NATO-EU Cooperation: Transatlantic Perspectives on Regional Security Issues

By: Ozan Beran Akturan, Jordi Vasquez, Noah McLean, Aurore Tigerschiold, and Forrest Alonso Haydon


Born in critical times, developed over decades, and having weathered divisive conflicts, both NATO and the EU will soon enter a period of political uncertainty in terms of their cooperation. This article provides insight into the longevity and feasibility of cooperation initiatives by the EU and NATO by surveying both the bureaucratic and the strategic challenges faced.

The inception of the European Union (EU) during the post Second World War era is perhaps the true starting point for analysing how transatlantic security cooperation adapted a self-sustaining and mutually reconcilable rationale. Winston Churchill’s call for supranational European solidarity — a call for a “United States of Europe” — in his 1946 Zurich speech was not only necessitated by strategic US forebodings during the prelude to the Cold War, but also by a maturing understanding of the requirements of international security on both sides of the Atlantic.

With this call for unity in mind, European Coal and Steel Community was conceived to  foster economic interdependence among its members. From there on it surpasses its original purpose in becoming a safeguard of common European values. The American counterpart, NATO, was formed on the foundational principle of collective defence and deterrence, and emerged as a military alliance with abundant economic and political interests. Historically, NATO has prioritised the military and security while the EU aimed for economic and developmental progress.

However, similar to the EU, NATO is an organization with an ever increasing dedication to a common set of values, through which is seeks to ensure stabilization and peace. Although NATO operates on more militaristic grounds than the EU, the alliance has overhauled its solely military focus to envision a wider appreciation of values, including transparency and accountability as well as women, science and environment for peace and security.

NATO and EU’s positions -what they want-  and interests -why they want- have not always overlapped. For instance, NATO actions had been in parallel to maintaining American unipolarity in the global order contrasted with EU prioritizing the multiscale cooperation with its neighbors and other world powers, including China, Russia and India. Exemplified by disapproving European position of American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, NATO’s non-regional interventions is advised to be exceptions rather than a rule by EU Institute for Security Studies.

Yet, should NATO be stored away for only urgent threats that directly endanger member states’ security? When does collective defense necessitate collective intervention? Balkans, during Yugoslavia’s dissolution, provided important insights into this debate. Opposed to insufficient and reluctant European interest in the region throughout the bloody decade of 1990, NATO’s military stabilization actions in Balkans were at least instrumental in giving the region pending global attention it deserved. In fact, what needed to be realized was perhaps the late-fulfilled responsibility of EU and NATO to act together in matters of security and order. Thus, during the first decade of the 21st century, joint EU-NATO member states saw the inevitable convergence of these two organisations under common security agendas, whether it is in post-Yugoslav Balkans or more recently in Africa.

However, the difference in how commitment to respective sets of values is executed in NATO and EU results with a wide portfolio of cooperational problems, ranging from bureaucratic to strategic, despite their intention to work together. Could there be comprehensive and mutually respectful cooperation between the two organizations on security issues?  Would this cooperation be wearproof given the bilateral conflicts brought up by non-joint members, such as in the Cyprus dilemma? This article surveys how bilateral and regional conflicts challenge the international resolve for transatlantic security cooperation, in which NATO and EU share common milito-political interest.

The European Common Security and Defense Policy:

Boon or Bane

The Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), known before 2009’s Lisbon Treaty as the European Security and Defence Policy, represented the apex of security cooperation among European Union member states and the EU’s undertaking of a heavier defence role along with NATO.

The CSDP seeks to exercise European military independence from NATO within five areas: the self-assured security of the EU, a closer relationship between eastern and western Europe, structural improvement in European conflict management, cooperation between neighboring regions, and pioneering global governance of conflicts. To implement these priorities into pre-existing European structural mechanisms, the EU’s civilian-military status has undergone an updating process. For instance, the European External Action Service (EEAS) was created through the Lisbon Treaty, signed in 2007, which made the EU constitutional laws legally binding and further centralized the Union. The Lisbon Treaty also sought to address the independent methods in which the EU member states were answering international crises.

When EEAS was launched in December 2010 as an EU department with the express function of consolidating EU responses to international security issues as an autonomous unit, it actualized CSDP’s vision for a new European crisis management strategy which technically compelled member states to cooperate in situations of security threats, in or out of the EU. Initiatives similar to EAAS make clear what the EU lacks has not been the incentive to incorporate an international security dimension to its agenda, but the technical practicality to implement decisions to that end in a unified manner.

Although common goals had been set for NATO-EU cooperation through the Berlin Plus Agreements in 2003 before CSDP, creation of a unified transatlantic defence and security policy between the two entities has encountered ample executive difficulties. For instance, Cyprus – an EU but not NATO member- was excluded from joint EU-NATO meetings by Turkey – a NATO but not EU member- due to the decades long political antagonism over the Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974. Even this seemingly inconsequential bilateral problem was enough to paralyze the NATO-EU cooperation, making some organizational details of Berlin Plus Agreement impossible.

Berlin Agreement’s decision to create a merged NATO-EU headquarters in Brussels to manage conflicts in which both the EU and NATO have common interests has not helped reduce the fracture between American and European politics. For instance, when France and Germany coordinated a joint gathering with Belgium and Luxembourg to protest the British-American invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, NATO and then American government denounced it as “Chocolate Summit,” betraying the spirit of cooperation aimed by CSDP.

Joint NATO-EU missions for stabilization in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2004, in Dafur, Sudan, as an assistance to African Union or in Somali to combat piracy are, however, some successful products of Berlin Plus Agreements. These joint undertakings are cases in which not all the EU or NATO members were interested in intervention, but they were made possible by sharing of military expertise and assets from either of the parties, mostly by NATO. However, post-colonial Africa and Western Balkans are regions over which NATO and EU do not have strong strategic disagreements. Despite Berlin Plus, EU has been critical of NATO’s call for joint missions in Afghanistan for instance and only supported the civilian projects of current Resolute Support Mission of NATO.

Bilateral hurdles in front of NATO-EU cooperation such as Cyprus Dispute are hence not the actual root causes hindering the constructive attitude of Berlin Plus. As Europe’s disapproval of Iraqi invasion or reluctance of cooperation in Afghanistan demonstrates, the CSDP cannot overcome the strategic divergence of NATO and EU in issues of incompatible political interests. Ideological divergence of the two partners should be reconciled before the region specific problems are addressed by calls for joint military actions.  

The new and more NATO-conscious level of ambition for CSDP thus required European member states to invest more in security and defence, both politically and economic. Perhaps an important undertaking was revisiting  Berlin Plus Agreement’s comfort in EU utilizing NATO asset and capabilities when necessary, instead initiating more EU-focused solutions like EAAS.

With the attenuation of this cooperative ethos in both sides, there is a present risk that NATO and the EU will begin to compete for limited military resources, straying from the envisioned Berlin Plus Agreement. Lack of a coherent strategy among Western partners could prevent efficient response to crises, which does not bode well in a time of humanitarian atrocities — whether it be in Syria, Yemen, or South Sudan.

The Middle East:

Lessons for Europe

Humanitarian and political crises in the Middle East have increasingly significant ramifications on the security of EU member states. Instability in the Middle East causes influxes of refugees to flee to Europe, resultantly galvanizing European far-right’s xenophobic movements. In turn, such movements further encourage retaliatory militant Islamist attacks in European capitals. Although security threats of Middle Eastern crises to European solidarity — and especially those of Syrian Civil War — appear conspicuous, western influence in the region is primarily pioneered by the United States and NATO, not the EU.

Since the French, German, and British each addressed the Syrian crisis on individual basis, failing to propose a cohesive EU strategy, the primary western influence over the region was that of the United States. Such circumstances suggest that the EU should increase its direct involvement in Middle Eastern affairs in a unified manner, guaranteeing own multidimensional security. This, however, leads to an important question: how can the EU intervene in international crises as a coordinated political unit? As the former EU ambassador to Syria, Marc Pierini, points out, the Syrian Civil War serves as a litmus test for this unified-involvement, a lens to view European cooperation efforts towards addressing international terrorist threats.

On August 18th 2011, the EU officially denounced Bashar al-Assad, yet did not intervene in the Syrian conflict.  By the beginning of the conflict, the EU’s position was clear, but member states disagreed over what actions, if any, to take. The absence of a unified and systematic EU strategy — as well as the diversity of interests — in Middle East has led European countries to independently seek other channels to combat terrorism in Syria, such as cooperation with NATO or the United States. Clear instances include the divergent approaches of France, Germany, and Britain.

Despite positive momenta of the EEAS and the Lisbon Treaty as discussed before, powerful states have continued to act separately from the EU in handling regional disputes, especially in Syria. And although EEAS was unanimously approved by the EU, international European cooperation in the Middle East seems virtually non-existent up to today.

Uncompromisable national interests and bilateral disagreements over the proper methods of involvement, militarily or humanitarian, in combination with the absence of organizationally binding stipulation for European collaboration in times of immediate conflict in neighboring regions, stagnate all constructive morale for unity. These major roadblocks became apparent when the Syrian Civil War began to garner international attention, and the EU’s response was defined by a combination of British, French, and German actions rather than a joint European undertaking.

Although France was unsure of how to best intervene in the Syrian conflict until the 2015 Paris terrorist attack, it became a critic of Assad’s regime very early on in the conflict. The Paris attack, which Hollande described as “an act of war,” amplified the latent tension present even before the Charlie Hebdo incident. As a result, France expanded its Middle Eastern air campaign into Syria and began to directly assault ISIS strongholds. As a result of the aforementioned traumas, French citizens drove the government to pursue a more aggressive campaign than other involved countries, like Russia and the US.

Overall, discrete French action steadily transformed from little-to-no military involvement to a full-scale campaign specifically targeting ISIS and gradually marking France as one of the most active and influential countries in the Syrian conflict.

Similar to the French account, the United Kingdom varied in its approaches to Syrian military intervention. While the parliament voted not to send military assistance in 2013, it decisively reversed its decision in late 2015, joining France shortly after the Paris attacks. Before the 2015 vote, however, the UK already trained rebels and provided non-lethal weaponry, establishing themselves as an independent force in Syria. The UK’s vote to leave the EU in addition to this unclear position on the Syrian conflict is unsettling to the UK’s international partners, perhaps even inclusive of NATO — When the Brexit dust finally settles, we are likely to see a less effective EU and UK with more divergent intervention policies.

Germany’s approach was much more cautious and calculated than that of France and the UK, who focused on the issues of Syrian crisis in a much more humanitarian fashion. Germany attempted to gather support for diplomatic talks on all sides from the US, Russia, and smaller EU member states. While steering clear of controversy (with the exception of the sarin gas attack in 2013) Germany became the driving force for refugee support and civilian aid.

Germany also assumed the role of the main European negotiator of the ‘Refugee Deal’ with Turkey. This diplomatic timidness was unique to Germany, as France and the UK both considered and chose to use military options. It was one of very few countries in the EU to complete the migrant quota and a clear contrast to nations such as Hungary that staunchly refuse to take in refugees. German refusal to consider military intervention in Syria in addition to other EU countries’ refusal to abide by EU migrant quotas unequivocally illustrates the growing schism in the EU that materialized in disorganized response to the crisis.

The United States, on the other hand, entered the fray of the conflict with the goal of maintaining a powerful political and military presence throughout the Middle East, as well as combating the rising power of ISIS. And although Russia holds very similar counter-terrorist goals to the US, its pursuit of the resurrection of Assad in Syria is suggestive of a search for a stable ally in the region. Such a counter-terrorist rhetoric alliance of combating ISIS and other extremist threats led the US and Russia to coordinate actions for preventing clashes of own forces through creating the so-called “no-go zones”. This increased coordination may not only have a positive effect on the US-Russian relations, but also impair EU’s already weakening political influence.

However, the thawing of US-Russian relations is almost certainly temporary, as the interests of each country beyond counter-terrorism are diametrically opposed: the US strives for a malleable democracy while Russia desires Assad to remain in power as to project its influence into the region.

Other states with interests in the Middle East, such as Turkey, provide ample examples to evaluate the contributors to the EU’s divided response to Syria and the shortcomings of aligning with the US or NATO. Unlike the EU, Turkey has a pivotal position with regards to political, strategic, and humanitarian aspects of the conflict thanks to its NATO membership and strong political ties to the region.

The humanitarian capacity of Turkey in conjunction with German civilian initiatives over the region, such as the notorious Refugee Deal, is substantial. Although the majority of refugees are being accepted by Germany or Sweden, rise of xenophobia and nationalism in Europe inhibits the EU’s ability to provide long-term humanitarian relief to Middle Eastern war victims, making them reliant on a rather capricious partner that is Turkey.  

In the context of NATO, Turkey’s military is the fourth largest in the pact; It is geopolitically essential in providing NATO access to the Middle East, as well as blocking major Russian troop movements into the region. As a non-disposable member of NATO, Turkey is in the perfect position to provide substantial contribution to the mitigation of the conflict.

