations on a future trade deal with Britain. The fate of the much-loved health service is a key Labour campaign plank.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn alleges that once Britain has left the European Union, Johnson will seek a trade deal with the United States that would drive up the cost of drugs and open up the state-funded service to U.S. firms.

Trump denied the U.S. was interested in the National Health Service, saying Tuesday that “If you handed it to us on a silver platter, we want nothing to do with it.” In June, however, Trump said that everything — including the NHS — would be “on the table.”

Labour says leaked documents from preliminary trade talks held between 2017 and this year show that drug pricing was part of the agenda.

"If it is off the table, then why is it included in all the talks?” Corbyn said Wednesday. "Why did they continue for months having these discussions with the NHS totally on the table?”

Johnson rejected the Labour claim, saying “I think by now that everybody has rumbled this for the nonsense that it is.”

Veering from summit host into campaigning politician, he lambasted Corbyn, saying the left-wing Labour leader wanted to “destroy” NATO and would endanger U.K. security.

Corbyn is a longtime critic of Western military interventions and has often criticized NATO, but Labour’s official policy is to remain part of the organization.

“I think that NATO is an alliance that is important to be a part of and we are obviously members of it,” he said Wednesday.

Johnson left the summit Wednesday afternoon to return to the campaign trail, with just eight days to go until Britain’s Dec. 12 election.

He is seeking to remain prime minister and win a majority in Parliament for his Conservative Party, with a vow to “get Brexit done” by taking Britain out of the EU on the currently scheduled date of Jan. 31.

All 650 seats in the House of Commons are up for grabs in next week’s vote.

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