Unblocking EU-NATO co-operation

Unblocking EU-NATO co-operation

Bulletin article
Daniel Keohane
01 June 2006

There is something rotten in the state of EU-NATO relations. Both organisations would benefit from working closely together on a range of security issues, from counter-terrorism to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But when NATO and EU ambassadors hold joint meetings, they discuss only ‘joint EU-NATO operations’ – of which there is just one, in Bosnia – and military capabilities. A whole raft of other important subjects, such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Darfur are off their agenda. This disconnect between Brussels’ two security organisations is unfortunate, for they could do a lot to help each other. For instance, Afghanistan needs more police, judges, engineers and development advisers – resources available to the EU but not to the NATO peacekeepers there.

What accounts for the lack of EU-NATO co-operation, other than the fact that the two bureaucracies do not understand each other too well, and are therefore mutually mistrustful? One problem is a dispute between Turkey (in NATO but not the EU) and Cyprus (in the EU but not NATO). Turkey objects to neutral Cyprus sitting in on EU-NATO meetings because, unlike most other EU neutrals, it is not a member of NATO’s partnership-for-peace (PfP) programme.

Strictly speaking the Turks are right. According to a December 2002 agreement, EU governments that are not members of NATO must be members of the PfP programme to attend EU-NATO meetings. That arrangement worked well at first. It allowed the then four EU neutrals (Austria, Finland, Ireland and Sweden) to sit in on these joint meetings, since they are members of the PfP. At that time the EU and NATO ambassadors were able to discuss a wide range of subjects, such as Afghanistan, Moldova and nuclear weapons proliferation.

However, all that changed after the enlargement of the EU (from 15 to 25 member-states) and NATO (from 19 to 26) two years ago. Two of the new EU members – Cyprus and Malta – are neutral but not in the PfP. Ankara, annoyed that the Cypriots rejected a UN peace plan in a referendum in 2004, started blocking Cypriot (and Maltese) participation in EU-NATO meetings.

The Cypriots argue that they should be treated the same as other EU members, with the right to sit in on such meetings. Obviously the Turkey-Cyprus dispute is about much more than EU-NATO relations, but it has created a ludicrous situation. Meetings between the EU and NATO currently take place with only 23 EU ambassadors. And they are only allowed to talk about joint operations and military capabilities. This is partly because some EU countries, like Belgium, France and Greece, say that the EU ambassadors should not discuss other issues, such as terrorism, since they have to be dealt with amongst 25, not 23. But it is also because France thinks NATO should not be a forum for global security issues, and therefore it is inappropriate to discuss these issues at EU-NATO meetings. France’s blocking tactics have greatly frustrated other governments, in particular the Netherlands, the UK and the US. They want the EU and NATO to discuss closer co-operation on a whole host of issues, including Afghanistan, the Caucasus and counter-terrorism. They suspect France is using the Turkey-Cyprus dispute as an excuse to prevent closer co-operation between the EU and NATO.

The French seem to worry that EU defence is a delicate flower which risks being squashed in the embrace of a military giant such as NATO. French officials sometimes say that close EU-NATO co-operation could lead to the US gaining excessive influence over EU foreign and defence policy. They also say that the US may use NATO missions as a means for getting European troops to serve American strategic interests. They point to the example of Afghanistan, where European governments provide most of the NATO peacekeepers but apparently have very little influence over US policy in the country.

French fears about US priorities are not completely unfounded. The EU’s first military mission, to Congo in 2003, jolted some in Washington because it was launched without consultation with NATO. The Bush administration had assumed that, on the basis of the December 2002 agreement, NATO had the right of first refusal on all EU missions. So during last year’s discussions of how the African Union (AU) could be helped with the problem of Darfur, the Bush administration argued that NATO should take the lead and the EU should stay out (in the end both organisations decided to help the AU).

What can be done to overcome the paranoia that is prevalent in parts of Washington, Paris and Brussels? The good news is that closer EU-NATO co-operation is already happening on the ground. Although in Brussels the NATO and EU headquarters do not work together, in Addis Ababa at the AU headquarters, EU and NATO personnel jointly co-ordinate their airlift support. In Afghanistan, the European Commission now funds some of the non-military activities (such as judges, aid workers and administrators) of the NATO provincial reconstruction teams. And in Vienna, officials from both the EU and NATO take part in Martti Ahtisaari’s UN-mandated team that is negotiating the final status of Kosovo.

Futhermore, useful discussions between the EU and NATO do take place outside formal meetings. The two lots of ambassadors often gather informally to discuss subjects barred from their formal agenda. In September 2005, EU and NATO foreign ministers held their first informal dinner, and the third took place in Sofia in April. The EU and NATO should build on these encouraging steps by agreeing to three specific reforms.

First, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and the NATO secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, should meet once a month, to share information and co-ordinate policy on issues such as counter-terrorism. If they jointly presented their ideas to meetings of EU and NATO ambassadors, it could help to foster a new spirit of co-operation between the organisations.

Second, the EU and NATO should talk to each other before conducting operations. One way would be for their ‘situation centres’ – the cells that assess the situation in a country before an operation – to share information. That would help the situation centres to develop better and common analyses. The two centres could also think of ways that their organisations could help each other on the ground.

Third, both organisations find it hard to get their members to provide the military capabilities that they need, and they should ensure that if faced with future shortfalls they do not compete to use the same equipment. For example, they should co-ordinate their use of available transport aircraft through the Eindhoven-based European airlift co-ordination cell.

None of these ideas is revolutionary. They will not ensure that France and the US overcome their differences. But they would help encourage more practical cooperation between the EU and NATO.