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The nature of the EU-NATO relationship

«On major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus, they agree on little and understand one another even less» wrote Robert Kagan in his essay “Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order”. Kagan argued that the EU and the USA have different philosophical outlooks on the use of power. In his opinion, the consequence would be a lack of a genuine European military force in the international scenario. As a result, the EU has always needed to appeal at NATO in order to implement its own foreign policy and to have a military impact. This article is a brief analysis of the evolution and implementation of the EU cooperation with NATO.

According to Johannes Varwick and Joachim A. Koops, two major experts in European Foreign and Security Policy at the Institute for European Studies, we can identify three phases in the emergence of EU-NATO relations:

  • The first step started in 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when NATO lost the sense

of its existence, and the European Union wanted to become an actor with a military force capable or dealing with the crisis in the Balkans region.

  • The second step began in 1999, with the establishment of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), with the following Berlin Plus agreement signed in 2003, which formalized the EU-NATO relationship.
  • The last and current stage is the strategically ambiguous communication, mostly due to the EU’s growing autonomy in the military fiel


1.The reasons of the EU-NATO partnership

In 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall blurred the clear distinction of competences, roles and functions between NATO and the European Community (EC): with the dissolution of the Soviet enemy, NATO lost its raison d’être. At the same time, the Balkans crisis led Europe to think about its military power. In 1992, during the Ministerial Council of the Western European Union (WEU) the «Petersberg tasks» were adopted: more specifically, the member states agreed to deploy their troops and resources of the whole spectrum of the military under the authority of the WEU. The Petersberg tasks covered a great range of possible military missions and interventions. Indeed, they were formulated as humanitarian and rescue tasks, peace-keeping and combat forces in crisis management missions, including peace-making. At the 1996 NATO ministerial meeting in Berlin, it was agreed that the WEU would oversee the creation of the European Security and Defence Identity within NATO structures. After the new eastern countries entered into the European Community, the question of European military became more delicate, because the US feared that the Community could potentially become a direct competitor of NATO. For these reason, the development of European military capabilities was restrained within the NATO structures.

In 1997, during the European Summit in Amsterdam, the Petersberg tasks were incorporated in the «Treaty on European Union», the goal being the increase of European military capacity, beyond NATO. Although it did not create a common defence policy, the Treaty codified a number of new structures and tasks for the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), and increased responsibility in the realms of peacekeeping and humanitarian work. In December 1998, a huge step was made forward in terms of strategic and military development with the signature of the «Saint-Malo Declaration». In this occasion, the Heads of State and Government of France and United Kingdom (respectively Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair) agreed that the European Union needed to be in a position to play its full role on the international stage. The Union should have the capacity of an autonomous action, developing military forces and establishing which instruments are more appropriate, case by case, in order to respond to international crises. Accordingly, the Union needed appropriate structures and a capacity for analysis of situations, sources of intelligence and a capability for relevant strategic planning. The Saint Malo declaration was the result of the compromise between France’s desire of independence from NATO and the pro-American stand of Great Britain. Indeed, prime minister Tony Blair pushed for avoiding the creation of a European foreign policy capable of damaging the ratio of NATO, preventing negative reactions from the United States. As a result, in 1998, during the NATO Summit, Madeleine Albright (United States Secretary of State), noted that as Europeans looked at the best way to organise their foreign and security policy cooperation, the key was to make sure that any institutional change was consistent with basic principles that had served the partnership between EU and NATO. The objective was to avoid the so-called “Three Ds”:

  • Decoupling: European decision-making wasn’t unhooked from broader alliance decision-making;
  • Duplication: defence resources were scarce for allies to conduct force planning, operate command structures and make procurement decisions twice;
  • Discrimination: avoid any favouritism against NATO members who were not EU members.

In 1999, at the Cologne European Council, Member States reaffirmed the Union’s willingness to develop capabilities for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces. In the recognition that the evolution of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) was a prerequisite for the Union to play a full role on the international stage, EU Member States agreed in Cologne on the necessity to put in place institutional arrangements for the analysis, planning and conduct of military operations. In 2001, the «Treaty of Nice» formalized the creation of the Political Security Committee (PSC), the European Union Military Committee (EUMC) and the European Union Military Staff (EUMS). Nevertheless, in 2002 the EU still lacked the operational capabilities for developing its own crisis management: EU still needed NATO’s instruments

2. The Berlin Plus Agreement.

The big step forward for the European Union was in 2003, when the «Berlin Plus Agreement» was concluded. The Berlin Plus agreement referred to a comprehensive package of arrangements between the EU and the NATO that allowed EU to make use of NATO assets for EU-led crisis management operations. The formal elements of the Berlin Plus agreement included:

  • A NATO-EU Security Agreement, that covered the exchange of classified information under reciprocal security protection rules;
  • Aaccess to NATO planning capabilities for EU-led operations;
  • Availability of NATO assets and capabilities for EU-led civil-military operations;
  • Procedures for release, monitoring, return and recall of NATO assets and capabilities;
  • Terms of reference for using NATO’s DSACEUR (Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe) for commanding EU-led operations;
  • EU-NATO consultation arrangements in the context of an EU-led operations making use of NATO assets and capabilities;
  • Arrangements for coherent and mutually reinforcing capability requirements, in particular the incorporation within NATO’s defence planning of the military needs and capabilities that should be required for EU-led military operations.

