Exploring the Benefits of NATO-EU Cooperation: The Case of Estonia, Kosovo and Colombia
Abstract: Close cooperation between NATO and the EU is an essential pillar in developing a comprehensive international approach to defense and security, not exclusively of Europe or the Euro-Atlantic region, but also of global partners, be it in North Africa, the Asia-Pacific or Latin America. It offers a comprehensive approach to the protection, resilience and capacity-building of member countries and partner countries - encompassing both hard power and soft power, drawing from NATO's military capabilities and the EU's socioeconomic civilian toolbox. As both organizations' mandates adapt to the changing security environment, the benefits of strong cooperation successfully match the challenges posed by emerging threats. To look more closely into how NATO and the EU engage with and support sovereign states in a complementary fashion, we consider the examples of Estonia as a member country, Kosovo as a neighboring country and Colombia as a global partner.
Bottom-line-up-front: NATO and the EU, operating with large membership overlaps and coinciding goals, are natural partners in applying hard and soft power. This piece delves into the ever-growing transatlantic cooperation on defense and security, and overall bilateral engagement on capacity-building and development at a regional and global scale, as we leave the period marred by an uncooperative US administration. NATO-EU cooperation with two strong autonomous international players brews far more benefits than hitches for international security.
Problem statement: How to understand the mutual benefits of closer cooperation between NATO and the EU, taking into account shared values and overlapping interests but different primary means?
So what?: As more commonality between member countries is expected in the future, so will the mandates of NATO and the EU keep converging. The EU's once exclusively socioeconomic agenda will shift to reflect Member States' defense and security aims, and NATO's once traditionally military priorities shall encompass a political role in relations with partners and antagonists. NATO and the EU can and should play complementary and mutually-reinforcing roles in supporting international peace and security.
NATO-EU Cooperation as a Necessity
The current international security environment is complex and multi-layered. Emerging threats range from cyber to nuclear, and multilateral organizations' defense and deterrence toolboxes have adjusted accordingly. This adjustment includes deepened cooperation between NATO and the European Union to merge the former's civil-military might with the latter's socioeconomic leverage, as well as a bet from the EU to develop autonomous military capabilities. Both organizations have developed capacity-building strategies with different strengths and from different angles, yet they tackle similar geopolitical challenges and seek similar global security aims.
NATO and the EU, operating with large membership overlaps and coinciding goals, are natural partners in applying hard and soft power. This piece delves into the ever-growing transatlantic cooperation on defense and security matters, and overall bilateral engagement on capacity-building and development at a regional and global scale, as we leave the period marred by an uncooperative US administration. NATO-EU cooperation with two strong autonomous international players brews far more benefits than hitches for international security - to better exemplify their complementary actions we look into the cases of Estonia as a member country, Kosovo as a neighboring country and Colombia as a global partner.
NATO-EU relations are a topic of contention, with a level of commitment very much at the mercy of national leaderships on both sides of the Atlantic. Notwithstanding, the combined civil-military capacity available for missions, reforms, capacity-building, and resilience enables enhanced power.
NATO-EU relations are a topic of contention, with a level of commitment very much at the mercy of national leaderships on both sides of the Atlantic. Notwithstanding, the combined civil-military capacity available for missions, reforms, capacity-building, and resilience enables enhanced power - be that more power over common enemies such as Russia and China, better support of common fields of action such as the Western Balkans and the Middle East, or joint efforts towards promoting a human-rights based global order.
Evolving Cooperation: Benefits and Potential for the Future
2021 has seen the reemergence of NATO-EU relations from the challenging times of the Trump administration. US President Donald Trump often complained European allies, unlike the United States, do not meet the mutually-agreed 2% of GDP quota towards defense spending, which eventually led to his withdrawal of 12,000 troops from Germany (of which 6,400 were sent home and 5,600 repositioned to other EU countries). In other counter-multilateralism examples, the previous US administration withdrew the country and its funding from the World Health Organization during the Covid-19 pandemic, and left the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Faced with an uncooperative key ally, French President Macron urged the EU to build ''strategic autonomy'' on defense since a dependency on the US is no longer viable. Moreovoer, in July 2020 Josep Borrell, the EU's High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HRVP), lamented that ''Europe feels somewhat lonely, trying to hold the multilateral ring. For sure we know that we need partners.'' In a world of a neo-imperialistic Russia, an authoritarian China, mass migratory influxes across the Mediterranean and potential border redesigns in the Western Balkans, the need for strong NATO-EU cooperation to combat enemies and support allies was conspicuous by its absence.
