Written by Tania Latici,
Against a backdrop of evolving geopolitical configurations and security threats, anniversaries serve as a useful occasion for reflection, allowing us to draw lessons from the past and informing strategies for the future. In this context, the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS), in collaboration with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, hosted a panel discussion on ‘NATO at 70 and CSDP at 20: The future of European security and defence’ on 1 April 2019. The extremely well-attended event took stock of what has been achieved so far in European and transatlantic defence, discussing the state of play of the different EU defence integration initiatives, EU-NATO cooperation and transatlantic relations. A forward-looking discussion about the future of European defence followed the panel debate.
Clare Moody (S&D, UK), Parliament’s Vice-Chair of the Subcommittee on Security and Defence opened the debate, giving a comprehensive overview of the security challenges facing the EU, not least cyber and hybrid threats. Her speech also touched upon the importance of EU-NATO relations and on the complementarity between the two, noting that both organisations share the same fundamental goal, of ensuring the security of European citizens. Clare Moody reminded the audience of the EU’s immense soft power role and its added value for EU external action. However, she also highlighted that, in order for the EU to be credible in its action with external partners, it must act as one, in true solidarity. Lastly, she emphasised the overarching purpose of a robust and coherent defence policy by saying that ‘when we talk about defence, we are intrinsically talking about peace’.
In her role as moderator, Elena Lazarou, Policy Analyst in the EPRS External Policies Unit, launched the panel debate by setting the context of the two defence anniversaries of this year: NATO turning 70 and CSDP turning 20. Representing the European External Action Service, Arnout Molenaar (Senior Defence Advisor), noted that the crises of recent years have propelled security and defence to the top of the EU’s agenda, and now represent a key pillar of EU action. In the current multipolar power distribution, the EU must act as a union and has to start to think European. After putting all the structures in place, he noted, the EU must now deliver on its promises and implement initiatives such as permanent structured cooperation and the European Defence Fund, notwithstanding its cooperation with NATO.
Introducing a NATO perspective to the debate, Jamie Shea offered the audience a brief history of NATO. Noting that while in previous years the Alliance had the luxury of focusing on one challenge at the time, He underlined that it now has to take a 360 degree approach and tackle three challenges simultaneously: in the Eastern and Southern neighbourhoods, , and on homeland security – including hybrid threats. For each of these challenges, NATO requires partners – not least the EU. While recognising the progress achieved by the EU in the defence realm, he also noted the importance of burden-sharing and of communicating the EU’s purpose and actions to its transatlantic partner. Ethan Corbin, Director of the Defence and Security Committee at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly added that the Alliance’s endurance relies on its ability to adapt to the challenges of the international security environment in the post-Cold War environment. He continued by saying that, rather than defining the Alliance by what it is against, NATO should instead be defined by what it stands for and seeks to protect and defend. The Alliance’s future survivability, he continued, will therefore be impacted by its ability to remain committed to the defence of its core values – democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. Looking to the other side of the Atlantic, he argued that despite President Trump’s past criticism of NATO, popular and bipartisan support for NATO is very high in the United States. Although this criticism has had a clear impact on Europeans’ perceptions of US commitment to their security, evidence shows that the United States are as engaged as ever on the ground. Ethan Corbin concluded his remarks by outlining the impending future debate about NATO’s nuclear posture and the coming debate on the Alliance’s potential future actions in a post-INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Europe. Recalling the deterrence and dialogue initiative of the first INF crisis, he noted that any enduring solution would have to involve a return to mutually reassuring arms control agreements.
Moving over from the EU and NATO perspectives to a more Member State focused observation, the Head of the Brussels office of the Antall József Knowledge Centre, Ildikó Szenci reminded the audience of the legacy of the Iron Curtain in central and eastern Europe, which fell 30 years ago in November this year. Against this backdrop, she gave the example of Hungary, who supports the EU’s defence initiatives but sees NATO as the sole responsible body for collective defence. Nonetheless, given the different threat perceptions among EU Members, the EU and NATO each bring unique added value to the protection of Europe.
During the questions and answers session that followed the debate, the audience asked the speakers for their views on citizens’ perceptions of NATO and defence, about the political concept of a ‘European army’ and whether there is any substance to it, on how the United States sees the EU’s action on defence, the role of the European Parliament in defence matters and about post-Brexit EU-UK defence cooperation. The panellists were unanimous in expressing the need for Europeans’ to start implementing their commitments in the realm of defence. They also emphasised that the EU and the UK share the same threats to their security and thus it is vital to remain in close cooperation. Lastly, fact-based analyses such as the EPRS Public Expectations series also demonstrate citizens’ demand for institutions to do more in defence and security matters.
The second and final part of the event focused on the outlook for European defence, with Suzana Anghel, Policy Analyst in the EPRS European Council Oversight Unit, posing challenging questions to her co-panellist, Sven Biscop, Director of the Europe in the World Programme at the Egmont Institute. Her questions related to the direction in which Europe is heading on defence, to the prospects of EU Member States achieving consensus in future defence actions and to Europe’s soft power, questioning whether there is an impetus to go beyond the EU’s traditional civilian perspective. Starting by describing the use of defence as a foreign policy instrument, Sven Biscop made the case for Europe to become a stronger actor, strong enough to engage other great powers on its own terms. He also emphasised the need for Europe to find its own role and not allow this debate to become polarised due to recent USA-China tensions. Lastly, he also noted that the EU and NATO do share a common purpose and are both founded on the principles of democracy.
Many strategic questions and challenges lie ahead for the EU and NATO in this time of uncertain security realities, but what is certain is that the organisations’ role of maintaining peace on the continent is as important now as ever before.