EU and NATO leaders aim to expand cooperation, despite dreams of ‘strategic autonomy’

EU leaders on Friday (26 February) debated efforts aimed at beefing up the bloc’s defence capabilities. The discussion comes as ambitions of the EU as a ‘geopolitical actor’ remain unheeded.

“We are committed to cooperating closely with NATO,” EU leaders stated in a joint summit declaration, reiterating their intention to strengthen the EU’s partnership with NATO and work closely with the new US President Joe Biden.

According to a senior EU official, EU and NATO leaders in the meeting reiterated that “EU-NATO cooperation is of strategic importance” on areas such as reinforcing capabilities, military mobility, cybersecurity and hybrid threats as well as challenges in the immediate neighbourhood.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg joined the video summit to lay emphasis on cooperation in the face of worries from some member states that the EU’s push could undermine the US-backed alliance as President Biden is looking to rebuild it.

“I’m totally convinced that the new Biden administration offers a unique opportunity to renew the strong alliance between Europe and the United States,” European Council President Charles Michel said ahead of the talks.

“A strong partnership requires strong partners – that’s why I’m convinced that a stronger EU is a stronger NATO,” he added.

“We share very much the same population, the same members and the same neighbourhood and the same challenges,” said Stoltenberg, speaking alongside Michell.

He added that this cooperation had already reached “an unprecedented level” in the past few years and could be expanded further in areas such as cyber threats, climate change and migration issues.

However, the conflict over Cyprus remains one of the main stumbling blocks towards closer cooperation between the two institutions.

EU leaders stressed that their aim is to reaffirm the goal of “increasing the EU’s capacity to act autonomously” in defence and that “in the face of increased global instability, the EU must take on more responsibility for its security.”

Debate has raged for decades over what role EU institutions should play on defence, while confusion remains what the word “strategic autonomy” actually means in practice.

Security and defence policies remain largely in the hands of member states, which have often been reluctant to agree on moves to integrate military capabilities at European level and transfer competencies in the policy field.

“Security and defence will be kept under regular review by the European Council,” EU leaders pointed out, what can be seen as a reaffirmation of their intention to keep capitals’ grip on the policy area.

France, in particular, has been the most vocal proponent of the bloc’s push for “strategic autonomy”, arguing that a resurgent Russia and China and former US President Donald Trump’s threats to withdraw security guarantees from Europe over defence spending show Europe has to be able to stand alone.

However, initial signals from Washington have already indicated that Biden’s government is also likely to make demands on the Europeans to make a greater contribution to their own security.

Senior EU officials admit the push for European autonomy has worried some in the bloc – especially Eastern European and Baltic states – who look towards NATO as a bulwark against a more aggressive Moscow.

“The capacity for the EU to act in a more autonomous way unnerves member states on the front line against Russia because they fear a disengagement from NATO,” one official said.

R&D and new threats

“We need to continue reinforcing European military capabilities, under the European Defence Union. Because the global technological race is on and I want Europe to lead,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters.

EU leaders said they want to focus on a ‘drive-by’ Europe to better protect itself from cyberattacks, and ask Brussels to come up with a roadmap on the development of strategic technologies.

Earlier this week, the European Commission announced a set of new projects as part of its ‘Action Plan on Synergies’ between the civil, defence and space industries, which aims to reinforce the competitiveness of EU industry in these areas.

The projects are focused on areas of defence that have the potential to become “game changers”: drone technologies, secure space communication, and space traffic management.

Strategic Compass

EU leaders also made an initial assessment of the bloc’s new work in progress – the Strategic Compass – which is meant to be adopted by March 2022.

This military strategy document, presented by EU defence ministers in June 2020, would be similar to NATO’s ‘Strategic Concept’ and is meant to define future threats, goals and ambitions in defence.

It is the latest step in accelerating efforts to deepen EU defence cooperation and could be the closest thing the bloc could have to a military doctrine in the future.

The joint communication also stressed that leaders want to implement a €5 billion European Peace Facility (EPF), allowing it to provide military equipment and assistance to partner countries.

But key questions remain on how projects like the EPF will be implemented, with one senior diplomat saying some countries refuse to go beyond training missions, which France has been strongly pushing for.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]


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