NATO and the European Union: The Burden of Sharing

The European Union and NATO have a new third joint declaration. In the context of the war in Ukraine, it sends an important message of transatlantic unity and solidarity. It commits to take NATO-EU partnership “to the next level.”

This is a welcome development and a desirable ambition.

But behind the smiles and handshakes, it took almost a year and a half to issue a 640-word text between two organizations that have more than two-thirds of their members in common and are less than seven kilometers apart. The generic, wishful tone of the declaration does not exactly strike as an enthusiastic renewal of vows.

Yet the response to the war in Ukraine has highlighted the complementarity between NATO and the European Union. The European Union is offering Ukraine what NATO cannot: lethal equipment, humanitarian assistance, waves of sanctions on Russia and more importantly, a future in a shared political community. NATO provides to exposed eastern flank allies what the European Union cannot: defense, deterrence, and reassurances. But complementarity is not tantamount to cooperation. Both organizations have been leveraging their own competencies and strengths, whereas stepping up cooperation could have multiplying effects and provide solid foundations for the future of the Euro-Atlantic community.

Now that the declaration is out, NATO and EU institutions and members have a responsibility to deliver on its provisions. They should also tackle the lingering distrust and barriers to cooperation that the new declaration will not wash away on its own.

An Indispensable Yet Complicated Partnership

The joint declaration is the third of its kind. The first was issued in 2016 and the second in 2018. They were not the result of a sudden appetite for cooperation, which has in practice been limited since 2004 by the Turkey-Cyprus stalemate. The declarations were rather motivated by the need to stem rising concerns about respective duplication and eventual competition, in a cooperative manner.

Indeed, the second half of the last decade greatly damaged the transatlantic relationship, forcing a form of decoupling between NATO and the European Union. Donald Trump’s transactional approach and threats to leave the alliance have been a traumatic experience for most allies, whose defense still rests heavily on U.S. guarantees. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Under less U.S. and EU scrutiny, Turkey felt that it had its hands free to advance a unilateral, revisionist, and repressive agenda. In this context, France saw an opportunity and the necessity to promote an agenda of European “strategic autonomy” and its president eventually declared that NATO was “brain dead.”

The partnership has also been complicated by the fact that similar threat assessments led the two organizations to develop overlapping ambitions. NATO aims at becoming a more political actor, that has a global outlook and is equipped to face nonmilitary threats, such as hybrid, cyber, or emerging technology-related threats. It therefore developed an agenda on resilience, on innovation, and on energy security—domains in which the European Union has long-established competencies.

Meanwhile, the European Union’s parallel ambition to become a more “global security provider” and to develop a “more robust” common security and defense policy (CSDP) as emphasized in its 2022 Strategic Compass, led the European Union to envision the development of a Rapid Deployment Capacity and to foster the development of joint capabilities and joint procurement, areas which encroach on NATO’s turf.

However, the respective fears that such agendas would be detrimental to the other are in fact far-fetched and misguided—not least since the two organizations abide by the principle of “single set of forces.” In this regard, the declaration’s acknowledgement of the value of “a stronger and more capable European defence” is a positive step. The only real battle is the one for financial resources, which nations are not able to duplicate. But new capacities, new commitments, and new forces can only provide useful redundancies. It is better to have overlaps than gaps.

Taking the Partnership to the Next Level

1. It is first a matter of political will.

NATO and the European Union are what their member states make of them. On EU-NATO relations, some countries have more responsibilities than others for the current state of affairs, and its evolution.

The everlasting conflict between Cyprus and Turkey has been the main reason for the absence of progress in practical cooperation over the past two decades. Today, this issue remains the chief impediment for enhanced intelligence-sharing. Turkey has developed a pattern of systematic objection to NATO languages calling for cooperation with the European Union, while Greek and Cypriot reluctance to Turkish involvement in EU projects has complicated and delayed agreements on CSDP initiatives and led to restrictive rules on non-EU members’ association.

This situation is unlikely to change, as long as the ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP) in Ankara maintains aggressive rhetoric against Cyprus and Greece, and as long as NATO proves unable or unwilling to twist Turkey’s arm over its disruptive and sometimes coercive behavior towards the Alliance, as exemplified by Turkish blackmail over Sweden and Finland bid for NATO membership. The upcoming elections in Turkey scheduled in June (but which could be anticipated) might lead, whatever the results, to an ease of Ankara’s positions that EU and NATO will need to harness.

The United States, as the barometer of NATO, also has an instrumental role to play. As shown by the war in Ukraine, the United States remains the prime security actor for Europe. As such, many European NATO allies tend to align their level of ambition for NATO-EU cooperation on what they reckon should please Washington.

