On May 3 NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke at the European Parliament and the Sub-Committee on Security and Defence Committee about NATO-EU cooperation. In this setting he uttered (amongst other things) these words:
“As long as we make sure or the European Union makes sure that what the E.U. does is complementary to NATO, not competing with NATO, and that has been clearly committed from many, many European leaders that strengthening European defense is about more defense spending, it’s about more exercises, it’s about developing new capabilities, it’s about more cooperation, but it’s not about establishing a European army, it’s not about establishing new command structures which are duplicating NATO command structures and actually therefore I welcome what I see because I see a real effort by NATO and the European Union to work together, not compete and it would have been meaningless to have a competition between NATO and the European Union because as I said more than ninety percent of the people living in the European Union live in a NATO country so that would actually mean that we have to compete with ourselves and that’s not avery good thing to do.”
So what should the relationship between NATO and the EU be? Well, first we need some background:
NATO’s creation after the Second World War aimed to keep “the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. Today with the reemergence of German economic power within the EU, the landscape has changed.
NATO was founded as a defensive military alliance, which means if a country is attacked, then all are obligated to help defend it, but member states are not obligated to join interventions or other missions unless they wish to. However NATO’s international command structure has over time become vital to conducting major international operations with a large multinational coalition.
NATO has a standard that all member states should spend 2% of their national GDP on defence spending, however few do, and only the US spends significantly more than 2%. More than half of the NATO member states are closer to 1% than the expected 2% (this includes Germany).
Current cooperations under NATO and/or EU umbrella
There are many close European cooperations at the state level both within NATO and the EU, the best example might be the BeNeLux countries. Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg share a single naval command. Luxembourg has no navy, so the Netherlands and Belgium shoulder naval responsibilities. Their collettive airspace combined is patrolled as if it was a single states airspace, as well as training facilities being shared. In this way, the three smaller states (seen from a global perspective) can each gain from what they refer to as win-win agreements.
The Netherlands also shares an army corps with Germany, and all four countries (including Germany) are part of European Air Transport Command along with Spain, Italy and France. This represent the pinnacle of NATO’s idea of “Smart Defence” and the EU’s “Pooling and Sharing”, where states must come together and cooperate to get the most capabilities out of their military budgets. Both ideas are based on the member states retaining complete control of their military personnel and assets, but also building interdependent requirements in relation to facilities and command structures.
As with Benelux other “state clusters” are building cooperation at different levels with a varying degree of success. Examples are the Baltic States, the Nordic NORDEFCO, and the near-Eastern European Visegrad Group. International cooperation with a level of integration has become a European norm.
However, challenges arise when European states such as Austria, Ireland and Sweden are part of the EU, but not NATO; while Iceland, Norway and Albania and Montenegro are part of NATO, but not the EU. This has especially hindered the growth of NORDEFCO, when only Denmark is a member of both NATO and the EU (but has an opt-out on defence matters within the EU, while Norway to a degree has an opt-in on this matter).
On top of these challenges, then a two year mudslinging ending in a hard Brexit could severely challenge UK-EU relations, Erdogans powergrab in Turkey is also hurting the EU’s relationship with NATO largest European army, and uncertainties about the Trump
administration’s policy towards Europe is adding to the current problems facing NATO-EU cooperation today.
That just outlined the current situation and the past. Cooperation and to a degree integration is moving forward, but there is no clear end-goal. The question is, where should Europe go from here.
- One option is to stick the course, raise defence spending (at most only just touch the 2% mark for
most countries and some still falling below), and then just keep doing business as usual, with some level of cooperation, but nothing permanent.
- A second option is to reinvision the role of the EU based on the Common Security and Defence
Policy (CSDP) and looking at EU policing missions (mostly in Africa), which support stability and
peace. This kind of Mission tends to Garner low interesting by the public, thus, less media coverage. These missions would be run when needed and asked for by the local government, as well as naval operations Sophia (migration – EUNAVFOR
MED) and Atalanta (anti-pirate – EUNAVFOR Somalia).
European states simply cannot conduct a functional national global foreign policy on their own anymore. This fact was
saeled, when Europe needed the Americans to keep the Russians out, and NATO was set up. Option one is to keep the Americans in the lead, but giving them what they want, without gaining anything politically. NATO has more than enough conventional firepower combined to dwarf any aggression if it wishes to (and enough nuclear to end life on Earth).