After the conclusion of the Agreement, the EU and NATO conducted their first joint operation, named “Concordia in Macedonia”. In December 2004, the EUFOR Althea operation in Bosnia showed the effectiveness of cooperation between the two institutions. At the same time, it shall be recognised that the nature of this partnership has showed ambiguities. On one hand, France (as a state member of the EU) and Turkey (as a member of NATO) had strong strategic contrasts during the planning-phase of the two missions; on the other, EU wanted to further increase its autonomy towards NATO. Indeed, in June 2003, the first autonomously EU-led military operation, Operation Artemis, was launched. Within this context and based on a French-British-German initiative, the EU Military Staff (EUMS) developed the battlegroup concept, which was agreed upon by the EU Military Committee (EUMC) in June 2004. The Battlegroup concept provided EU with a specific tool in the range of rapid response capabilities, making EU more coherent, active and capable. The Battlegroup was based on the principle of multinational force, formed by a framework nation or by a multinational coalition of Member States. In 2004, the «Headline Goal 2010» aimed at completing the development of rapidly deployable Battlegroup, including the identification of appropriate strategic lift, sustainability and disembarkation assets by 2007. In November 2009, the European Council approved guidelines for improving the flexibility and usability of the Battlegroup. Most recently, in December 2012, in its Conclusions on CSDP, the European Council called for strengthening the EU’s ability to deploy the right capabilities rapidly and effectively on the whole spectrum of crisis management action. As a result, during last years, the EU-NATO relationship has evolved. In the field of military capabilities, the EU has become an international actor thanks to NATO: the Berlin Plus Agreement allowed the EU to access to NATO planning capabilities and established the availability of NATO assets and capabilities for EU-led civil-military operations. At the end, the EU wanted to become more independent by NATO.

3. What kind of relationship?

The EU-NATO relationship was driven by external and internal factor, which shaped their ambitions and their aim. In this case, we can say that the major structural variables were external factors, such as power shift and exogenous shocks in the international system. Regarding internal factors, we can include the impact of shifts at the national, organizational and individual level. For Joachim A. Koops, the end of the Cold War, the crisis in the Balkans, the intervention in Iraq and the development of EU-UN relationship as concrete examples of external factors. With the end of the Cold War, NATO lost its raison d’être and had to change its mission in order to continue to exist. At the same time, the EU would increase its power. In 2001, in Afghanistan, NATO showed his weakness, mainly due to internal disagreements about the intervention. On several occasions, the United States have called for structural reforms to enhance NATO’s efficiency and legitimation. With the Berlin Plus agreements the EU developed its military capabilities, but it nevertheless gave a new window of opportunity to NATO. This is what we can define effective multilateralism: shaping the preferences and interests of each other. Its impact on the EU’s institutional design (in the field of crisis management) has been fundamental. In 1999, the decision to appoint the former NATO Secretary General, Javier Solana, as the first EU’s High Representative was an instrumental factor for the promotion of Berlin Plus and the formalization of that relationship.

In conclusion, during the first phase in the late 80s, NATO needed to find its raison d’être. The only way to be helpful attain it was cooperating with the European Community. At the same time, the EU needed NATO’s tools and assets to develop its military capabilities. After the end of the Cold War, the two institutions needed each others. Only in the early 2000s, the EU started developing its military strength «taking advantage» of the Berlin Plus agreements. The EU took advantages of NATO, but then preferred to become autonomous from it, in order to collaborate with other regional organisations and with the United Nations. However, recent events in the Mediterranean, related to migration crisis, shows that some EU member states still ask for help NATO, in order to protect their borders. The EU military operation Sophia takes place in the central Mediterranean in order to control migratory flows and combat human traffic. However, during the NATO summit on 9 February 2016, Greece, Germany and Turkey did not hesitate to explicitly ask for its support in the Aegean. At this point we have to ask which kind of relationship the EU and NATO have nowadays. Are they two complementary institutions? Are they antagonistic? Are they competitors? What is NATO today? Does Europe still need of NATO military experience? Does NATO need Europe? From 16 February 2016, NATO is operating in the Aegean Sea after the request of two European countries, and Turkey, which will receive 3 billion euro deferred over three years by the EU. Does this imply that EU operations cannot be efficient? Or, on the contrary, we can say that NATO now acts only under the impetus of the European countries (or Western countries), needing them to fully exercise its role? The strategic and political implications of NATO operation on Aegean will perhaps clarify some questions (in a future article), emphasizing who needs who and if the two institutions (seemingly different and incompatible) are truly politically autonomous or at the mercy of their member states.

Maria Elena Argano

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Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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