EU-NATO Tensions Point to Transatlantic Troubles

  • Petr Boháček
  • 19.2.2018 17:16

Facing uncertainty over Transatlantic relations, Europe has rushed towards deepening its defence integration. But despite normalisation of the relations and reassuring NATO about the benefits and complementary nature of the EU defence cooperation, strategic divergences will be on the table back again.

Despite initially welcoming the initiatives with open arms, US officials followed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg voiced concerns over European defence integration ahead of the 14-15 February NATO Summit. European politicians continue to assure Washington that the EU and NATO are doing different or complementary things – NATO collective defence and big wars, PESCO crisis management and smaller capabilities – and that the US and North Atlantic Alliance remain Europe’s main security pillar.

The reality
NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg reiterated over the past week that Europe cannot defend itself without NATO and that 80% of defence spending in the Alliance will come from non-EU countries after Brexit. For Germany’s security policy, NATO is the alpha and omega. Poland’s joining of PESCO only confirms the initiative does not rival NATO and Estonia’s PM Jüri Luik claimed they would never join it if it harmed the Alliance. US Defence Secretary James Mattis proclaimed that collective defence is NATO’s mission alone.

Military mobility, cyber security or hybrid warfare are the civilian-military areas where the EU can really help NATO. Bureaucratic barriers, or the simple lack of information about EU’s infrastructure networks East of Berlin limit NATO’s ability to defend its Eastern Flank. The multi-stakeholder mammoth task of mapping all infrastructure, funding dual-use projects, setting up NATO standards and providing a regulatory and legislative framework for cross-border military movement in peacetime is exactly where the two structures will complete each other. For this end, NATO is already setting up a new HQ in Germany, and the Dutch-led PESCO project that includes all of its signatories will certainly help.

The intergovernmental nature of these initiatives, including PESCO, will serve as a clear safeguard against using EU defence against the North Atlantic alliance

Some of the key tools for defence integration are the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) and Capabilities Development Plan (CDP), which are thought of as tools to foster a common security culture through synchronising and coordinating defence planning. But even this part cannot upset NATO policymakers as it will consider and include NATO’s Defence Planning Process of member states. Under the CDP, the capabilities will be first drafted by the EU military committee of Chiefs of Defence, before the European Defence Agency creates a development plan for their fulfilment. The intergovernmental nature of these initiatives, including PESCO, will serve as a clear safeguard against using EU defence against the North Atlantic alliance.


The US can afford 20th-century realpolitik. For Europe, this would be suicidal


The ambition
Still, it is hard to ignore the environment in which the EU defence integration generated its momentum. Despite all the reassurance, it is hard not to see the higher ambitions of EU’s defence integration. Bulgaria's Deputy Defence Minister Atanas Zapryanov boldly claimed that PESCO will increase EU's military capabilities without which the EU cannot have a global strategy, because foreign policy without military does not exist. European Union Military Committee Chairman Michail Kostarakos echoed that Europe cannot rely only on NATO. French Defence Minister Florence Parly saying Europe must be able to act without the US in North Africa, only to reject the debate about EU and NATO rivalry as false few minutes later. The EU is sensing it is time to finally pull together and create its own military capabilities to complement its diplomatic power, as French and German Defence Ministers argued for at the Munich Security Conference or EU High Representatives did recently in Rome.


Remaining Transatlantic but at the same time more European might be difficult


PESCO, CARD, European Defence Fund (EDF), all this has happened at an extraordinary speed, at least by EU standards. Its political context is clear. Europe experienced serious doubts about US commitment to NATO, Transatlantic relations as well as to diplomacy and multilateralism in general, with Washington moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, or the withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement. The US is reviving all its nuclear arsenal and lowered the threshold for using tactical weapons in its new Nuclear Posture Strategy. Geopolitical rivalry with China and Russia is identified as the main threat in its national security strategy that mentions the importance of alliances but fails to stress how to keep and strengthen them. To give a hint, it is not by simply putting America First in every category. Washington is abandoning its focus on soft power, the biggest source its world dominance built on the fact that its national interests aligned with national interests of several other countries in Europe and Asia. The world’s sole superpower can afford to turn to the 20th-century realpolitik approach. But for Europe and the EU, anything different than adherence to multilateralism, soft power, development, cooperation, diplomacy would be nothing else than a suicide. German Defence Minister Ursula Von der Leyen even indirectly slammed Trump by saying development cooperation is not a "nice to have" but a tough "must", noting with concern "when some partners continue to reduce their resources for diplomacy and development cooperation or the United Nations." Her vision to remain Transatlantic but at the same time more European might have some cracks in it. Luckily, European leaders are starting to understand that there is no foreign policy without a military. However, there is also no military without technology.


Increases in European defence spending and NATO’s interoperability were understood to ensure arms deals with Europe. Without them, the America First administration might view Transatlanticism differently.


Decoupling of armament interests
Europe’s large problem on its way to gain any global significance is its technological weakness that directly transfers into defence capabilities, defence industry and through dual-use technology into its entire economy. Without massive investments in defence technology, Europe will not ensure its competitiveness on many fronts. Yet, EDF’s research window granting up to €90 million for European defence research followed by €5bn annually for joint defence project from 2020 is worrying US defence giants. For Pentagon, increases in European defence spending and NATO’s interoperability were understood to ensure arms deals with Europe and as an important benefit of Transatlantic relations. With the shift towards unilateral foreign policy, scraping this benefit could have much more serious consequences for the America First administration. Further, with concerns about US commitment to Europe, many countries purchase US weapons to solidify their bilateral relationship and ensure security guarantees from America – harming a common defence cooperation in Europe. In September 2017, a study by ARES, a European think-tank, said that the development of the European defence industrial base is hampered by bilateral agreements with the US. Balancing US and EU defence industries with a new set of rules is key to avoid damage to Transatlantic relations.

With the technological rise of China and undoubted great power rivalry, the US needs the old continent. Europe’s technological success is detrimental to the US Third Offset strategy that aims to maintain technological superiority – it must logically include its NATO allies as well. Washington is right to be nervous about European defence integration, even if it is completely mutually beneficial at this point. They can search for the answers in the US protectionist defence industry or proclaimed foreign policy unilateralism.

About author: Petr Boháček


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