Does the New EU-NATO Joint Declaration Matter?

This week the leaders of NATO and the European Union signed their third joint declaration. The announcement comes at a perilous time for both organizations as they grapple with the war in Ukraine, a possible global recession, and increased geopolitical tension with China and Russia. Against this backdrop, what is the Joint Declaration on EU-NATO Cooperation and why is it significant?

Q1: What is the Joint Declaration on EU-NATO Cooperation?

A1: The 2023 Joint Declaration on EU-NATO Cooperation is the third declaration of its kind. Although NATO and the European Union have formally cooperated since 2002, Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 led to the first joint declaration at the NATO Warsaw summit in 2016. Against a backdrop of Russian aggression and changes to the European security architecture (e.g. the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union), in 2018, the European Union and NATO increased cooperation in seven strategic areas through 74 cooperation measures. The 2018 declaration called for “swift and demonstrable progress” on “military mobility; counter-terrorism; strengthening resilience against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear-related risks; promoting the women, peace, and security agenda.” Annual progress reports have accompanied the major declarations, with the latest in June 2022.

Q2: Is the joint declaration significant? Why was it released now?

A2: The document’s significance is primarily symbolic, as it does not contain any announcements or deliverables. The main message is one of transatlantic unity on two fronts: in support of Ukraine and at a time of growing geopolitical competition with China. In this sense it reflects the priorities agreed last year in NATO’s Strategic Concept and the European Union’s Strategic Compass.

In a general sense, it is a timely release. Much has changed since 2018. Most significantly, Russia’s invasion confirmed that it is a direct threat to Europe’s security, while the transatlantic community’s response confirmed the vital importance of NATO and the European Union. Recognizing this, Sweden and Finland have reversed their long-standing history of military nonalignment to request to join NATO. Upon their accession, NATO will protect “96% of the citizens in the European Union.” European countries have committed to dramatic increases in defense spending and will need to use both EU and NATO frameworks to make sure new spending is coordinated and efficient. Finally, in recent years, both organizations have waded into policy areas where the other is usually seen as holding a traditional comparative advantage. For example, NATO has sought to play a role in hybrid warfare, resilience, and energy security, whereas the European Union increasingly seeks to position itself as a credible defense actor that, for example, incentivizes the joint procurement of military capabilities. As the organizations increasingly overlap in their competencies, more coordination is required.

One obvious difference in this joint declaration is the timing. The two previous declarations were released at NATO summits (2016 in Warsaw and 2018 in Brussels). The 2021 summit did not issue a joint declaration, but the summit communiqué did dedicate a large section to NATO-EU cooperation. This time, a lack of consensus on key issues prevented its release at the 2022 Madrid summit. Instead, a small section of placeholder language went in the Madrid communiqué while the joint declaration was negotiated.

No reason for its delay was given on the joint declaration’s launch, but at least two issues appear to have contributed. The first is relations between Turkey and Cyprus, which have grown increasingly strained and relate to the broader historic rivalry between Turkey and Greece. Both are NATO members which have disagreed about overflights of Aegean Islands, maritime boundaries, and the status of Cyprus. Achieving Turkish agreement to Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership bid at the Madrid summit may have taken all the available political and practical bandwidth at the time. The second may have been lengthy and difficult negotiations on language about the European Union’s defense role, which the United States has had long-standing concerns, as well as how to address China. As NATO and EU members brace for a period of increased geopolitical tension with Russia and China, this agreement was needed to ensure internal alignment and present a united front.

Q3: What does the joint declaration say?

A3: Substantively, the declaration outlines several key areas for deepened NATO-EU cooperation. There is strong alignment on the common threats facing European security, mostly stemming from Russia's decision to invade Ukraine and the consequences of the war for the future, as well as China’s growing assertiveness which was explicitly noted for the first time. Both the European Union and NATO recognize the value of a stronger European defense which is, “complementary to, and interoperable with NATO.” The heightened threat posed to democracies by authoritarian regimes and other malicious actors such as terrorist groups was also noted. 

