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January 06, 2021

Time for Big Picture Thinking

EU-NATO relations have been debated for decades, but progress has been slow and key questions left unanswered.

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Ever since European Union member states added defense to the policy fields in which they want to pursue integration in the early 2000s, via the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, the question of how EU efforts to that effect relate to NATO has been on the table. Consequently, it has become an evergreen in the European security debate.

Making the case for close EU-NATO cooperation is no hard thing to do. The Atlantic alliance and the EU essentially share the same strategic environment and hence face the same threats. Their members have single sets of forces (i.e. just one set of military equipment and personnel), which they can decide to use in either context. Ensuring the highest degree of compatibility between the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) and NATO consequently seems utterly sensible. Given the need for a holistic take on European security, close relations between the two key institutions of European defense cooperation is crucial. In light of limited resources, European states simply cannot afford to pursue divergent objectives in both settings. Likewise, duplicating assets in the EU and in NATO makes little sense.

A Dramatic U-Turn

Since 2002, NATO and the EU have officially been “strategic partners.” In reality, however, things are not that simple. Numerous issues have remained unresolved since the last attempt at defining a sensible relationship between the two organizations. The topic was last fashionable in the early 2000s—a different era.

Back then, the debate pitted “Europeanists” against “Atlanticists,” while both the EU and NATO were essentially active in the same field. Territorial defense was largely considered a task of Cold War days gone by, “defense” almost exclusively referred to crisis management operations outside of Europe. This earlier debate notably led to the so-called Berlin-plus agreements, inter alia intended to allow the EU to recur to NATO assets and capabilities, should the alliance decide not to intervene in a given crisis. Today, it is clear that Berlin-plus is no suitable basis for EU-NATO relations.

Things changed in 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Territorial defense and deterrence made their way back into mainstream thinking. NATO’s 2014 Wales summit marked a dramatic U-turn. Since then, the alliance has again focused on tasks and planning that only concern NATO. The CSDP is explicitly about military and civilian crisis management operations outside of Europe as well as, since more recently, about capability development. Given the general “intervention fatigue” after almost 20 years of engagement in Afghanistan, the current debate about EU-NATO cooperation is taking place against a completely different background.

NATO is back in business for real, and for the majority of European capitals, it clearly plays the lead role when it comes to ensuring the continent’s security in responding to the perceived Russian threat.

Recent Progress

In the aftermath of 2014 and NATO’s return to territorial defense, EU-NATO cooperation has again moved up European political agendas. An EU-NATO Joint Declaration was signed at the alliance’s Warsaw Summit in 2016 (followed by another declaration in 2018), intended to give new impetus to cooperation. Seventy-four joint projects are currently being implemented as a result, in seven different areas ranging from countering hybrid threats to supporting capacity-building efforts by partners to Europe’s east and south.

In addition, steps have been taken toward more coherence. For example, defense planning is now better coordinated. For the first time ever, the 2018 EU Capabilities Development Plan takes NATO planning in the NATO’s Defense Planning Process into account, seeking to avoid incompatibilities. Overall, pragmatism and informal cooperation have won the day where formal EU-NATO cooperation has not been possible.

Nevertheless, obstacles persist . For example, the coordination of defense planning has to be done by member states, not by “Brussels.” There is also NATO member Turkey and the conflict over Cyprus (an EU member), which has hindered operational cooperation in particular.  Those two players, who effectively have veto rights in NATO and the CSDP, have essentially held everybody else hostage to their dispute. As of 2021, the deteriorating relationship between the EU and Turkey LINK SEUFERT is certainly not conducive to better EU-NATO cooperation.

Issues like this risk poisoning the day-to-day relationship between the EU and NATO. This is one reason why there is no sign of a unified EU-NATO take on how to best tackle the security challenges Europe is facing. This, however, would be a precondition for a truly strategic EU-NATO relationship.

The Fundamentals of European Security

Moreover, EU and NATO members would need to make up their minds about what they want. Much of the debate around the EU-NATO relationship ultimately revolves around two key questions for the future of European security, beyond purely institutional aspects.

First, the division of labor between the EU and NATO and who should do what. In the bygone era of large-scale crisis management operations, the suggested differentiation was based on intensity: NATO would take care of the upper end of the spectrum (read: fight the real wars), while the EU would take care of the “softer” tasks, including civilian missions. Today, the issue is both simpler and more complicated—simpler because NATO has returned to territorial defense and deterrence, which, by definition, is not the EU’s business, but also more complicated because there is not even a real consensus on what the CSDP should be about. Answering the question of which organization should do what is nevertheless of crucial importance.

Second, the even deeper underlying factor at play is uncertainty about the future of the transatlantic relationship and the question of what the Europeans should be able to do without American support. This is not solely related to EU-NATO cooperation, as it plays into the larger question of how the continent’s security can be ensured and what the CSDP’s role should be in that context.

Fears of “decoupling” European security from that of the United States are acute in many European capitals, as again became very clear in the debate surrounding European strategic autonomy. How much US involvement Europeans want in ensuring their security has been a subject of debate since the 1950s. However, mounting doubts after four years of US President Donald Trump as to transatlantic long-term perspectives make that debate ever more urgent. Related to this is that Europeans also need to clarify how they can finally build a “European pillar” within NATO. This would not only increase their ability to act, it would also make them more attractive partners to the United States.

Strategic Concept, Strategic Compass

The necessity of constructive relations between the EU and NATO is hardly contested. Fortunately, most countries have managed to overcome the idea that they need to choose either the EU or NATO. Yet, there is a long way to go before the relationship can rightly be qualified as strategic. Grand rhetoric and almost ostentatious displays of good relations notwithstanding, many questions linked to EU-NATO relations remain unresolved. These questions ultimately pertain to the larger questions Europeans need to answer regarding the continent’s future security.

The debate will certainly continue in 2021, not least because NATO will be discussing a new Strategic Concept, while the European Union will move forward with its Strategic Compass. Thinking about both processes together is clearly needed for the sake of a holistic take on European security. These questions cannot be answered in a bottom-up approach through 74 projects. Big picture thinking in the context of the strategic processes in the EU and NATO is required.

Barbara Kunz is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg.