France, NATO and European defence

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

France and the UK are close to reaching an agreement that would “dramatically improve relations between the EU and NATO,” according to a March policy brief by Tomas Valasek of the Centre for European Reform (CER).

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent declaration that he would like French officers to be once again under NATO’s military command may prove to be a decisive breakthrough in improving EU-NATO ties, argues Valasek. 

The author points out that “while NATO and EU – through the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) – talk about some issues, like Bosnia, they are not allowed to discuss other important ones, like their respective missions in Kosovo”. 

Sarkozy’s belief that France should “renovate” its relationship with NATO may help end the “ruinous quarrel” between Europe’s two main security organisations, Valasek writes.

The current competition between the two institutions “leaves everyone worse off,” he argues, forcing EU member states to divide their already meagre defence budgets between NATO and the ESDP. 

Thus both institutions give their members long “shopping lists” of new equipment necessary for military operations without any harmonisation between the two, leading to each organisation “asking the same cash-strapped governments for slightly different things,” Valasek says.

If the EU-NATO relationship is to be unblocked, Britain and France must seize upon Sarkozy’s initiative, the author insists, stating that “Britain and France form the undisputed core of European defence”: “If these two disagree, little happens.” 

Several things need to happen for this initiative to succeed, argues Valasek. First, France needs to reach a deal with Washington under which NATO command posts would go to French officers. Second, in order for Sarkozy to “sell the idea of fully returning to NATO” to the French foreign policy establishment, the ESDP needs to be strengthened. 

Moreover, Valasek believes EU and NATO planners should be “required to work closely together from the earliest stages of operations” in which both are involved, and should also consider sharing facilities. 

France will also need to identify a strategy to deal with Turkey, the author says. He points out that if NATO and the EU are to start co-operating fully on defence, Turkey will have to drop its opposition to closer ties between the two institutions. This could be achieved, he argues, by offering Ankara partnership status with the ESDP now. 

Valasek concludes by saying that the two organisations’ lists of priorites should merge into one: “NATO and the EU will sink or swim together.” 

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