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Commentary | 14 September 2015

The Ukraine Crisis has brought the EU and NATO Closer

EU European Neighbourhood Policy NATO Russia-West Relations Ukraine Euro-Atlantic Security

“NATO and the EU are strategic partners.” This is the catchphrase frequently used to describe the relationship between the two institutions. It is no secret however that the EU-NATO partnership has not reached its full potential, even though threats to Europe’s east and south are slowly providing a renewed significance to the relationship.

The Ukraine crisis marked a new strategic context for cooperation between the two organizations which have coordinated their soft power and hard power responses to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The EU responded with economic sanctions and diplomatic measures. NATO increased conventional military measures to demonstrate readiness and reassure Allies. The backbone of NATO’s response is the so-called Readiness Action Plan (RAP) and within this framework a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) has been created. Several European Allies will assume the rotating responsibility for this ‘spearhead force’, acknowledging that Europe’s defence needs have been altered significantly.

It is also important to note that the EU and NATO vowed to intensify their joint efforts against hybrid warfare in response to Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine. Furthermore, NATO cooperation with non-NATO EU members such as Finland and Sweden will also be strengthened through more consultations, information sharing and exercises.

Finally, it is encouraging that meetings between NATO and EU officials have intensified and political consultations have increased. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, has participated in NATO Ministerial meetings; NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met with the European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, participated in several EU Council Meetings dealing with security and defence issues and attended the Defense Ministers informal meeting in February. What’s more, NATO and EU Political and Security Committee Ambassadors hold regular informal talks on the Ukraine crisis. The demands of today’s threat environment dictate that this trend of closer coordination and cooperation between the EU and NATO is maintained and fostered.

In his speech at the European Parliament in March, NATO’s Secretary General outlined three key areas for closer partnership between NATO and the EU in light of the current security situation in Europe:


1. Building sustainability and resilience together to face new threats

NATO and the EU have agreed to coordinate their responses to hybrid challenges to strengthen their resilience and limit vulnerability. The Ukraine crisis exposed both NATO and the EU as being unprepared to deal with such unconventional tactics. The combination of NATO’s military skills and know-how, with the EU’s civilian capabilities, is a requisite in our complex security environment. Purely military solutions alone do not suffice.


2. Building resilience together with neighbours

The EU took a positive step by creating its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) Panel with partner countries in the framework of the Eastern Partnership. The EU must capitalize on its current review of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) to strengthen the ENP’s strategic and political vision, taking into account the political and security impact that developments in ENP countries will have on the EU. This means that CSDP tools should be used within the ENP framework. This review should also help to improve alignment between the EU’s foreign policy and the ENP. The EU, with NATO’s assistance, can continue supporting other countries in the neighbourhood as they determine their strategic orientation. The EU can assist with economic and political reforms; NATO can help with defence sector reforms and building effective armed forces. Both can promote security sector reform in these countries. Currently, the emphasis should be on Ukraine but other countries, particularly those with large ethnic Russian populations, must also be supported. The institutions should coordinate to maximize the impact of their policies.


3. Defense Investment

During his speech, NATO’s Secretary General asked the EU to invest more in defence. Allocating a sufficient level of expenditure for defence is mentioned in the conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Council in November 2014, May 2015 and the European Council’s meeting in June 2015. The EU now acknowledges that it cannot afford to ignore investment in defence as such cuts undermine both its operational capacity and its role as a credible security provider.  Although the June European Council did not constitute a milestone for CSDP, the members devoted time to discuss defense issues—despite the ongoing Eurozone crisis—and they again underlined the importance of developing the CSDP. Only with strong leadership will the EU be able to overcome the trend of declining defence budgets and improve its cooperation with NATO on defence investment.

Overall, the Ukraine crisis has precipitated some improvement in EU-NATO cooperation. However, more must be accomplished. The EU must get serious on defence if we are to realize the strategic partnership’s full potential. One can see that there is renewed European resolve to invest in defence. A symbolic step was recently made: for the first time ever, the EU budget includes funds for defence research in support of CSDP activities.

With looming security challenges, it is imperative to strengthen the CSDP and match European principles with power. Political will from the member states is crucial. We must capitalize on today’s momentum to drive the NATO-EU relationship forward. That way, we can respond with strength to current and future crises.


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.