The EU certainly faced the need to strengthen its capabilities to be more autonomous in the defense domain and prevent dependence on the US-led alliance. To assert its role in international security, the EU announced a new global strategy in 2016, which came in reaction to developments such as the 2014 Crimea annexation. Timing could not have been better, as it prepared the Union for the forthcoming Brexit referendum outcome and the temporary disruption to transatlantic cohesion once US President Obama left office in January 2017.The EU Global Strategy identifies five foreign policy priorities: Internal security, Resilience of East and South neighborhoods, an integrated approach to conflicts, cooperative regional orders, and global governance for the 21st century. It underlines that ''a more credible European defense is essential also for the sake of a healthy transatlantic partnership with the United States.'' The development of complementary European defense capabilities, in coherence with NATO efforts, is key. Joint capabilities ensure more burden-sharing and render the Euro-Atlantic area more powerful, bearing tools and influence from two distinct establishments to improve safety and progress. Sitting at the same table with similar strategic global aims, NATO and the EU bring complementary added value.
The EU Global Strategy identifies five foreign policy priorities: Internal security, Resilience of East and South neighborhoods, an integrated approach to conflicts, cooperative regional orders, and global governance for the 21st century.
To better contextualize NATO-EU cooperation presently, let us look into the history of inter-institutional relations, with a brief explanation of each organizations' mandates for a comparative perspective.
Founded in 1949, in the context of the Cold War, NATO is a civil-military alliance with crisis management, cooperative security and collective defense as core tasks, the last of which enshrined in the famed Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. It offers credible deterrence and defense for Allied territory. As part of the NATO2030 - Making A Strong Alliance Even Stronger initiative, leaders from the 30 Allied countries seek to keep NATO strong militarily while making it even stronger politically. Such blending of military and political strengths includes, for instance, seeking a more prominent role in mediating disputes and asserting climate change as an official security threat. The 2030 agenda was adopted at the recent Brussels Summit in June 2021, wherein ''Allied leaders agreed an ambitious NATO 2030 agenda to ensure the Alliance can face the challenges of today and tomorrow''.
The EU, on the other hand, was founded in 1957 from the ashes of a war-torn Europe. It is a civilian organization, rooted in economic, trade and political integration. Its comparative advantage lies in capacity-building through reforms and socioeconomic programming, yet it has come to build up its military capabilities progressively, too. The 2019-2024 von der Leyen mandate wants to helm a ''geopolitical Commission'' which elevates the EU's role as a relevant international actor and succeeds her predecessor's ''political Commission'' mandate. Aligned with this is the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) - which acknowledges NATO's lead in European territorial defense and adopts diplomatic or economic sanctions against policies violating human rights - and the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) - which foresees peacekeeping operations, conflict prevention and strengthening international security via defense diplomacy. Drawing on civilian and military assets and developing these capabilities is essential, for projecting hard power is just as important as adopting sanctions and diplomatically isolating antagonists. A promotion of military prowess by the EU affirms its capability in all aspects (traditional and sociopolitical) of state security.
Cooperation between the two multilateral organizations was affirmed in the 2003 Berlin Plus agreements, which enabled EU military operations to draw on NATO military assets and mutually share intelligence. Common challenges to the East and South of Europe led to an additional endorsement, in 2016, of 42 common measures to advance NATO-EU cooperation, including: countering hybrid threats (e.g. disinformation), ensuring complementarity of defense planning processes, capacity-defense building of partners, info-sharing on cybersecurity and terrorism, and enhancing maritime security (e.g. NATO Operation Sea Guardian and the EUNAVFOR Operations). For reference, the latest NATO-EU Cooperation annual progress report (June 2020) states that ''consultations continued on a regular basis in Brussels and on the ground as a useful way to exchange views and share information regarding the political and security situation in the three focus countries – Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Moldova, and Tunisia – as well as in other partners, such as Ukraine.'' NATO's civil-military and the EU's sociopolitical strengths have shown to better guarantee the broader security of the Euro-Atlantic community and its partners around the world.
The Biden-Harris administration revived strained relations between European nations and the United States. The new US President proclaimed in a February 2021 speech that ''America is back. (…) Alliances are our greatest asset, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners once again.'' The signal was well-received on the European side, with EU Council President Charles Michel underlining that ''We in Europe are ready - to do our part, to be a strong and reliable partner, not only to the US, but to all our partners, such as the UN and regional partners. We want to deepen security and defense cooperation among Member States, increase defense investment and enhance civilian and military capabilities and operational readiness.'' An EU boost to hard power capabilities would allow it to better act as a defense and security partner to the US, while still keeping its hegemony as civilian actor in the socio-economic or political realm. Ultimately, cooperation on capacity-building, peace operations, crisis management, and reforms benefits much more from having two strong international actors pledging to act side-by-side on global issues. Having both the EU and NATO as capable military global actors more so fuels their partnership as potent, rather than dooming it as duplicated.