Turkish forces have assisted in US airstrikes and provided arms to Syrian rebels. However, Turkey has also continued to fight against Kurds in the area, an ethnic minority combating ISIS and Assad in their fight for increased autonomy in Rojava, northern Syria. Turkey’s vehement opposition to Syrian Kurdish fighters not to embolden already insurgent Iraqi and Turkish Kurds resulted with Turkey formally protesting Syrian peace talks unless NATO and EU acknowledged the illegitimacy of the Kurdish claims over the region.

While Turkey will continue to intervene on behalf of NATO and Western, but not necessarily of European, interests in the Syrian conflict, it will also likely maintain tenuous ties to Sunni militants, including ISIS, and anti-Kurdish groups, complicating its bilateral relationship with the USA. However, Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian crisis, as well as shooting down the Russian jet that violated Turkish airspace, affirms country’s general alignment with the NATO interests despite its Kurdish hardline.

Turkey’s geographical proximity to the conflict and a powerful military allow it to shelter approximately 3.3 million Syrian refugees, compensating for Europe’s failure to do so. The reports of Turkish officials being directly involved with ISIS jihadists and Erdogan’s undemocratic response to the recent failed coup (which resulted in mass imprisonment of country’s journalists, Kurdish activists, and liberal politicians), coupled with a transition of the Turkish political system from a parliamentary to a presidential one, make an EU-Turkish coordination very difficult.

Nevertheless, the Refugee Deal has been Turkey’s primary political leverage in keeping up the accession talks with the EU until Angela Merkel openly called to stop membership negotiations for the first time in September before German elections. This decisions will significantly harm Turkey-EU relations, as well as possibly jeopardize the refugee deal that EU and Turkey currently hold.  However, the assistance of Turkey in the Syrian conflict will continue to be invaluable due to its strategic location, resources, and ties to NATO. Therefore, the EU and NATO must come to terms with the various costs of Turkish involvement, including anti-Kurdish actions and even possibly its militant support for Sunni-rebels.

Western Balkans:

Recalibrating the EU and NATO Agendas

The numerous issues, including that of political isolation, facing the Western Balkans are made more difficult by the complicated history of the region. The violent dissolution of Yugoslavia was perhaps the principal catalyser of decades-long interethnic disputes in the region, leaving numerous minority groups divided among ambiguous borders, some of which are still debated today.

After the dissolution, the newly independent nations, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia experienced culturally polarizing tensions, mainly due to ethno demographic disputes, fluctuating economies, wide-spread corruption and the lack of long-term European engagement in the region.

When Europe shaped itself into a consortium of states shortly after World War II, it left late-runners such as Western Balkan nations with little opportunity to enter into the EU partly due to their late formation. Geographic separation of the Balkans and the potential for conflict between the nascent nations discouraged EU to risk any social, economic or political change in the region, leaving these emerging states completely out of the equation.

The European vacuum in the region was filled by NATO, which first engaged in the region in 1992 during the early stages of the Bosnian War. It approved specific peacekeeping missions on a case-by-case basis, lending assets and expertise to the field. In February of 1994, NATO shot down four warplanes that violated the no fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina, starting its deep relations with the region.

Despite the fact that Western Balkans has historically been a NATO playground rather than a European one, as noted by Montenegro becoming NATO’s newest member as of 2017, organization’s strong military presence in the region continuously struggled to change the political, economic and military landscape, incentivizing the search for more EU focused solutions.

For the Western Balkans, the EU can serve as an important aide in a number ways: providing a platform for broader political involvement, incentives for regional unity in a historically conflicted region, tools for human development, methods of financial expansion, and increased military security.

Though joining EU or NATO and having a seat on international platforms could easily help end these countries’ political isolation, such membership prospects are practically out of reach for most of the countries as far as the EU’s zero-problem-with-neighbors enlargement policy is considered. Conflicts such as the Bosnian and Kosovo Wars as well as the insurgency in Macedonia have been large factors for the EU to turn a blind-eye, wanting only member states at peace with neighboring nations.

Kosovan independence from Serbia in 2008, which Serbia still does not recognize, for instance, has had perhaps the severest impact to future European unity and solidarity in the region. Although initiating its Stabilisation and Association Process with the EU in 2007 and complying with the Hague’s war crime procedures, Serbia not recognizing independence of Kosovo would render any potential talks between the Union and Kosovo impossible if it becomes a member state, which would jeopardize already strained Balkan solidarity.  

