The EU and NATO, with 22 common members, are going through halcyon years of cooperation in addressing global challenges and managing crises. From joint declarations on strategic partnership in 2016 and 2018 through mutual invitations to summits and other high-level meetings to 74 projects across seven policy areas, they are coordinating their efforts more than ever. Recent debates around transatlantic burden sharing and European strategic autonomy sometimes elide the underlying reality of shoulder-to-shoulder efforts and mutual reliance as partners of first resort.
Yet, as the European Parliament called for in a resolution earlier this year, the EU and NATO should move beyond complementarity to synergies; for example, as has been achieved when the International Monetary Fund and World Bank act jointly in countries such as Ukraine. The new “level of ambition” for EU-NATO cooperation, as declared in 2016, should include joint planning and joint action to project stability, prevent conflict, and manage crises in the future.
A recent GMF roundtable with senior officials from the EU and NATO as well as member states, and analysts from think tanks revealed that there are real gains to be had for both institutions from further synergies, but that moving forward on that path will be neither automatic nor easy. The organizations are pulled toward cooperation due to the long-term interests of their member states, but also toward competition due to institutional mandate maximization, treaty overlap, and strategic self-conception. Surmounting these obstacles will require enlightened strategies on both sides.
The state of play
In the area of Common Security and Defence Policy, the EU has approximately 3,000 troops deployed across six military operations and around 2,000 officials across ten civilian missions. Its member states have also deployed troops to various counterterrorism operations (such as Counter-ISIS in Iraq and Syria or Operation Barkhane in the Sahel) and to peacekeeping missions (such as the UN missions in Mali or the Central African Republic).
NATO has eight military operations and missions, including troop deployments in Afghanistan (Resolute Support Mission, with about 13,000 personnel from 39 allied and partner countries) and Kosovo (KFOR, with about 4,000 troops from 28 countries). In addition, it has several thousand troops on its eastern flank as part of the Enhanced Forward Presence deterrence measures against Russia. NATO also has active defense capacity-building projects in Georgia, Iraq, Jordan, the Republic of Moldova, and Tunisia.
To date, the EU and NATO have coordinated missions and operations largely through deconfliction (i.e. not doing the same activities and avoiding contradictory purposes) rather than joint planning or joint action. The paradigmatic example of the need for deconfliction as a minimum criterion was Afghanistan, where both the EU and NATO had police training missions with mixed overall results. One notable exception is the legacy Operation Althea in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where there is dual-hatting between the EU operation commander and the NATO deputy supreme allied commander Europe. The other more recent example (and potential harbinger of future efforts) is the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, which was established in Helsinki by 19 EU and NATO members, with participation from both organizations, and is open to all of their member states. But there are obstacles to further collaboration, which can be surmounted only with reinforced efforts with a view toward the long-term interest of each institution.
Similar principals, same principles
The EU and NATO are institutions in the service of their member states, and effectively serve as platforms or instruments to help governments organize their foreign policies. Ultimate responsibility and sovereignty lies with the member states, even though power and resources can be pooled. With the vast majority of their membership overlapping and since they largely serve the same masters, it should be natural for the EU and NATO to cooperate.
Yet competition arises from the EU and NATO wanting to be able to act everywhere and autonomously – at least in principle. The inherent tendency for any institution to maximize its mandate is exacerbated in their case because the dynamic flows not only from the officials within the organizations, but also from the representatives from the various member states. For instance, a country’s position might be viewed differently by its ambassador to the EU from the one to NATO, and likewise within the ministries of foreign affairs and defense back in member-state capitals.
Another source of potential friction is the scope of, and hierarchy between, NATO’s Article V on collective defense and the EU’s Article 42(7) on mutual defense. Some argue that their text, history, and structure suggest that Article V takes precedence to Article 42(7). For the opposite proposition, others cite the precedent of France invoking the EU’s clause but not NATO’s after the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015. Others point out that the two clauses operate at different levels: Article V has to be collectively invoked whereas Article 42(7) has to be individually invoked.
Problems can also arise from dissonance between the EU and NATO about which one can claim more credit for preserving peace in Europe up to now. Both contributed and it is effectively impossible to disentangle their respective role, but their strategic narratives sometimes overlook this reality. Thus, the default reflex is sometimes for each institution to seek to cover all crises, as the primary security guarantor in Europe. However, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, its exacerbation of the refugee crisis in Europe through its intervention in Syria in 2015 in support of the Assad regime, and its electoral interference in Europe and the United States have clarified minds as to the unique roles of the EU and NATO in providing resilience and deterrence, which should help overcome this obstacle to cooperation.
As a consequence of these factors, any quest for overarching guiding principles and division of responsibility between the EU and NATO is going to be Sisyphean. Some overlap and duplication is inevitable—some of which can be even beneficial by covering all contingencies and providing greater security for all participants—and it should not impede coordination. The next-best alternative stems from what Jean Monnet called “solidarité de fait”—solidarity through action on the ground, or practice before principles.
In this, coalitions of the willing within and across the EU and NATO will initiate action and cooperation. As a result, certain understandings and norms can emerge through practices, leading to greater trust, confidence, and solidarity. Interactions in crises, rather than abstract discussions, will also reveal where duplication is unhelpful or beneficial. Many of the habits developed in this way will never be codified and, in fact, any attempt to do so might restrict unduly flexibility of action during crises and eviscerate operational understandings. But cooperation in practice, when in works well, becomes part of the muscle memory and DNA of each institution, producing true synergies, namely where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Searching for synergies
The EU and NATO having largely deconflicted their operations; it is now time for them to explore real common efforts. Where there are separate EU and NATO missions (Iraq, Georgia, and the Republic of Moldova), they should look into what is feasible through common political messaging, policy coordination, and joint staff and resources.
Iraq may be one arena where true synergies could be achieved. The EU already has a civilian advisory mission assisting the country’s national security advisor and the interior ministry with security-sector reform. NATO will be launching a defense capacity-building mission in 2019 to “train the trainers” of the Iraqi military, while also working with the national security advisor and the defense ministry. The two processes clearly relate to each other, though they address different aspects of Iraq’s national security process. EU and NATO planners have started coordinating their efforts and ideally will be able to institutionalize their cooperation on the ground. Synergy gains would include greater impact of capacity building due to a united message and better implementation speed due to time efficiencies. Exchange of information would also reveal remaining gaps and needs for future efforts.
Ukraine, where the EU has an extensive rule-of-law mission and NATO has various projects, could be another case where their efforts could be usefully linked. For instance, one project could be for the EU to support the NATO Trust Funds in Ukraine, akin to its support for NATO’s Building Integrity program to reduce corruption and promote good governance in the defense and security sector, to which the EU is set to contribute €2 million.
It would also be useful to explore liaison teams in the European Commission, the European External Action Service and at NATO headquarters that could coordinate efforts across the two organizations. They are complex institutions, with distinct decision-making processes and cultures, and there are only a few individuals who have extensive knowledge and experience of both. In particular, such teams could facilitate simultaneous, coordinated, and parallel crisis-management exercises, and potentially even joint exercises. They could also work toward facilitating timely exchange of classified information.
Even absent further institutionalization, coordination between the EU and NATO is likely to grow organically, though probably more slowly in that case as it would then still depend on personalities and circumstance. Yet, with a bit of strategic foresight, the two institutions could move toward a new level of ambition and cooperation that would serve both their interests and that of their member states.