EU-NATO Cooperation in an Era of Great-Power Competition

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Luis Simón

Over the past two decades, discussions on EU-NATO relations have been closely associated with crisis-management operations and transnational threats. But that is yesterday’s world. The return of great-power competition is eliciting a shift in European security and transatlantic relations toward deterrence and defense. As such the conceptual framework that has so far underpinned debates on EU-NATO relations has been, by and large, rendered obsolete. 

 The return of great-power competition and growing uncertainty about the United States’commitment to Europe have led to renewed calls to turn the EU into an autonomous pole in global politics. Some even toy with the notion of European equidistance in a global context that is increasingly defined by Sino-American competition. At the same time, the EU’s need to give its global role a security and a transatlantic anchor underlines the potential of a more structured EU-NATO dialogue. 

Great-power competition also has important implications for capability development. A key challenge is to ensure that the EU’s new defense initiatives help reinforce NATO’s ongoing efforts in deterrence and defense. One way to do that would be to give the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy the authority to bring together the industrial and politico-strategic aspects of the union’s defense policy, and thus act as an effective bridge between the EU and NATO. 

The last three years have witnessed a steady flow of self-congratulatory remarks about unprecedented progress in the relationship between the European Union and NATO. Their joint statements in 2016 and 2018 provided a compass for greater cooperation between them. But it is important to put this in perspective and ensure that the relationship keeps apace with a rapidly changing— and worsening—geostrategic environment. Discussions on EU-NATO cooperation remain stuck on a 1990s wavelength, taking crisis management and transnational challenges as their key referents. As NATO leaders meet in London and the EU undergoes a leadership transition, they should revamp their dialogue around the increasingly important theme of great-power competition.