''America is back. (…) Alliances are our greatest asset, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners once again.''
Nonetheless, the development of EU defense capabilities has led to questions on duplication, especially given the 21 member countries the organizations have in common. As the EU seeks to become a global military power and develop hard power capabilities, duplication risks could entail, for example, the creation of an EU army in parallel to national armies, the latter of which in turn comprises NATO forces and equipment. All EU Members are NATO allies except for Austria, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden, which are traditionally neutral or non-aligned on defense issues. In addition, EU candidate countries Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Turkey also partake in the transatlantic Alliance, and other exclusively-NATO allies (namely Canada, Iceland, Norway, UK, US) further participate in NATO-EU meetings.
Be that as it may, duplication fears did not come into fruition during the most recent crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, when NATO's Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Crisis Center (EADRCC) and the EU's European Response Crisis Center (ERCC) jointly coordinated an emergency response at the outset of the global pandemic. Precisely in order to avoid crisis management duplication during the unprecedented health crisis, information-sharing and situational awareness exchanges took place between the two operational centers to discuss international requests for assistance and planned relief or stockpile availability (e.g. the ERCC's rescEU stockpile). The outbreak was responded to because both the EU and NATO were able to deliver aid - for instance the EU secured the evacuation of medical teams (MEDEVAC) and NATO used its Rapid Air Mobility (RAM) initiative to deliver faster aid in Europe. Coordination was key for these achievements, and it certainly will continue to be in the future as Covid-19 and climate change have exacerbated humanitarian needs.
Much like their membership map has grown, so too have core NATO and EU mandates adjusted to security challenges and seen priorities increasingly overlap. The purpose remains similar for both: to project stability and strengthen security and defense in member countries, neighboring regions and global partners in view of a human rights-based order and democratic principles. As such, closer coordination is advised in order to draw from wider competencies, pool resources together and combine different leverages - this is not duplication, rather optimization and preparedness.
Close cooperation between NATO and the EU is an important pillar in developing a comprehensive international approach to defense and security, not exclusively of Europe or the Euro-Atlantic region, but also of global partners, be it in North Africa, the Asia-Pacific, or Latin America. It is a comprehensive approach to the protection, resilience and capacity-building of member countries and partner countries - encompassing hard power and soft power, drawing from NATO's military capabilities and the EU's socioeconomic toolbox. As both organizations' mandates adapt to the changing security environment, the benefits of strong cooperation match emerging threats and new security dynamics.
To look deeper into how NATO and the EU engage with and support sovereign states in a complementary fashion, we consider the examples of Estonia as a member country, Kosovo as a neighboring country and Colombia as a global partner.
NATO-EU Cooperation and Complementarity in Practice: Estonia, Kosovo and Colombia
When it comes to European security and defense, NATO and the EU have been dubbed as having ''separable but not separate capabilities.'' Common challenges to the East and South of Europe and common geopolitical interests in averting Russian influence have propelled more cooperation, as noted in the brief overview of NATO-EU cooperation's origins above. NATO and the EU engage in peace-building missions and programming efforts to support local capacities and long-term resilience of member and partner countries. They target either the defense or the economic and political sectors, depending on each organization's mandate: NATO, founded amid Cold War tensions, is a civil-military alliance with collective defense at its core. The European Union, born from the ashes of World War II, is a civilian organization rooted in economic, trade and political integration.
Common challenges to the East and South of Europe and common geopolitical interests in averting Russian influence have propelled more cooperation, as noted in the brief overview of NATO-EU cooperation's origins above. NATO and the EU engage in peace-building missions and programming efforts to support local capacities and long-term resilience of member and partner countries.
The EU Global Strategy declares that ''A solid transatlantic partnership through NATO and with the United States and Canada helps us strengthen resilience, address conflicts, and contribute to effective global governance.'' Such a comprehensive take on peace and security and a cooperative approach to international security is visible in the engagement NATO and the EU have taken up in Estonia, Kosovo and Colombia.
