Why won't Europeans use NATO and the EU?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Bence Németh
Bence Németh

Teaching fellow in the Defence Studies Department, King's College London

Instead of using NATO and EU institutional frameworks, European nations have recently established a series of new regional ‘multinational defence co-operations’ (MDCs) and reenergised old ones. Although policymakers and analysts support all kinds of defence co-operation, they have not taken into consideration the negative consequences of unstructured defence collaborations. For instance, if the emerging regional MDCs do not prove successful, they will hinder defence co-operation in Europe in general, including within NATO and the EU, as nations become even less willing to work with larger organisations where co-operation is slower and more complicated.

However, if these MDCs succeed, they are likely to create common views and interests among regional partners on defence issues, thereby strengthening regional bodies and weakening transatlantic ties and pan-European solidarity. Thus, NATO and the EU should revise their policies which attempt to foster defence co-operation based exclusively on common military capability requirements, and should instead focus on exploiting the changing European defence co-operation landscape by channelling regional MDCs into their planning systems.

For the last five years, there has been a proliferation of regional MDCs in Europe. The Nordic countries established a comprehensive defence framework called the Nordic Defence Co-operation (NORDEFCO); the United Kingdom and France signed the Lancaster House Treaties creating an unprecedented level of bilateral defence co-operation; six smaller Central European countries (Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia) founded the Central European Defence Co-operation (CEDC) for both practical and political collaborations; and the Baltic (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxemburg) and ‘Visegrad Four’ countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary) reinvigorated their defence co-operative frameworks established during the 1990s.

The eagerness of many to work with regional MDCs instead of the EU and/or NATO is an indicator that many states are not satisfied with the possibilities that these two organisations offer. Of course, it does not mean that the members of EU and NATO do not co-operate within these organisations. However, it reveals the existence of certain areas of policy – notably capability development – where an increasing number of states deem the NATO and the EU inappropriate forums for defence co-operation.

This is understandable. Recent serial defence budget cuts have encouraged European armed forces to turn to each other for co-operation on maintaining military capabilities, rather than to large bureaucratic organisations which cannot provide them with significant practical help. In addition, NATO and the EU have in the past pressed countries to co-operate with them only to make up for missing capabilities in their planning systems, and were less attentive to these countries’ other needs. Obviously, the strength of MDCs is that they are much smaller than NATO and the EU: the Ministries of Defence and armed forces of regional MDCs can co-operate faster because of their geographical and cultural proximity, and relative ease of policy coordination.

Although regional MDCs have been proliferating and strengthening in Europe, they remain fragile and this fragility will have a significant impact on the landscape of European defence. The weakness of regional MDCs is that they are driven mostly by national Ministries of Defence and do not have a well-grounded, strategically sophisticated background for collaboration. Countries often co-operate on defence issues without defining their common foreign policy goals. This can undermine the raison d’être of defence cooperation, even in the short-term, and cause significant problems in situations where participating states of regional MDCs are divided on the necessity of military action.

Another difficulty for sub-regional MDCs is that although they face financial pressure to find multinational partners to mitigate the capability decline of European armed forces, they cannot develop these collaborations without significant political and social support. These problems of regional MDCs may have a negative impact on defence co-operation in NATO and the EU as well, because Ministries of Defence will be even less inclined to work together in large organisations if they cannot even succeed in smaller frameworks. However, if these difficulties can be overcome by certain regional MDCs, the participating states will have to bring their foreign policy goals closer to underpin their co-operation. Accordingly, emerging regional blocs may become more assertive in achieving their goals, and thus regional solidarity could replace transatlantic or pan-European solidarity in more and more cases. This may undermine the relevance of NATO and the EU, and result in a much weaker EU.

To avoid these outcomes, NATO and the EU have to pay more attention to the regional MDCs and must attempt to channel the results of regional MDCs into their processes as much as possible. NATO has a comparative advantage in this regard, as it possesses a much more sophisticated and effective defence planning system (NATO Defence Planning Process – NDPP) than the EU. The NDPP is not perfect, but it provides a flexible enough instrument to tackle multinational military collaborations as it has already done with multinational projects in the framework of the Smart Defence initiative.

NATO should therefore, via its NDPP, support and embed the projects of regional MDCs into its own processes and ensure that MDCs work to fulfil NATO commitments and contribute to the Level of Ambition of the Alliance. This way NATO could mitigate the chance of the development of regional interests in Europe and at the same time provide political impetus for regional MDCs to overcome the hardships of day-to-day practical collaboration.

For the last several years NATO and the EU have tried to push together countries ‘artificially’ to make them co-operate on certain capability areas. Yet, European nations created and reenergised regional MDCs. Thus, NATO should look to its other options and rather follow the ‘organic’ evolution of European military collaborations and channel that into its defence planning process.

Bence Németh’s views expressed in this paper are his own, and do not represent the official view of the Hungarian Ministry of Defence.

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