NATO-EU: working to fill gaps in defence capabilities

  • 13 Aug. 2012 -
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  • Last updated: 13 Aug. 2012 12:08

NATO’s relations with the European Union go back twenty years: the 1992 Maastricht Treaty was the first EU treaty to mention NATO. Today, at a time of financial crisis and reductions in defence budgets, it is more important that ever for the two organizations to strengthen cooperation, spend more intelligently, and improve the complementarity of their defence capabilities in order to meet common security challenges.

Centre to right: Baroness Catherine Ashton (EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) walking towards the meeting room with NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen

At the Lisbon Summit in November 2010, Allies stressed their determination to strengthen the NATO-EU strategic partnership. NATO's new Strategic Concept states that "an active and effective European Union contributes to the overall security of the Euro-Atlantic area. Therefore, the EU is a unique and essential partner for NATO. "

Cooperation takes place in many places. In Kosovo, the NATO-led peacekeeping force works closely with the EU Rule of Law Mission to ensure security and stability in the region. In Afghanistan, an EU police mission works hand in hand with NATO's training mission. Off the Somali coast, NATO and EU counter-piracy forces are deployed side by side.

But cooperation goes beyond operations. It has grown significantly in the area of capability development, particularly via the close links between the secretariats of the two institutions.

The Alliance and the EU have 21 members in common. But all countries, be they a member of NATO or the EU, have only one set of military forces and capabilities; it is increasingly difficult for nations, at a time of financial crisis, to afford the latest military equipment.

For a few years now, the Alliance and the European Union have been concerned about gaps in the European countries' essential capabilities. The operation in Libya showed, in particular, that there were urgent needs in the areas of smart munitions, air-to-air refuelling, surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance.

By cooperating, pooling their resources, opting for multinational solutions and specializing, NATO and the EU improve their chances of acquiring the military capabilities they need for their operations.

“Smart defence” and “pooling and sharing”

NATO's smart defence initiative is a new approach which seeks to better align the collective requirements and national priorities of Member States. Instead of pursuing purely national solutions, Allies have decided that where it is efficient and cost-effective, they will seek out more multinational solutions, including for acquisition, training and logistic support.

For its part, the EU, via its European Defence Agency, has made good progress in its “pooling and sharing initiative”, particularly in the areas of tanker aircraft, modular field hospitals, training courses for helicopter pilots and maritime surveillance. Tanker aircraft are a particularly crucial capability. They are a costly investment, but they are essential in the long-distance deployment of forces as support to other aircraft.

NATO and EU staffs are closely coordinating this work to avoid overlaps between the “smart defence” and the “pooling and sharing” initiatives.

"The financial crisis is one more reason why we should strive for greater cooperation between the European Union and NATO. The benefit is clear. If we work together, then both our institutions can emerge stronger from these times of economic difficulty,” explained NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, addressing the chairmen of parliamentary committees on foreign affairs from across the EU in March 2012.

High Representative Catherine Ashton has also stressed the need for continuing cooperation in this area. "The EU relationship with NATO is essential. The breadth of EU instruments can be usefully combined with the depth of NATO's role on defence. The two organisations must continue to reinforce each other's work. The Libya crisis again showed the clear need for this,” she said at the annual conference of the European Defence Agency in January 2012. “On capabilities in particular, whether labelled Pooling & Sharing or Smart Defence, we have achieved an unprecedented level of cooperation.”

Strengthening cooperation: a priority

The Alliance and the EU are two of the most important institutions in the world with complementary skills and assets. While the NATO-EU partnership has yet to fulfil its strategic potential much progress has been made, over the past twenty years, in developing a framework for close cooperation.

From the beginning of his term of office – NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has made strengthening relations with the EU one of his priorities. He made specific proposals in this regard at the informal meeting of EU Defence Ministers in Palma de Mallorca in February 2010.

He has regular contacts with top EU interlocutors such as Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, and, in particular, Catherine Ashton, High Representative/Vice-President of the European Commission.