The declaration noted “unprecedented progress” since 2018, with “tangible results in countering hybrid and cyber threats, operational cooperation including maritime issues, military mobility, defence capabilities, defence industry and research, exercises, counter terrorism, and capacity-building of partners.” It also highlights several key areas where cooperation will be deepened to address “geostrategic competition, resilience issues, protection of critical infrastructures, emerging and disruptive technologies, space, the security implications of climate change, as well as foreign information manipulation and interference.” For example, following the declaration’s release, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced the launch of a new EU-NATO task force focused on resilience and critical infrastructure protection.

Q4: What has changed since the previous declaration?

A4: There are three notable changes in the substance of the declaration that reflect the changed context since 2018.

The main change is due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The declaration condemns “Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine” and confirms “[NATO’s] unwavering and continued support for [Ukraine’s] independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Russia’s invasion has confirmed the answer to two perennial NATO-EU questions on primacy and complementarity. On primacy, given Russia’s large-scale and brutal use of armed force, the foundational need for NATO’s collective defense is no longer in doubt. Neither is the value of both institutions’ complementary roles given both have performed crucial tasks in supporting Ukraine and securing Europe. As the declaration confirms, “NATO remains the foundation of collective defence for its Allies and essential for Euro Atlantic security,” and “NATO and the EU play complementary, coherent and mutually reinforcing roles in supporting international peace and security.”

However, another change may reopen questions about the extent to which EU defense initiatives are fully supported across the transatlantic community, in particular the United States. Whereas the 2018 declaration welcomed “political agreement to give higher priority to security and defence” in the European Union, the new declaration states, “We recognise the value of a stronger and more capable European defence that contributes positively to global and transatlantic security and is complementary to, and interoperable with NATO.” This language echoes the sentiments of former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s call in 1998 to avoid any duplication that might undermine NATO. The change in language follows a change in context: the 2018 formulation was designed to address President Trump’s concerns over burden-sharing (the declaration was released during his visit). This time, the language is designed to reinforce NATO primacy. However, EU efforts to catalyze European defense spending and cooperation following Russia’s invasion (through the Versailles Declaration and subsequent capability initiatives) may falter without wider political support—including from the United States. In short, despite the war and general efforts to improve U.S.-EU cooperation, this declaration seems to indicate that the Biden administration has maintained the skepticism of EU defense efforts held by previous U.S. administrations.

Finally, this joint declaration is the first one to mention China. The recognition that “China’s growing assertiveness and policies present challenges that we need to address” also represents a substantive change from the language used in the European Union’s 2022 Strategic Compass, which refers to China as “a partner for cooperation, an economic competitor and a systemic rival.” In particular, the new language reflects the sentiment of the United States’ recently released National Security Strategy. These changes represent the influence of the United States on the joint declaration, and on the European security architecture writ large. As the war in Ukraine demonstrates, the United States remains Europe’s security guarantor—the latest EU-NATO joint declaration also reflects this fact.

Q5: What happens next?

A5: The implementation of the joint declaration as written would not seem to require much change in the existing direction of EU-NATO cooperation. Of the joint declaration’s 14 clauses, only four contain substantive calls to action; others simply observe changes in the security environment, express principles, or recognize action taken to date.

Of these four clauses, three largely promise a mere change in degree or intensity of existing areas of cooperation—to “further strengthen,” “expand and deepen,” and take to the “next level” the collaboration on agreed issues. This could take any number of forms, from new joint projects to an increase in the intensity and regularity of exchanges between the organizations—or to the more frequent involvement of high-level officials in those exchanges.

The fourth clause on China is more interesting. While the language in the quote above is cautious and does not explicitly commit the organizations to joint action, it could reasonably be read as laying groundwork for formal EU-NATO collaboration on a new issue. The next progress report, which should come in the summer, will be an opportunity to observe whether the European Union and NATO are committed to implementing their rhetorical commitments.

Sean Monaghan is a visiting fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Colin Wall is an associate fellow with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program. Otto Hastrup Svendsen is a research associate with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program. Sissy Martinez is the program coordinator and research assistant with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program.

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Sean Monaghan
Visiting Fellow, Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program
Colin Wall

Colin Wall

Former Associate Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program
Otto Svendsen
Research Associate, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program
Sissy Martinez
Program Manager and Research Associate, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program