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Commentary | 9 September 2015

Tightening up NATO–EU Relations: Opportunities and Obstacles

Image of Sebastian Mayer

Sebastian Mayer |Research Fellow at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies, University of Bremen

EU NATO Security Euro-Atlantic Security

On 30 March 2015, while addressing the European Parliament in Brussels, the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg encouraged closer cooperation between the NATO Alliance and the EU. As early as 1991, the Declaration on Peace and Cooperation adopted at NATO’s Rome summit called for a framework of “interlocking institutions“ with complementary roles of security organizations. After the EU developed a security component which was independent from NATO’s, closer cooperation between the two remained a recurrent issue, with the NATO–EU declaration on the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) of December 2002 and the Berlin plus agreement of March 2003 (allowing the EU to draw on NATO military assets) emerging as key frameworks for collaboration. To once again make the case for closer cooperation with the usual rhetoric (“strategic partnership“) and to great public fanfare this year suggests that the two previously fell embarrassingly short in living up to their longstanding stated aims. Why should we believe now that progress is more likely?

After all, by this stage there has been a blatant duplication of structures, capabilities and efforts. In 2005, both NATO and the EU engaged in a beauty contest when separate missions were simultaneously deployed to assist the African Union monitors in Darfur. Two maritime missions currently operate side by side off the Gulf of Aden and the EU has not abandoned its objective of having its own planning structures for larger-scale military endeavours. NATO, for its part, has missed the opportunity of relying on a “reversed Berlin plus”: a scheme by which it can draw on the EU’s civilian capacities whilst con-fining its own purview to military action. The current Strategic Concept however suggests that NATO should address the full spectrum of tasks: ‘before, during and after conflicts.’ Arguably, a workable division of labour would look different. Whilst the operational density of NATO–EU relations in the field has grown significantly, they remain adhoc and lack a top-level political-strategic equivalent. Some observers have gone as far as to dub the relationship a “frozen conflict“.

Stoltenberg’s initiative comes at a time of defence spending constraints and aggravated security challenges, above all Russia’s belligerence and the rise of Islamic State. In these circumstances, the case could be made for getting “more bang for your buck” by better addressing, and aligning, national threat perceptions with tighter fiscal budgets. Capitalizing on these structural constraints, NATO and the EU could act more jointly and/or play complementary roles commensurate with their comparative advantage. That way, wasteful overlap could be avoided. Yet, there is also a more immediate driver behind Stoltenberg’s move. A few weeks before addressing the European Parliament he, together with Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Philip Breedlove, voiced strong concerns in a joint press conference that the EU might further advance its military assets. These worries were largely fueled by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s earlier insistence on creating an “EU army“ to address concerns over Russia and other threats.

Against this background, Stoltenberg’s suggestions appear less as a proactive, carefully crafted grand strategy in opening a new chapter of NATO–EU relations, than a reactive move against an idea which, according to NATO’s leadership, would result in lavish overlap. The EU’s impulse for military independence is indicative of inter-organizational suspicion and reveals that perceptions between the two organizations, and their members, may be more at odds than is admitted when using “same values“ rhetoric. Cleavages we thought were a thing of the past, above all the Atlanticist–Europeanist divide, are apparently more resilient than was often anticipated.

It also looks as if international security organizations, in particular, are at pains to defend their organizational autonomy. The frequently used expression ‘respect for the autonomy and institutional integrity’ to be found in joint NATO–EU documents is illuminating in this regard. What’s more, not only do dissimilar organizational cultures persist between the NATO and EU bureaucracies which often obstruct inter-agency collaboration, but also within. This is clearly revealed in the major difficulties in forging co-location of International Staff (IS) and International Military Staff (IMS) divisions at Boulevard Léopold and in advancing better Council/Commission collaboration across Rue de la Loi.

These challenges are not insurmountable and progress could gradually be achieved. But they are an important reminder that tightening up NATO–EU relations is, and will likely remain, sluggish. It is a difficult and tedious process which takes time and has its limits. Clearly beyond the current limits is a relationship in which an operation conducted by either organization could be vetoed by any single member of the other organization, if only indirectly by the withholding of vital complementary elements. NATO’s unpleasant experience in Yugoslavia with the dual-key arrangements requiring UN consent each time air power was used is firmly anchored in the Alliance’s collective memory, and unanimous decision-making in either organization alone is difficult enough. More promising areas for closer cooperation are those with a long-term, day-to-day character, including those that require a mainstreaming of existing policy fields so as to contribute to specific security objectives.

One of the three areas initially suggested by Stoltenberg for increased cooperation, hybrid warfare, fits this profile particularly well and could indeed serve as a fertile ground for closer cooperation. The same is principally true with another: neighborhood partnerships. But here, feasibility hinges largely on what exactly is being done. Should a closer relationship involve cutting out the current overlap of some of the many institutional resources the two have invested already in their own pet projects, then this move is likely to be met with strong organizational resistance. In the third area, defense investment, it also seems unclear how NATO’s well-established defence planning machinery could be better linked with the EU Defence Agency beyond existing levels and at the same time not provoking serious turf battles.

After Stoltenberg’s initiative, it is now vital to demonstrate what precisely is to be done and how it is to be done in the above-mentioned areas and beyond. A top-level debate is of vital importance to provide guidance with the accompanying political will regarding the agenda of cooperation, on the basis of which more specific, workable proposals can then be developed. It thus would be desirable if Stoltenberg’s speech in March marks the beginning of such a debate and does not melt away without major long-term effects, as many similar initiatives have done in the past.


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.