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Commentary | 24 September 2015

Are the EU and NATO Really Committed to the International Order?

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Simon Smith |Research Associate in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies, University of Bath

Defence EU NATO Security Euro-Atlantic Security

The EU-NATO Declaration on European Security and Defence Policy – termed the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) since 2009 – proclaims the relationship between the EU and NATO to be a ‘strategic partnership’. To be clear, it is no such thing.

Having tracked EU-NATO relations for almost a decade, I have witnessed this ‘strategic partnership’ rechristened many times and by various political leaders, practitioners as well as academics. Just a handful of labels and metaphors used include: ‘Unstrategic Partners’, ‘frozen conflict’ and ‘straitjacket’. A senior NATO official once cogently described the reality of EU-NATO cooperation to me in the following manner:‘I know a lot of people often say that we are either competing or cooperating, actually we are working alongside one another, we are more deconflicting than we are cooperating, we certainly are not integrating.’

The reality is that today, the EU and NATO cooperate far more outside of the formal relationship than they do inside of the so-called Berlin Plus Agreement Framework. Indeed one could ask where EU-NATO relations would be today without the informal cooperation that has evolved out of practical necessity in common operational areas and through autonomous missions (counter piracy in the Gulf of Aden, Kosovo, and Afghanistan). As a colleague and I have recently proposed, there are essentially Two faces of EU–NATO cooperation whereby ‘formal non-cooperation’ restricts formal relations but practical ad-hocsolutions facilitate cooperation at the operational level.

The truth is, EU-NATO relations are about as good as they can get under current political conditions. Turkey continues to block any attempt to establish stronger formal cooperative ties between the EU and NATO by denying Cypriot participation in formal EU–NATO meetings. For its part, Cyprus refuses to allow the EU and NATO to discuss issues of common security concern if it is excluded from NATO’s North Atlantic Council (NAC) and the EU’s Political Security Committee (PSC) meetings on these topics – think Afghanistan, Libya, Ukraine, Syria, ISIS and migration for example. There have been some recent signals that warrant cautious optimism on Turkish-Cypriot relations but, undeniably, the political obstacles to a formal and credible ‘strategic partnership’ are still very much in place.

From the birth of CSDP until 2014 – and especially since both the EU and NATO began to operate autonomous but demand-driven cooperative missions – the relationship began to evolve from ‘competition’ to what can be more appropriately labelled informed deconfliction. The annexation of Crimea has changed this – to a point.

The security conditions to both the east and south of Europe have compelled EU and NATO leaders to construct a relationship that can now be ‘elegantly’ titled autonomous coordinated policy shaping. Since 2014, the NAC and the PSC have met twice to conduct informal discussions (including Cypriot officials) on the situation in the Ukraine as well as one informal meeting on the Eastern and Southern neighbourhoods. There have also been a number of occasions where EU and NATO senior officials and staffs have updated each other on the security environment, pledged ‘closer cooperation’ and specifically vowed to tighten cooperation to counter ‘hybrid warfare’. Yet none of these concerns have been enough to overcome the political deadlock outright. Moreover, they certainly do not warrant any applause from the citizens of the 22 common EU and NATO member states who expect these leaders to provide for their defence and security but who cannot even formally discuss such pressing security matters.

There have been a number of scenarios suggested for improving EU-NATO, or more specifically CSDP-NATO relations. Jolyon Howarth has proposed ‘an institutional and political merger between CSDP and NATO’ that essentially calls for leadership to be increasingly assumed by the Europeans. Karl-Heinz Kamp has suggested that the best way forward would be to return to the past. His approach would see the ideas of the 1990s, namely the European Security and Defence Identity (ESDI), recreated to establish ‘a European pillar within NATO’.

Both of these suggestions, which essentially are the mirror opposites of each other, suffer from the same over-optimistic incredulities. The first is having any faith that European leaders will find the conviction and political will to assume a leadership role when it comes to providing for their own security. Over sixty years of dependency on the US would suggest they will not. The other obstacle is assuming that the American political classes will have the confidence to allow the Europeans to assume that leadership role. The barrage of negative signals coming out of Washington DC regarding declining European defence spending would suggest they are far from finding that confidence.

NATO and the CSDP have developed autonomous programmes in order to address the austerity challenges facing European militaries. Pooling and Sharing (EU) and Smart Defence (NATO) are schemes designed to help ameliorate the European shortfalls and duplications in military assets. However, it is very important to distinguish between Smart Defence and Pooling and Sharing as a distinct concept and Smart Defence/Pooling and Sharing as two organisational programmes with specific project lists. When it comes to the actual NATO or CSDP programmes, they are very fragmented, overly detailed and, in most cases, not very successful.

This all leads us to the much bigger question. What exactly is the West really prepared to invest in order to shore up the international system created in the wake of World War Two? This grand strategic question was succinctly outlined by Christopher Coker earlier this year. Are EU and NATO leaders really committed to defending the current international order at any price? Or are they really only interested in containing the collective security ‘dangers’ they face long enough to allow a new international order to emerge?

If committed to the first, this entails, indeed demands, a true EU-NATO ‘strategic partnership’ that would support a comprehensive approach worthy of the name. If it is only the second, then allowing second or third order political differences that hold the EU-NATO hostage to very limited and informal arrangements are more easily explained.

Allowing the current arrangement of ‘formal non-cooperation’ to remain – even in the face of increasingly demanding security challenges – seems to suggest that the EU-NATO status quo is a mere by-product of a West awaiting the transition to a more realistic and representative world order. Washington is focused on Europe’s security problems but only after those of the Middle East and Asia, while the Europeans are too distracted by internal divisions and economic complications to develop any real strategic ambitions of their own. In this environment, the ‘two faces’ of EU-NATO cooperation make perfect sense.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.