Estonia, previously part of the Soviet Union, acceded to NATO and the EU in 2004. Russia is the clear main threat to territorial security and political stability of the Baltic region, given the close geographic range and presence of Russian-speaking minorities. To the degree that, following Russia's military operations in Ukraine (Crimea and Donbass) in 2016, NATO deployed multinational battlegroups to protect and assure the security of Eastern European Allies. Moreover, most recently in April 2021, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia all expelled Russian diplomats from their posts over alleged spying concerns. The US-led NATO shield over Estonia's sovereign border with Russia is a deterrent and security guarantee for the country, emboldening Estonia to take this diplomatic step. Following President Macron's urges for EU ''strategic autonomy'' on defense in reaction to Trump's withdrawal threats, it was the Baltic states who most opposed the call. Presently, 1,100 NATO troops are stationed in Tapa, Estonia, equipped with battle tanks, artillery and armored vehicles. The Alliance's ambitions are naturally dictated by what the 30 Allies want, yet Baltic States fear a US disengagement from the region would render it more vulnerable to Russia, akin to Ukraine or the South Caucasus. NATO's Article 5 - which provides Collective Defense as an Alliance cornerstone and wherein an attack on one Ally is considered an attack on all - holds much power in Estonia, as in all three Baltic states.
However, what also holds much power is European Union membership and, along with it, granting citizens vast opportunities tied to the Schengen Area, the internal common market and the use of EU common funds for, exemplifying, road connectivity and digital or green transitions. Indeed, the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy does not compare to NATO's military equipment in the event of Russian military aggression, but its soft power holds its own with Moscow. Both are G7 members, and the European bloc is Russia's biggest trading partner. As such, pointing back to the aforementioned April 2021 diplomats' expulsion, what makes Estonia's decision to expel Russian diplomats a secure one is the combination of NATO defense and EU socioeconomic leverage. NATO presence in the region implements the collective defense umbrella by reassuring Baltic Allies, while EU-wide socioeconomic policies,structural funds and diplomatic standing assert the commonality of Member States from East to West and North to South. Both capacity-building and security-ensuring domains are a necessity for a nation-state's prosperity.
Shifting gears to a neighboring region, Kosovo is an EU potential candidate and a NATO Partnership for Peace aspiring partner. As a bordering country, Kosovo, and indeed the Western Balkans in general, are of strategic importance for the Western blocs. To prevent a power vacuum from being usurped by Russia or Turkey, the EU maintains strong political, social, economic, and trade ties with the country, and NATO preserves its military presence through Kosovo Force (KFOR), the peacekeeping force established in 1999.
Both NATO and the EU have engaged in consistent efforts to build peace and stability in the Western Balkans, notably between Kosovo and Serbia. Following NATO's 1999 air campaign over Kosovo to end the war with Serbia's Milosevic, NATO KFOR was established to ensure a safe and secure environment in the region. KFOR's mandate stands to this day, gradually transferring responsibilities to local authorities in view of Kosovar police and security structures' self-sufficiency. In a completely different, yet complementary, domain, the EU supports Kosovo's economic and political development through its Stabilization and Association Agreement, promoting structural reforms and eyeing visa liberalization. Moreover, the EU has facilitated negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia since 2013, with a Special Representative appointed since 2016. The dialogue, which NATO politically supports, seeks to normalize relations between the two countries, focusing on mutual recognition and eventual EU accession. The Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue seeks regional stability and good neighborly relations through enhanced trade, transport connectivity and political negotiations. In sharing external EU borders, Euro-Atlantic security depends on stability in the Western Balkans. NATO and the EU play fundamental roles, and, once more, both leverages are necessary as well as complimentary toward the same goal: regional stability clear of ethnic conflict in neighboring countries.
On a more global scale, Colombia is NATO's sole partner – and one of the EU's biggest partners – in Latin America. As threats become more global and the international security environment more complex, securing like-minded partners in different regions is key for better situational awareness and far-reaching strategies. Official partners since 2016, Colombia and NATO work together on global security challenges such as the fight against corruption, with Colombia providing demining training to NATO Allies and partner countries. The bilateral partnership was extended in January 2021, notably on demining and protecting civilians during armed conflicts.
When it comes to engagement with the European Union, Colombia is a key global partner. Bilateral relations are rooted in trade cooperation and, most significantly, commitment to the Peace Process via political and financial efforts, including the appointment of a Special Envoy and the launching of the EU Trust Fund for Colombia. The EU has been supporting peace-building in Colombia for 20 years by working with local actors to develop rural conflict-affected areas and reintegrate former combatants into society. Furthermore, Colombia is part of the EU-Colombia/Ecuador/Peru Trade Agreement, provisionally applied since 2013, benefitting SMEs and the agricultural sector in the post-conflict context. In the security sphere, cooperation focuses on fighting illicit drugs and organized crime, yet the EU's main presence remains one of political consultations, humanitarian assistance and joint efforts for sustainable development.
