Close cooperation and a mutually-beneficial relationship between NATO and the European Union plays a key role in the day to day affairs on either side of the Atlantic. This could be the result of numerous factors such as sharing an overlapping history, overlapping member states, as well as common values and goals between the two organisations. The roles and even existence of both, separately as well as in tandem, have been called into question especially with the changing geopolitical climate after the events of 2016. President Donald Trump’s statements question the support NATO will receive from the United States, raising uncertainty within NATO and the EU.

Tensions within the European Union over Brexit negotiations and new waves of populism across Europe persistently bring such existential dilemmas to the forefront of the debate. Furthermore, not only did Russian aggression in Ukraine escalate global tensions, it also showed that war and military action can take place in very close proximity on the direct borders of the European Union.  Not even the assurances made by Vice-President Mike Pence, at the Munich Security Conference, have assuaged doubts about the current security arrangement, despite Pence’s claim that, “the United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in [their] commitment to this transatlantic alliance.” With many different reactions, the statement reinforced a sense of urgency within NATO and EU head offices.

NATO and the European Union face similar problems for a number of reasons, none of which can be reduced solely to the unpredictable nature of recent events. Both organisations were created with aspiring but ambitious ideals, designed to prevent a return to world wars which ravaged Europe in the 20th century with the aim to ensure peace, security and prosperity in Europe and North America. Most importantly, the organisations share 22 member states, rendering overlap and partnership between the two inevitable. On the 18th of February, Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, reiterated this relationship when he declared during the Munich Security Conference that, “for almost 70 years, the partnership between Europe and North America has ensured peace, freedom and prosperity,” while acknowledging that, “we face the greatest security challenges for generations… it’s even more important that we meet and discuss and address these challenges together.” Thus, it appears that a large part of this debate is about burden-sharing between the two organisations to ensure the continuation of the current (western defined) rules-based world order.

The burden-sharing mantle was further taken up in a joint article, co-authored by the President of the European Council, President of the European Commission and NATO Secretary General. Titled Taking EU-NATO Cooperation to a New Level and written in the aftermath of the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw, the paper defined the intertwined destinies and histories of the European Union and NATO as, “different but complementary,” as well as further clarifying the relationship of the two as, “NATO, a unique alliance between Europe and North America, has been the cornerstone of our security. It is this security that has enabled the European Union to deliver peace, prosperity and political cooperation for the continent.”  However, in light of shifting attitudes toward security and the current global world order, one must not forget that, “all talk and no action,” may just be the phrase used to pinpoint the problems faced by these organisations.

On the other hand, it would be unfair to say that nothing has come out of these conferences and subsequent declarations of strong mutual support. The two organisations have made an effort to upgrade their cooperation, which until now has been positive but has also seen a number of complications in terms of duplication as well as tensions over the Cyprus and Turkey issue. NATO has announced new plans to, “show the United States that [the European part of NATO] is serious about its own security.” To give substance to their claims, in signing ceremonies at NATO in mid-February, agreements to buy Lockheed Martin C-130J transport planes were made between French and German Defence ministers. Germany, Belgium and Norway pledged to join the Netherlands-led fleet of Airbus A330 tanker planes. Moreover, Norway and Germany have announced plans to buy a new class of submarines, known as U212As, that more effectively detect, track and fire at enemy submarines and ships on the water. In addition, France agreed to allow Belgian and Dutch jets to fly into its airspace in the case of a conflict with a foreign threat, which clearly indicates a wish for further and deeper military cooperation as well as an important signal of mutual trust within Europe.

European allies plan to create a new command centre for Dutch, Belgian and Danish special forces that could be used by other NATO nations, which many countries outside of the main European military powers of Britain, France and Germany do not have. Although none of this is yet legally binding, it does send indications that in light of recent changes in the United States and globally, Europe and its allies are keen to renew their cooperation to ensure regional security. This is a key development as, historically, the competition and duplication between national defence strategies have resulted in European reliance on the United States to provide basic support such as refuelling combat planes in the air. With high levels of uncertainty over the continuity and scale of support from the United States, it appears that, on a regional level, European NATO members and those belonging to the European Union are preparing to retake matters in their own hands.

Therefore, in light of this European response to rising global uncertainties and geopolitical changes, the strengthening of mutual support and collaboration between NATO and the European Union is not surprising. As NATO’s deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller states, “This multinational cooperation through NATO is a clear way for countries to significantly improve their armed forces while ensuring the greatest value for money for their taxpayers.” On the other hand, Mike Pence assured that the United States will adhere to Article 5, but stressed the fact that Article 3, which relates to sharing the financial burden of the alliance, is usually overlooked.

Responses to this call have been varied amid rising tensions. Most NATO members pledged to increase spending, especially in Eastern Europe, where the threat of Russia is felt most directly. Although there are plans to continue the debate on this topic, the overall trend appears to be positive, with Jens Stoltenberg recently stating that, “In 2016, after many years of cuts, defence spending increased across Europe and Canada by 3.8 % in real terms or ten billion United States dollars,” and while that is a positive note for the NATO Alliance, it appears to not be enough to fully quench the rising doubts and criticism from the other side of the Atlantic.

To call NATO or the European Union obsolete appears to be an unfounded claim, since both organisations remain as key players on the geopolitical stage. Their swift and coordinated response to increase mutual support and collaboration with one another has guaranteed the maintenance of security and peace in Europe amid the turbulence within, as well as outside, the region. As phrased by NATO Secretary General, the cooperation between NATO and the European Union, “is excellent…. So long as NATO and the European Union complement, not compete with each other.” To strengthen both NATO and the European Union, the main goal in further negotiations and joint ventures is to uphold the original aims for preserving peace and prosperity in Europe set over 70 years ago.

Photo: NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg shaking hands with EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, by NATO North Atlantic Treaty Association, via Flickr. Licensed under Public Domain.

Disclaimer: The content of this article is the sole responsibility of the author and any opinions expressed therein do not necessarily represent the official position of the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association Denmark.

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