OPINION - EU-NATO relationship: Cooperation and competition

OPINION - EU-NATO relationship: Cooperation and competition

From the beginning, EU-NATO relationship was both about complementarity/cooperation and about competition on crisis management market

By Thierry Tardy

- The author is a visiting professor at the College of Europe.

ISTANBUL (AA)- Two elements are to be taken into consideration when looking at the establishment of European Union (EU) - NATO relations. First, as soon as the EU started to express the will to play a role in security and defense matters (late 1990s), the question was posed of its relationship with NATO as the main defense actor in Europe; this was the time when, in the United States (US) for example, questions were posed about what the EU would bring that NATO does not already do (duplication debate, see 1998 Madeleine Albright’s famous “3Ds” critique).

Second, from the very beginning the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) of the EU was conceptualized with NATO crisis management operations as a template. To a large degree, the EU wanted to replicate what NATO was doing at the time in Bosnia-Herzegovina (the Stabilization Force in Bosnia-Herzegovina, SFOR). Thus, from the beginning, the EU-NATO relationship was both about complementarity/cooperation and about competition on the crisis management market.

Insofar as the Treaties are concerned, things were quite clear in terms of division of tasks between NATO as a collective defense actor and the EU developing a security agenda short of collective defense. For example, the EU’s Maastricht Treaty (1992) was making clear that “The policy of the Union (in the defense domain) shall respect the obligations of certain Member States under the North Atlantic Treaty and be compatible with the common security and defense policy established within that framework.” In other words, the EU could only develop an agenda that would be compatible with what NATO already does. Yet in practice the line theoretically distinguishing the two organizations’ respective agendas has been difficult to identify, and the EU’s will to play a role in defense has been the source of tensions with NATO.


- The EU and NATO impact each other

The EU and NATO’s respective activities inevitably impact one another insofar as the two institutions operate on a relatively similar market. The fact that the EU has developed its own security identity over the last 20 years largely in reference to NATO’s role (as a crisis management actor in particular) attests to this impact. Similarly, NATO has developed a narrative on its own comparative advantages as a way to distinguish itself from the EU defense project. At the operational level, parallel operations run by the two institutions in the Western Balkans, the Gulf of Aden, the Mediterranean Sea and Iraq have led them to develop their own specificities or cooperation mechanism in a way that would not have happened if the parallel operations had not taken place. The inter-institutional competition has also been one of the triggers of the two institutions’ own adaptation processes.

As of 2016, the three Joint Declarations on EU-NATO cooperation (2016, 2018, 2023) have allowed the two actors to institutionalize their cooperation (through the 74 agenda items of cooperation), thus shaping to a degree their respective activities.


- EU countries’ dependency on NATO

The interaction between the EU and NATO is shaped by the fact that most EU member states depend on NATO for their own defense. 23 of the 32 (with Sweden soon joining) NATO allies are also EU member states and for most of them, NATO remains their main defense guarantor. This has been particularly the case since Russia-Ukraine war in February 2022. This in turn has an impact on these countries’ own perception of the respective roles of the two organizations. For the countries that feel threatened by Russia (Poland and the Baltic states in particular), NATO shall remain the uncontested European defense actor, meaning that the EU can only have a subsidiary role in defense. Partly for this reason the narrative on European strategic autonomy was not well received in those countries that felt such narrative was too much exclusive of NATO (and of the US).


- Can NATO affect the decisions of the EU?

NATO as an institution does affect the decisions of the EU in the sense that, as said earlier, NATO’s clear positioning on the defense segment inevitably determines “what is left” for the EU. In the same vein, some NATO allies – such as the US or Türkiye – can influence EU policy-making in particular political or geographical areas. More specifically, the US played a key role as of the 1990s in warning the EU against the undesired effect of EU’s duplication or discrimination against EU partners (NATO allies) in the defense sector. This has been a recurrent debate within the EU, which shows that the US influence did play a role. The US also plays a key role in the defense industry domain, creating dependencies for European states which then have an impact on EU policy. In a different context, Türkiye has to a degree influenced EU policy-making in the Mediterranean (EU-NATO cooperation (or the lack thereof) between the EU-led and NATO-led maritime operations). The Berlin Plus mechanism, through which NATO assets can be put at the disposal of the EU (as is the case in Bosnia-Herzegovina) is another example of Türkiye’s possible influence on EU policy.

On EU enlargement though (where decision-making is ruled by unanimity), it is difficult to see how non-EU states (such as the US) could tangibly influence EU decision-making. For example, the difficult relations between the EU and Türkiye on EU accession talks cannot be said to be in anyway influenced (negatively or positively) by the US position. In the 1990s, the US was in favor of the EU enlargement insofar as it would promote the establishment of a liberal peace space (in parallel with NATO enlargements), yet there is little evidence that the US position did play a role in making the EU successive enlargements happen. In the same vein, the decision in June 2022 to grant Ukraine and Moldova (and then Bosnia-Herzegovina in December 2022) candidate status is best described as a collective EU member states’ sovereign decision rather than being the result of some external influence.


* Opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu.

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