In addition, relatively slow progress in other multi-dimensional EU accession agendas, such as the lack of enduring financial and human rights reforms, temporize any European involvement in the region. Technicality issues, such as the unanimity in EU decision making, makes it rather impossible for new nations to join if they are out of favor with current members. Such has been the case with Greek and Cypriot stance against Turkish membership and as also demonstrated by Greece’s name disputes with Macedonia.

Yet, despite all the obstacles, the EU has been working with the region to move nations in the direction of potential membership. EU launched a framework, the Stabilisation and Association Process, in the late 1990’s to put West Balkan nations unto the EU accession path. The main goal of this initiative was to promote peace, stability and economic development among conflicted countries in the Western Balkans. In July of 2013, Croatia was the first of the western Balkan nations to join the EU. Meanwhile Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia all remained as to be aspirant countries.

Joining NATO, on the other hand, is a highly attractive prospect for many Western Balkan countries, but does come with some drawbacks. The main attraction is enhanced domestic security, both in finance and defense, in light of growing Russian sphere of influence in the region. Economic and financial stability coming with NATO’s collective defense entails sustainable access to markets and enhanced trade relationships with other NATO members. With such growth, the potential of foreign investments in the region increases, helping fuel financial stability for the West Balkans.

However, there are also economic drawbacks to a NATO membership. The expectation for member countries to contribute 2% of national GDP on defense could be the most difficult one to fulfil for the Balkan states. That, coupled with Trump administration’s new NATO rhetoric of disallowing economically unready countries into NATO, makes for a substantial challenge in accession.

Contrasted with NATO, joining the EU would trigger more immediate economic expansion by allowing members to be part of European Economic Area which comes with free movement within the European Single Market. This can help end some of the economic causes of the political isolation of Balkan countries that do not have an “economic edge” compared to other EU members, most likely bringing economic development in long-term.

Along with the economic pull and push factors, other cultural elements such as anti-NATO sentiments in countries like Serbia (due to traumatic history of NATO bombings) pose an additional challenge to EU accession. Even within the newest member state of NATO, Montenegro, until recently only a third of the public was in favor of joining. High political leverage of Russian soft power in the region thus deserves a critical risk analysis as an undeniable political reality, marginalizing the Balkan domestic politics.

Russia attempts to sway the political future of the West Balkans through anti-western and anti-NATO sentiments by reminding the Balkan people of offenses like the bombing of Serbia in 1999, which occurred without the approval of the UN Security Council. Although their influence in recent years has been waning after slowly drawing away from trade partnerships with the region’s countries, Russian soft-power still mostly manifests itself in media influence and activism of radicalist groups. However, the Russian hybrid threat that exists to countries like Ukraine does not apply to the Western Balkans at a concerning scale, a possible European excuse for its belated interest in Balkans.    

Serbia’s resultant pro-Russian attitude and Albanian unrest in Macedonia and Kosovo are obvious barriers in front of a European collectivism over Balkans, also a looming threat to greater European security.  “Speeding up the accession process is a guarantee of security where an unstable and tension-riddled Western Balkans is a serious risk to all of Europe”. As stressed by Hungary’s Foreign Minister, Szijjarto, during a news conference with several other European officials, European enlargement into Balkans is an important security-boost, but still mostly an unrealized political priority despite its apparent gravity.

Overall, the West Balkan nations are emerging states, trying to step away from the isolation that has enshrouded the region for so long. With support from NATO and the EU, they have the potential to become important members of the European and international community. It is unlikely that all even if most Balkan nations in the near future will be able to join the EU and NATO, although the membership of Albania and Montenegro in NATO allows us to think that there is much potential.

The circular issue resides in the bilateral conflicts among different Balkan nations. Since if the Balkan states were members of the EU and NATO they would receive much help in solving these disputes, but the EU and NATO are unlikely to accept neighboring states engaged in conflict among each other.

In addition, the EU and NATO are focused on cooperation between their respective organizations and the West Balkan nations, ignoring the historical disputes they’ve had in the past, such as the EU’s disinterest in these nations until recently and NATO’s heavy military presence in the region. All these factors paint a difficult picture in determining where the West Balkans will move in the near future. What appears clear from this political limbo is the belated need of strategic recalibration over Balkans for the sake of transatlantic security, both by NATO and EU.