A unique opportunity to strengthen EU-NATO cooperation

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Russia repeated its threat of retaliation on Saturday (12 March) if Sweden and Finland ever decide to join NATO, warning of “serious military and political consequences”. [Alexandros Michaillidis, Shutterstock]

Some duplications, or thematic overlap, between the EU’s Strategic Compass and NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept will be inevitable but necessary, writes Niklas Novaky.

Niklas Nováky is a Senior Research Officer at the Wilfried Martens Centre in Brussels.

Since 2020, the EU has been reflecting on the future of its security and defence policy. This reflection has taken place in the framework of the Strategic Compass process, which seeks to strengthen the Union’s ability to achieve its level of ambition in security and defence and set new goals and targets for the coming years.

A first draft of the Compass was presented to the EU Council by High Representative Josep Borrell on 15 November. EU countries are now negotiating the document’s final content to adopt it in March 2022. The European External Action Service is expected to present a revised draft by mid-January and another one in February.

On the other side of Brussels, NATO is engaged in a parallel reflection process of its own. In June, NATO leaders tasked Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to lead the development of the Alliance’s next Strategic Concept, which outlines NATO’s overall tasks and objectives.

NATO’s current Strategic Concept was adopted in 2010 before Russia’s annexation of Crimea before China was on the Alliance’s agenda and before hybrid threats and climate change were seen as major challenges. The new Strategic Concept is scheduled to be adopted at NATO’s Madrid summit in June 2022.

The parallel character of the two processes provides a unique opportunity to strengthen EU-NATO cooperation. This opportunity shouldn’t be wasted: it should be used to the greatest possible extent to coordinate the two organisations’ objectives and minimise unnecessary overlaps in their activities.

The core missions of the two organisations—in the field of security and defence—will remain the same: NATO will guarantee Europe’s territorial defence while the EU will boost its capacities in areas such as crisis management, resilience, and capability development. The EU won’t take on territorial defence responsibilities: EU and NATO leaders have stressed this time and again, and it would not be possible under the Union’s Lisbon Treaty anyway.

Some duplications—or thematic overlaps—between the EU’s Strategic Compass and NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept will be inevitable but necessary, however. This is because the two organisations share, to a large extent, the same threat environment as 21 of the EU‘s 27 member states is also NATO allies. Both organisations also need capacities for autonomous action because some EU countries are not NATO allies and vice versa.

One area where a certain overlap will be necessary is China and the Indo-Pacific. NATO is increasingly concerned about China’s growing influence and power and the destabilising effects they may also have in the North Atlantic area. China’s successful hypersonic missile test in August highlighted that Beijing’s ambitions also have direct implications for NATO.

The EU is also concerned about China’s growing power and assertiveness. This is why the draft Strategic Compass notes inter alia that the EU is planning to increase its naval presence in the Indo-Pacific via its Coordinated Maritime Presences concept to contribute to the region’s stability and help develop its capacities partners. A pilot case of the CMP concept was launched in the Gulf of Guinea in January.

Crisis management is another area where a certain overlap will be necessary, especially now that NATO has scaled down its out-of-area activities and refocused on territorial defence. The draft Strategic Compass proposes that the EU should set up a new 5,000 strong Rapid Deployment Capacity with the necessary enablers to boost the Union’s ability to address crises and to conduct Afghanistan-style evacuation operations on its own.

Some countries worry that the Rapid Deployment Capacity could complicate NATO‘s ability to generate the forces that it needs to ensure deterrence in Europe’s eastern flank. However, if approved, the Capacity wouldn’t be a standing force: it would initially focus on boosting the EU’s ability to act through scenario development and live exercises. Operationally, it would be based primarily on the Union’s existing battlegroups.

It should also be remembered that the EU has already launched multiple military operations on its own since its security and defence policy became operational in 2003. These operations have been deployed to areas in Africa and the Western Balkans from which NATO has wanted to withdraw or in which the Alliance has not wished to intervene. EU led operations, therefore, contribute to transatlantic security and burden-sharing.

Hybrid and cyber threats are also something that both the EU’s Strategic Compass and NATO’s next Strategic Concept must address. The draft Compass calls inter alia for creating a broader EU Hybrid Toolbox and for developing the Union’s cyber deterrence posture through things such as capacity building, capability development, and exercises. NATO is also boosting its capacities to tackle cyber and hybrid threats.

The EU has also discussed how the Lisbon Treaty’s mutual aid and assistance clause, Article 42(7), could be used in a hybrid or cyber-attack situation. So far, Article 42(7) has been invoked only once—in 2015 by France after the Paris terror attacks. EU countries have worked to clarify the scenarios in which an attacked EU country could invoke Article 42(7) and how it could be implemented in a cyber/hybrid attack situation that might fall below the threshold of NATO’s Article 5.

Overall, both the EU’s Strategic Compass and NATO’s next Strategic Concept will boost the two organisation’s ability to tackle the wide range of threats and challenges that they are currently facing. Given that the EU and NATO share many of these threats and challenges, some overlaps between the documents will be inevitable.

However, this shouldn’t be seen as a negative as the EU and NATO play different roles in Europe’s security and defence and have different competencies. If anything, the overlaps will show that the EU and NATO are focused on finding solutions to common challenges. This is good for the security and resilience of the entire North Atlantic area.

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