Option two is to challenge the Americans on leadership within NATO. At current NATO is the US and friends, taking option two to a further level could make NATO a club of the US, the EU and friends, where Europe has about as much say as the Americans.
Option one would leave the Americans more pleased, but not happy. Option two would give them what they want, but cost them their position of leadership within NATO and challenge the organisation’s structure. So let us just conclude one thing at this point. The US is not going to like it,
no matter what Europe ends up doing. Either we will not increase defence spending enough, or the US will lose their position of power.
How about that EU army then?
What is objectively so bad about an EU army? You will hear people talking about this as either being impossible, impracticle or a bad idea in general, but why is it so? First of all militaries are the most national of all institutions. They protect the state against foreign interference on its territory.
Therefore militaries are very conservative institutions that from history know that you need to take chances, but also be very careful about what chances you take. If there is not a need for chance, then change is often a bad thing, and too much change can also affect internal diciplin and organisation.
A military is most of all a structure of many small elements that come together as a completely functionalistic organism. Removing the military from their state is for said military like taking an organ from a person and putting it in another without checking if it even fits. A soldier swears an allegiance to his country before anything else. Building an EU army might be interesting in the long run for some of us, but culturally it will take generations, as the wast majority does not identify as European at this point.
So now we have been through background and options, then what is a likely and realistic scenario? What should EU-NATO relations be? Or maybe more accurately, what should US-EU relations be?
With Brexit the EU is fragile. People might not be voting for Le Pen and Wilders in droves, but their two countries voted against the EU constitution.
The EU must move forward in a pace where its people can keep up if it is to succeed. This is also true for defence. Europeans know what NATO is; EU member states not in NATO all have a partnership agreement with NATO (some have considered NATO membership following the 2014 Crimean Crisis). NATO is stability, the EU is possibility. But possibility also includes risk and uncertainty, and voters do not like uncertainty, when the issue is security. This means Stoltenberg is mostly right, the EU should not challenge
NATO, but what should the EU do instead?
As with the past options of slight increases in defence budgets or developing the current limited cooperation (when somewhat forced upon member states), then nothing really changes much. Is there a third option? Especially since an EU army is not going to be viable within a reasonable timeframe.
Well, maybe. The issue here is, however, the EU’s current narrative of being a single organisation bringing all member states together. This has for decades bothered Northern and Southern Europeans, and it has not become better since the introduction of Eastern Europe to the EU. The EU needs to adapt and push for regional integration between smaller states. Clusters such as the
Benelux, V4 and Nordic countries need to be viewed by Europe as core entities, and then the EU needs to formally join NATO.
Establishing NATO as the primary military organisation, but then the suborganisation in Europe being managed by the EU. Benelux would be a region on the footing of Germany for organisational reasons, but Luxembourg would still enjoy just as much a veto as today. Luxembourg on defence cooperation would be a subentity of Benelux, being a subentity of Northern Europe, being a subentity the EU, being a subentity of NATO. The power would be at the bottom, but for establishing capabilities and coordination, there would be several layers between the member state and the final organisation.
The core challenge
This is not really just about defence cooperation, this is a symptom of a greater problem. IGOs such as NATO and the EU end up competing, because they fail at designating core capabilities in their “pooling and sharing”. Both fail at mirroring the needed structures of military cooperation at the political level.
The EU fights the member state for political power instead of pushing for more power being in the sub-national entities and creating super national entities below the EU. Military logic will clearly show that if you just have platoons, regiments and armies, then the organisation will not work, but if you introduce fireteams, squads, companies, battalions, brigades, divisions, and corps, then you have a functional structure.
Defence cooperation is weak and will keep only taking baby steps as long as the political sphere is not willing to learn from the military in relation to effective organisation. The military structure cannot adapt to the political structure if the latter is illogical at its core.
To improve defence cooperation and figure out the role of Europe in NATO (or towards NATO), then we need to rethink what is important now. This is not a time to embark on a major project, but a time to adapt the mechanics of Europe. Not just to dilute the institutions like a Farage, Le Pen, and Wilders, but to strengthen them.
If Europe was an ancient temple, then what is lacking is the support pillars on the sides, which not only aesthetics, but also functional support for the whole structure. Doing nothing,
helps nothing, prestige project like an EU Army do worse, as they will be guided by politicians and bureaucrats with no real understanding in matters of function.
Therefore, the relationship between NATO and the EU is perfectly fine for now, and Stoltenberg is right. And if we want this to change, then we have to look inwards at the structure of the EU, instead trying to do show and tell directed at uninterested European voters.