But what pleases Washington remains unclear. The Biden administration has voiced and shown great interest in enhancing U.S. relations with the European Union. But this vision seems to have faced some resistance within the potent U.S. NATO apparatus, which often sticks to more cautious and skeptical diplomatic talking points that focus on preserving the status quo and leave little space for a more capable and responsible European Union to thrive alongside NATO.

A more positive, relaxed, and consistent U.S. approach on NATO-EU partnership would certainly abate many other allies’ reservations, notably from Eastern Europe, whose ultimate goal is to keep NATO relevant for the United States.

France and the United Kingdom also have particular responsibilities. France continues appearing bullish on the European Union and bearish on NATO. This is a largely distorted perception considering French commitments within NATO, notably for posture reinforcements on the eastern flank, but a distortion that Paris contributed to creating with its repeated calls for “strategic autonomy,” which spooked NATO leaders and Washington.

The United Kingdom conversely became even more NATO-centric and EU-skeptic than it already was after it voted to leave the European Union. London sometimes found itself siding with Ankara in pushing back on initiatives to foster cooperation or engagement with the European Union. These two capitals might have noticed that blockades within NATO have driven Washington to set up direct talks between the United States and the European Union, on China , the Indo-Pacific, trade and technology , resulting in a net loss of influence for them.

There are good hopes that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s more constructive approach toward the European Union might lead to a more positive and helpful tone on the European Union in the ongoing refresh of the United Kingdom’s Integrated Review.

2. Actual cooperation is the best confidence builder.

The real measurement of EU-NATO partnership remains actual cooperation. Despite the three declarations, it remains scarce and low. Military mobility is often praised as a good example of EU-NATO cooperation, being the first project of the EU Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) extended to NATO non-EU countries. But the project is still nascent and has shown its limitations in the context of the war in Ukraine. Operational cooperation such as EUFOR Althea in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which the European Union took over from NATO in 2004 and makes use of NATO assets, is also usually mentioned. But this rare example of cooperation just demonstrates how little collaboration has actually occurred over the past two decades.

Focusing on a few domains of proven complementarity, as suggested by the declaration, is probably a much more efficient and pragmatic approach than the previous laundry list of 74 common actions. The identified areas of cyber, space, resilience, protection of critical infrastructure, and emerging and disruptive technologies are all very relevant avenues for NATO and EU cooperation.

They now need to deliver and find a way to create a momentum that has been lacking for the two previous declarations. This will require leadership and initiative from more advanced or willing countries. Small groupings such as in PESCO, with leaders such as in the Framework Nations concept could prove useful. This is also a great opportunity to make full use of Centres of Excellence, such as the one for Countering Hybrid Threats, of which NATO and the European Union are founding members. As the declaration also calls for regular progress assessment, the Vilnius Summit (which will be held after Turkish elections) should be a moment of frank appraisal.

3. Keep on institutionalizing, even informally if need be.

Top-level engagement and reciprocal invitations to attend summits and ministerial meetings have become normal practice. In order to bypass the Cyprus and Turkey blockade, informal meetings of EU and NATO heads of states and government through “transatlantic dinners” have been established.

At lower levels, meetings between the North Atlantic Council (NAC) and the EU Political and Security Committee (PSC) are one of the few opportunities for strategic and substantive exchanges. But their convening remains erratic. A strict schedule should be put in place and respected. The level could also be raised occasionally to EU ambassadors (COREPER), notably for the review of cooperation progress in the domains identified by the third declaration.

Yet interinstitutional bickering has played a nonnegligible role in the delays to issue the declaration. Interpersonal relations are an uncontrollable variable, but have the potential to compound the already complicated relationship. As NATO is set to appoint a new secretary general this year, a candidate from one of the 21 EU countries that are part of NATO would send a positive signal and could help to make the relations more fluid.

Finally, although more meetings are never the silver bullet, a yearly informal meeting between political directors or policy planners gathering all the 36 EU and NATO members could also prove valuable.

As painful as it was, the third declaration remains a positive development. As the transatlantic community’s response to the war in Ukraine has shown, NATO and the European Union are essential partners. Their complementarity can be expanded through fruitful, realistic cooperation, should they manage to lift political and practical barriers. While this is important now, it will be crucial in the future when the time comes to redefine a postwar security architecture for Europe. This will be easier with NATO and the European Union side by side, and when possible, hand in hand.

Mathieu Droin is a visiting fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Mathieu Droin
Visiting Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program