NATO and the EU have indeed 22 members in common, but they are different institutional entities in terms of goals and scope, with different organizational structures, historical origins, functions, and political cultures. The degree of cooperation between NATO and the EU remains one of the most interesting and difficult issues that affects the transatlantic alliance’s security policy. Indeed, the EU collaborates closely with NATO, but the two organizations have different visions regarding conducting warfare and the pooling and sharing of resources. Also, at a global level, the United States’ own internal economic problems, its involvement in the Middle East, as well as the pivot to Asia, coupled with the rise of China, all have had a profound strategic impact on the EU and the NATO.
Firstly, the EU is clearly more than an intergovernmental military organization (or for that matter just a purely economic cooperative framework…), while NATO serves this exact purpose as a revamped Cold War relic. Being strictly a military alliance, NATO can commit the United States and the rest of the Alliance to defend its members from threats under the Article 5 principle of collective defense – if one member is under armed attack the Alliance will consider this as an act of violence against all and will assist accordingly. The principle of collective defense is missing within the EU framework and leaves non-NATO EU member states exposed.
What the Treaty of Lisbon brought to the table was a strengthening of the solidarity between EU Member States with the introduction of a mutual defense clause and solidarity clause – they target more aid and assistance rather than collective defense. The EU needs to increase its collective defense capabilities to safeguard its strategic goals and member states. The EU has to be better prepared without constantly relying on NATO’s full involvement, especially in terms of conducting autonomous civilian-military operations and missions.
Secondly, the EU’s dependency on NATO’s military resources is more or less a reliance primarily on the transatlantic partnerships. The United States have made it particularly clear that the superpower is no longer willing to carry the burden of Europe’s defense. The EU member states must carry their own burden in terms of security and defense, but individually, they have failed to bring what they have promised to the table. This is mainly due to low defense budgets and uncompetitive defense industries.
However, NATO neither has in its mission statement nor possesses the institutional structures able to put forward a common European level defense integration so as to streamline EU Member States individually or collectively towards better security and defense. This being said, NATO is an organization that is primarily held together by national security interests and intergovernmental prerequisites, or better said, it is dominated by the national interest of one superpower, the United States. NATO is far too institutionally narrow to still represent a viable solution to economic and political cooperation in the fields of security and defense.
Thirdly, the Berlin-Plus agreements, under which the use of NATO assets and capabilities by the EU has been institutionalized, remain rather vague as regards the release, return, and control of NATO assets. They offer no guaranteed access for EU-led crisis management operations, NATO agreeing only to a form discretionary assured access. As well, the usability is conceived on an ad hoc basis and put into action only twice with the cases of Operation Concordia and EUFOR Althea in the Balkans. This is clearly a problem, especially because NATO has the right to first refusal on the launching of any missions under EU tutelage.
NATO has also reserved the right to recall its assets and capabilities in EU-led ongoing operations. To answer the question specifically, this makes the EU’s security and defense capacity highly dependent upon the NATO and hence on the United States. The aim of the EU is to become autonomous strategically and at a military operational level, especially if it wants to become a credible global actor and a reliable international security provider.
Lastly, the reason why the EU should develop the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) is because it will be finally able to conduct the full set and broad-spectrum of military operations. To achieve this level of integration, the delicate balance between the NATO and the EU must also be addressed by both sides. As NATO’s Anders Fogh Rasmussen has asserted, there cannot be a credible EU external engagement without the military means to back it up.
The issue to be considered is that for the EU’s normative influence in the international system to become credible and effective it needs to be also backed by raw military power and security and defense capabilities. The aim of the EU’s European Defense Agency is exactly to collectively streamline financially and militarily the EU Member States so as to respond to the EU’s capabilities-expectations gap. An agenda to generate new capabilities through greater integration on a supranational level and the hybridization of civilian-military R&D could be one way to go.