Written by Sebastian Clapp.
Following joint declarations by the EU and NATO in 2016 and 2018, a third joint declaration was signed on 10 January 2023. While some laud the declaration as a manifesto for increased cooperation, others perceive its 14 clauses to be mere symbolism. Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine, and Finland and Sweden’s push to join NATO, have recently highlighted the importance of strong cooperation between the EU and NATO.
Background: EU-NATO cooperation
EU-NATO cooperation focuses on issues of common interest. Relations between the two organisations were institutionalised in the early 2000s through the Berlin Plus agreement. A first EU-NATO declaration, signed at NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit, focused on cooperation in seven strategic areas (hybrid threats, operational cooperation (including maritime issues), cyber security, defence capabilities, industry and research, coordinated exercises and capacity building). As a follow-up, 74 measures were endorsed with a view to advancing EU-NATO cooperation: 42 in December 2016 and a further 32 in December 2017. A second EU-NATO joint declaration, signed in 2018, built on the objectives of the 2016 declaration. In addition, the parties committed to making swift progress in areas such as military mobility and counter-terrorism and promoting the women, peace and security agenda.
Progress on commitments in the areas of cooperation are assessed in annual progress reports, most recently in June 2022. Both the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept – a document that outlines the Alliance’s strategy, defence and deterrence posture and core tasks – and the 2022 EU Strategic Compass – a concrete plan of action for the EU’s security and defence until 2030 – underline the partnership’s importance. They also note that cooperation must be enhanced further on issues of common interest such as military mobility, emerging disruptive technologies, and hybrid and cyber threats.
However, challenges in cooperation remain, first and foremost owing to tensions between Turkey and Cyprus, but also arising from the comparatively weak European defence capabilities and budgets (though these are improving), which has led to fighting over ‘burden-sharing‘. While some argue that the European Allies are ‘freeloading shamelessly on the US’, others urge caution, arguing that ‘freeloading’ depends entirely on the indicators used. Another recent challenge has been Turkey’s opposition to Sweden’s NATO accession, citing inter alia Sweden’s ‘refusal’ to extradite people allegedly tied to Kurdish militant groups. Experts however argue that Turkey will likely eventually ratify Sweden’s accession.
Recently, Russia’s war on Ukraine, and Sweden and Finland‘s push to join NATO, have given the EU and NATO fresh impetus to build on their cooperation (once the two countries do join NATO, the organisations will have 23 members in common). Since the war began, the two organisations have sought to ensure that their responses to the invasion complement each other. For instance, NATO Allies have coordinated weapons deliveries with the EU. It is in this context that the third EU-NATO declaration was negotiated.
Third EU-NATO declaration
The intention to sign a third EU-NATO joint declaration was announced by the Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, in her 2021 State of the Union address, which stated that it would be presented before the end of 2021. The declaration was finally signed on 10 January 2023. While no reason was given for the delay, experts note that several issues may have contributed: Turkey-Cyprus tensions, difficult negotiations on the wording regarding the EU’s defence role, and similarly on the wording dealing with China. According to one analyst, the two sides spent 2022 privately criticising each other for blocking parts of the declaration.
At the press conference following the signing of the declaration, NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, noted that NATO and the EU ‘are determined to take the partnership … to the next level’. The declaration has 14 clauses, with rather little substance in terms of concrete deliverables and calls to action. Most clauses are observations or assessments of progress or statements of principles. The most important points are:
- common threats: the declaration underlines that both organisations are faced with threats, including ‘the gravest threat to Euro-Atlantic security in decades’: the Russian aggression against Ukraine, but also inter alia challenges stemming from authoritarian actors, persistent conflict, fragility and instability in the European common neighbourhood, and terrorist groups. These challenges ‘more than ever’ highlight the importance of the transatlantic bond, a sentiment reflected in the EU’s 2022 Strategic Compass and NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept;
- areas of cooperation: the declaration underlines that ‘unprecedented progress’ has been achieved in all areas of cooperation, though experts note that progress has been relatively slow. It describes ‘tangible results’ in countering cyber and hybrid threats, but also as regards operational cooperation, defence capabilities, defence industry and research, exercises, counter-terrorism and capacity-building of partners. It vows to deepen cooperation on existing issues and expand cooperation to tackle growing ‘geostrategic competition, resilience issues, protection of critical infrastructures, emerging and disruptive technologies, space, the security implications of climate change and foreign information manipulation and interference’. In a first sign of progress since the signing of the declaration, on 11 January 2023 NATO and the EU agreed to launch a taskforce on resilience and critical infrastructure protection;
- European defence: while NATO ‘remains the foundation of collective defence for its Allies’, the declaration acknowledges that a ‘stronger and more capable European defence’ is a positive contribution to transatlantic and global security and is interoperable with NATO. NATO had already stated as much in its 2022 Strategic Concept. This has however not always been the case, as the United States – widely considered the most important player in the Alliance – has traditionally been sceptical of European defence ambitions. The Biden administration has however repeatedly expressed support for European defence efforts. Some experts however deem the wording in the declaration as US scepticism of EU defence efforts;
- China: the declaration is the first to mention China, noting that ‘China’s growing assertiveness and policies present challenges that we need to address’. This formulation is neither a condemnation nor a specific call for action, but rather a cautious statement. Experts note, however, that it is markedly different from the Strategic Compass, which describes China as ‘a partner for cooperation, an economic competitor and a systemic rival’, and more similar to the US national security strategy, showcasing the US influence on the wording. To address these challenges, NATO and the EU are increasing their engagement with Indo-Pacific partners.
While some, such as the Lithuanian President, Gitanas Nauseda, have welcomed the declaration as ‘a highly important manifesto consolidating [NATO and the EU’s] strategic partnership’, which sends a strong message of transatlantic unity, others see its significance as mainly ‘symbolic’. Some experts have long argued that there should be a division of labour between the two organisations and that it is feasible. One opinion voiced is that, as NATO remains the cornerstone of collective defence, the EU should focus on resilience against non-military threats. Others argue that a division of labour ‘may seem rational … [but] it would not work’. However, this issue is not taken up at all in the declaration. In the US, some have called the declaration a ‘defeat for the American people’, arguing that the US should not continue to guarantee EU security and that the US taxpayer should stop subsidising EU defence. Others see the end of European strategic autonomy efforts in the declaration, arguing that faced with the worst security crisis since 1945, the EU and NATO ‘have agreed it’s probably safer to just rely on Uncle Sam’s F-35s… and nuclear capabilities’.
European Parliament position
Parliament’s resolution on the 2022 annual report on the implementation of the CSDP and its resolution on the 2022 annual report on the implementation of the CFSP, both adopted on 18 January 2023, stress the importance of enhancing the strategic partnership with NATO and welcome the third joint EU-NATO declaration. The former highlights the need for further steps to deepen the partnership based on what the Strategic Concept and Strategic Compass envisage, particularly in the areas of military mobility, dual-use infrastructure, resilience and joint exercises. In its resolution of 7 July 2021 on EU-NATO cooperation, Parliament recognised, among other things, NATO’s role as the cornerstone of collective security for those Member States that are also NATO members and highlighted the importance of EU-NATO cooperation.
Read this ‘at a glance’ on ‘The third joint EU-NATO declaration‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.