Benefits of closer NATO-EU cooperation are also visible when looking at Colombia's neighbor, Venezuela. As Nicolás Maduro follows his predecessor Hugo Chávez's authoritarian rule, EU efforts have failed to reestablish fundamental rights and democracy in the Latin American country. Even when, in 2018, emerging politician Juan Guaidó challenged Maduro's presidency and thereafter met North American and EU leaders as the recognized Venezuelan interim president, Maduro's grip on power did not falter. NATO presence in the country, borders or region, and potential use of military force to uphold fundamental rights would act as a better counter-balance to Maduro's unwavering control of the military. As Maduro's rule is unfazed by EU economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, NATO action towards the Venezuela crisis can be argued as a necessity to assure democratic aims and, NATO-EU cooperation would be an asset.
As Maduro's rule is unfazed by EU economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, NATO action towards the Venezuela crisis can be argued as a necessity to assure democratic aims and, NATO-EU cooperation would be an asset.
With links to the Asia-Pacific already established, NATO seeks to project stability and affirm alliances in Latin America to better bridge the Americas and the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in its sphere of influence. Similarly, it is in the EU's best interest to secure like-minded partners in strategic regions with global reach. Notably at a time when Russia and China seek more influence over the region, and countries such as Venezuela have gone down the authoritarian route.
The risk of duplication as claimed by some when it comes to the creation of an EU army or more general boost of EU military readiness and capabilities can be taken as joint efforts if we use another lens – that of two actors promoting a human rights-based order and democratic principles against authoritarianism or aggression threatening state security and citizens' quality of life. This piece argues that the way intergovernmental relations have evolved and the international security environment currently stands brews a necessity for the EU and NATO to cooperate. By building off each other's strengths - socioeconomic sanctions or peace negotiations have more leverage when the EU has NATO's civil-military might for air operations in its back pocket; much like EU bilateral political dialogues or push for reforms complement NATO's defense capacity-building programmes. And, finally, improved EU military capabilities put together with NATO's renowned operational ability can better deter antagonists, ensure preparedness and assert crisis readiness. The advantages are clear, whereas duplication cries are quite unsubstantiated, especially since the most recent Covid-19 global crisis benefited from dual and coordinated NATO-EU action.
The current international security environment is multi-layered and warrants a comprehensive take on peace and security as well as a cooperative approach to international security. A take on NATO-EU cooperation implies not only security and defense, but also other structural sectors to state-building such as the rule of law, sustainable development and domestic reforms. Soft and hard power are getting increasingly intertwined in the globalized world of multilateralism, with diplomacy going hand-in-hand with realpolitik. In a world of free movement and global commerce, multilateral organizations and political summits, Alliances are now more relevantly based on bilateral engagement between governments, economic and trade cooperation agreements, cultural programmes, and so forth. This promotes better results and more comprehensive impact, working side by side in crisis management, capability development and political consultations, as well as providing support to common partners around the globe. A new NATO-EU cooperation paradigm of closer coordination and complementary actions and regions is emerging from the more complex international security environment. The case of climate change impact as a threat, for instance, requires closer cooperation in order for governments to become more resilient towards security challenges posed by environmental change and to better meet green political agenda targets.
As more commonality between member countries is expected in the future, so will the mandates of NATO and the EU keep converging: the EU's once-exclusively socioeconomic agenda is now being built up to reflect Member States' defense and security aims, and NATO's once-traditionally military priorities now see a 2030 Agenda promoting a political role in relations with partners and antagonists.
NATO and the EU have an indisputable role in maintaining peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic region. Their cooperation benefits both sides in offering a much-needed partner in an increasingly harsh world for multilateralism. As more commonality between member countries is expected in the future, so will the mandates of NATO and the EU keep converging: the EU's once-exclusively socioeconomic agenda is now being built up to reflect Member States' defense and security aims, and NATO's once-traditionally military priorities now see a 2030 Agenda promoting a political role in relations with partners and antagonists. Should the EU indeed pursue a strengthening of its military capabilities, this will reinforce Euro-Atlantic security; duplication fears arguably dismiss the added value two strong global military actors can bring when working towards similar aims and against common enemies, using combined resources. The future of NATO-EU cooperation will be amplified should the EU's agenda take on more of a security focus, with deployed EU forces being able to match NATO's strategic action on the ground.
NATO and the EU can and should play complementary and mutually-reinforcing roles in supporting international peace and security.
Bárbara Matias is an international relations professional and policy researcher. She currently works in the European Commission, recently served as Officer in the NATO Operations Division, and was previously based in Kosovo working on EU enlargement. Bárbara was a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, where she completed an M.A. in Human Rights Studies and was invited to be an undergraduate lecturer. She speaks 6 languages and is a regular contributor to several think-tanks on foreign affairs, EU external action and transatlanticism. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of NATO or the European Commission.
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