EU-NATO boundaries are becoming more porous – but not disappearing

EU-NATO boundaries are becoming more porous – but not disappearing

”Finland’s security policy: A hundred years of in-between” report was published in parts. This is the sixth article of the report.

8 July 2016 was a good day for Finnish and Swedish security policies. On that day, President of Finland Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister of Sweden Stefan Löfven were the only leaders of non-NATO countries who took part at the dinner of a NATO summit held in Warsaw. There were two more special guests around the table, representing the EU: President of the European Council Donald Tusk and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker.

In recent years it has become normal to see top officials of the EU, Finland and Sweden attending NATO meetings. Likewise, representatives of NATO have taken part at meetings of the EU Council. Such practice seemed unthinkable just a few years ago.

What brings the EU and NATO closer together, and Finland and Sweden closer to NATO, is obvious – new or renewed concerns about European security call for a joint response. With existential questions looming over European security order, undermined by Russia, and European way of life, tested by jihadist terrorism, there is no time for organisational bickering. Military defence is again high on the regional security agenda, increasingly also for the EU. At the same time, the hybrid nature of threats and enhanced focus on resilience calls for integrating a broad range of policy instruments in European and Transatlantic approaches to security.

At the Warsaw Summit, the heads of the EU and NATO signed a joint declaration calling for ‘new impetus and new substance’ to be given to the ‘strategic partnership’ between the two organisations. This was followed by a detailed ‘statement on the implementation of the joint declaration’, approved by both the EU and NATO in December 2016, which laid down a list of 42 areas for closer cooperation. The mutual charm offensive was largely Brussels-driven and supported by a good personal relationship between the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Officials in both headquarters in Brussels speak about a ‘sea change’ in the relationship.

Convincing all the national capitals was the more difficult part, but eventually all the member states of both organisations endorsed the joint agenda in December 2016. Beneath the uncertainties and bewilderment about US commitment to Europe under the Trump presidency, the working-level relationship between the EU and NATO has become more active than ever. At the same time, the longer-term goal of the strategic relationship remains unclear.

What to expect from the new EU-NATO dynamics?

The new dynamics in EU-NATO relations mark a major shift in the European security landscape in comparison to the Cold War era. Up to the 1990s, the division of labour between the EU and NATO was clear and largely unquestioned: NATO took care of Western Europe’s territorial defence and deterrence, while the EU ensured peace and prosperity among its member states.

The end of the Cold War opened up space for the EU to develop a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) of its own. Ever since the CSDP was launched in 1998, the EU has aimed at a capacity for autonomous military action. In subsequent years, CSDP was developed in a close, but tense relationship to NATO. It was popular in Europe to see the EU as a different kind of international actor, characterized as a civilian or normative power, and thus distinct from the US and NATO. The question of military capacity had a contested, but rather marginal role in discussions about the EU’s contribution to regional security. At the same time Europe’s actual military capability regressed and autonomy remained out of reach.

During the 1990s and 2000s, the end of Cold-War bipolarity pushed also NATO to look for a new role. Yet what some called an existential crisis of NATO did not last long: the Ukraine conflict removed any doubts about the continued relevance of NATO’s core purpose. The annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine also highlighted the continued dependence of European security on the US and NATO.

In the increasingly hostile security environment, the EU has made a new effort to push forward not just its cooperation with NATO, but also defence cooperation among EU member states. In fact, closer EU-NATO cooperation has turned out to be the most uncontroversial part of the new EU defence package. Other initiatives, such as Permanent Structured Cooperation, Coordinated Annual Review on Defence and European Defence Fund, all aim at strengthening European defence capabilities and reducing fragmentation among national forces. The EU is to have a stronger role in coordinating defence planning, supporting joint procurement and developing European defence industry. It also aims to gradually strengthen its crisis management capabilities, with a view to being more active in managing conflicts in Africa and elsewhere.

While the EU relies on NATO and the US for military capacity and territorial defence, there is also a strong sense on the NATO side about the importance of cooperation with the EU, especially in fields such as energy security, cyber security, resilience of infrastructure and strategic communication – all lumped together under the notion of hybrid threats.

The EU Global Strategy of 2016 re-phrases the goal of autonomous action as one of reaching a ‘sufficient level of strategic autonomy’. It is a matter of debate whether the EU’s strengthening defence cooperation primarily aims at the distant goal of EU autonomy, increased viability of NATO, or both. Keeping this question open seems to be a precondition for moving forward.

Nordic-Baltic differences highlight the limitations of EU-NATO partnership

The warming-up of EU-NATO ties was a welcome move for the Baltic Sea region. The Baltic and Nordic countries serve as a prime illustration of a close-knit region with largely shared security concerns. However, as we know the shared concerns translate into an array of different national security policy solutions. Finding a common ground on how to improve regional security is naturally easier when the two key organisations, with their variable geometry of memberships in the Nordic-Baltic region, are partners rather than rivals.

Yet the differences between the positions of Baltic Sea countries, notably Finland, Estonia and Sweden, underscore the conditions and limitations attached to the promise of a closer EU-NATO strategic partnership.

The Baltic states can be more comfortable about the deepening of EU defence cooperation now that worries about duplicating NATO have been largely put aside. It is important for the Balts that closer EU-NATO ties should not obscure the meaning of NATO Article 5. Territorial defence and deterrence remain their key concern, which the EU is neither willing nor able to address – that said, they can welcome the EU’s efforts to make a stronger contribution to European defence via the initiatives mentioned above. The key difference between today and five or ten years ago is that today the relevance of the Baltic states’ threat perceptions is broadly acknowledged across Europe.

After initial hesitation in the early days of CSDP, Finland has become one of the most active promoters of EU defence cooperation. Having reached a new national consensus on keeping the NATO ‘option’ alive, but dormant, Finland has engaged in an array of new forms of defence cooperation with its western partners. In this broader picture, the deepening EU-NATO relationship is one of the factors that further dilutes the meaning and practical value of Finland’s non-membership of a military alliance.

The Finnish rhetoric on EU defence is characterized by ambitious ambiguity, which may appear just as misleading as the talk about friendly relations with Russia. Beneath all the rhetoric, it is national capability that remains at the core of the country’s defence policy. The ambiguity of Finland’s commitments vis-à-vis the EU (notably in the context of the mutual assistance clause of the Lisbon Treaty), NATO and regional security has been a source of friction in relations with Estonia. Some more clarity in this regard would do no harm to stability in the Nordic-Baltic region.

Adding the case of Sweden complicates the picture further. In contrast to Finland, Sweden has been one of the most reluctant member states when it comes to deepening EU defence cooperation. It has shown a consistent preference for keeping the EU focused on more civilian aspects of security, while addressing regional hard security concerns via close cooperation with the US, NATO and other western partners. Weakness of Sweden’s national capability is one important factor behind the differences between the Swedish and Finnish positions. Sweden remains an idealist on EU security policy, but a realist on EU defence.

To conclude, the boundary between the EU and NATO has become more porous, but is not about to disappear. The EU-NATO division of labour is ambiguous in some issues, such as countering hybrid threats, and may be shifting in others, notably defence planning and some areas of crisis management, but remains clear-cut when it comes to territorial defence. Whether the latter part of the puzzle will remain so clear-cut also in the future is a matter of long-term debate in the EU, with no consensus in sight.