The EU and NATO at last united – by Putin


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Daniel Fiott
Daniel Fiott

Security and Defence Editor, EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS)

It cannot have been Vladimir Putin’s intention to push the EU and NATO closer together, but that has certainly been one effect of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. For years people have spoken of the need for closer EU-NATO co-operation, but only now, faced with a crisis that has no obvious solution, have the two been pulled together. The EU has realised that it has neither the stomach nor the means for a military confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. And NATO knows that hybrid warfare and the weaknesses of the Ukrainian state cannot be remedied by air policing alone. Out of necessity then, the EU and NATO are being forced to work together. NATO’s Article 5 is being honoured by an increased military presence in the Baltic, while the EU has agreed a unified position on sanctions, and it is hoped will support the Ukrainian state over the longer-term.

The EU and NATO seem, for now, to have put aside long-standing differences. Their doing so has been greatly aided by the strong rapprochement in recent years between Paris and Washington. If anyone had asked French President Jacques Chirac in 2003 if he thought his country’s Rafale fighter jets would be flying sorties over Iraq, the answer would have been a curt “non”. Yet the paradox of history is such that although France opposed the United States-led invasion and march on Baghdad in 2003, it now sees its national interests at stake in Iraq and Syria, so the U.S. sees France as a key military partner.

This has done no harm to the EU-NATO relationship, especially as the British debate about the EU is so toxic and Germany is so coy about using military force for strategic reasons. The Franco-American relationship is key to closer relations between the EU and NATO, but one should also acknowledge the importance of America’s “pivot”. Not the one to the Asia-Pacific, but rather the U.S. pivot away from energy dependence on the Middle East. America’s gradual extrication from Europe’s immediate neighbourhood is based mainly on the “shale revolution” and its growing energy independence, and is having a profound impact on the region. Low oil prices are likely to further strain any hope of economic and social development, with all the implications for the countries of the Arab spring. And the progressive withdrawal of the U.S. from the region together with low energy prices could cause fresh problems in places as far apart geographically as Saudi Arabia and Algeria. Under that sort of geostrategic scenario, Europeans would be foolish if they fail to ensure that NATO and the EU are on the same page.

Europeans are now struggling even to keep NATO on its feet

Some encouraging signals have been sent out by the EU’s Federica Mogherini and NATO’s Jens Stoltenberg. When Anders Fogh Rasmussen, his predecessor as Secretary General, took part in the December 2013 European Council on defence, that was seen by some as a British-backed ploy to reassert the primacy of NATO. But the fact that Mogherini met Stoltenberg on only her second day in office as the EU’s foreign policy chief must be taken at face value. The two new leaders affirmed their organisations’ values, mandates and challenges, and even more significantly, perhaps, seemed genuinely comfortable in each other’s presence. They come from the same political family, and as a result know each other fairly well. Each is a career politician with an eye on their prospects after their current mandates, so they at least have to be seen to be making an impact. It is also a healthy symbol that they represent the north and south of Europe.

Both speak of their future “co-operation”, but the reality is that co-operation for co-operation’s sake can serve as a convenient way to side-step core problems facing the EU-NATO relationship. So far, neither has really said anything beyond the usual platitudes about the key problems. There’s the issue of defence spending. As things stand, not even the United Kingdom will be able to meet the NATO spending target of 2% of GDP in the coming years. Defence spending in the UK has not been ring-fenced, so planned tax cuts may imply a drastic dip in real defence spending. This is being replicated in a number of European countries and NATO’s summit in Wales last September did not really change this trend. The problem facing the EU and NATO leaders is that despite all the rhetoric, not even Russia’s aggressive behaviour towards Ukraine is affecting the overall trend of plummeting defence budgets.

If external threats cannot reverse the trend, then what will? The truth is that duplication of spending and resources is no longer the only issue; leaving the outlook for the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) to one side, Europeans are now struggling even to keep NATO on its feet.

In other words, any real co-operation between the EU and NATO will be to seek ways for enhancing Europe’s position within NATO. This doesn’t necessarily work to the detriment of the CSDP, but it does require honesty about what the CSDP should become. The key question then becomes whether Europeans would contemplate launching any serious military operation without the assistance of the U.S. If not, in the absence of autonomous military action, the CSDP will remain a largely civilian enterprise. This may suit NATO, as the alliance does not have the EU’s capacities for security sector reform, border assistance and so on. However, if the EU only takes care of civilian missions, leaving NATO to look after military operations, this fundamentally alters the meaning of the much-vaunted “comprehensive approach”. The task becomes less about ensuring all of the EU’s tools work together in harmony, and much more about how NATO can complement the EU’s CFSP.

The reality is that co-operation for co-operation’s sake can serve as a convenient way to side-step core problems facing the EU-NATO relationship

There is also a paradox specifically associated with NATO. Operations in Afghanistan gave the alliance a new lease of life because committing troops to ISAF largely assisted European armies to modernise and acclimatise to the post-Cold War security environment. Now though, Russia’s resurgence in the east is encouraging NATO to return to the basics of territorial defence rather than out-of-area operations. For its part, the EU is not about territorial defence, but about crisis management. The resources, ambitions and priorities of the two are therefore badly aligned. Europeans can pretend that they are able to undertake operations on a global basis, while at the same time ensuring territorial defence, but ultimately something will have to give in an era of war weariness and a lack of resources. The new EU and NATO leaders will have little influence capable of changing this situation.

Then there is the Turkish question. Relations between Cyprus and Turkey still matter for the EU-NATO relationship, and there is a crucial point to be made about the broader European response to Turkey. For NATO, Turkey is still a key military ally, and it is near the geostrategic epicentre of the turmoil and conflict engulfing the Levant. For the EU, the issue is more delicate. It is becoming abundantly clear to the EU that the carrot of membership is now seriously mouldy, yet Turkey is crucial to European security interests. The European Union may well decide to keep its relations with Ankara on a strict security footing through NATO. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems in no mood to tolerate EU pressure on human rights and freedom of expression, so while a relationship with Turkey strictly limited to security may be beneficial in the short-term, it doesn’t answer the question of Europe’s influence on Turkey’s future political and ideological course.

These are problems that will not be remedied by Mogherini’s and Stoltenberg’s intentions for closer co-operation, however genuine they may be. They can only be tackled by the members of these two organisations – many of which belong to both. It is these member states, rather than civil servants in Brussels that are ultimately responsible for ensuring a new spirit of co-operation between the EU and NATO. Beyond meetings in Brussels and joint press conferences, European states must forge a long-term response to America’s changing strategic posture and to Russia’s actions in the east, the Turkish question and Europe’s dwindling defence budgets. The two new leaders can articulate a new spirit of co-operation, but only Europe’s governments can banish the familiar clichés about the EU-NATO relationship.


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