NATO-EU Co-operation in operations:Challenges and opportunities

Posted in NATO | 11-Oct-07 | Author: Leo Michel

Leo Michel is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies.

Speech given by Leo Michel at the conference of NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland

I would like to congratulate Congressman Shimkus and those who assisted in the drafting of this very comprehensive and timely sub-committee report.

I would like to:

  • add some additional background and emphasis to points contained in the report;
  • share some thinking on potential positive developments affecting NATO-EU relations; and
  • add just a few recommendations of my own.

First, a little background: Seven years ago this month, when I was Director for NATO Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, I drafted an important speech for then Secretary of Defense William Cohen at the NATO Informal Defense Ministerial in Birmingham.

You might find this hard to believe, but Pentagon officials at the time were not so enamored with the rather chilly response of then Secretary of State Albright to the birth of a European Security and Defense Policy in 1998-99.

Those officials reasoned as follows: If the EU could mobilize European efforts to improve military capabilities that also would be available to the Alliance, why not give it a chance?

Hence, Secretary Cohen told his counterparts at Birmingham:

(W)e must develop a clearer and, to be blunt, a more positive vision of the future NATO-EU relationship. For my part, I am convinced that a close, coherent, cooperative, and transparent relationship will prove to be in the best interest of Allies and EU members, both current and future, and further our overarching vision for the entire Euro-Atlantic community in all its political, economic, social, and security dimensions.

He continued:

(W)e (also) must ensure that the Alliance and the EU have the necessary military capabilities to perform their respective missions. This means that both organizations must: take a hard look at what they really need in terms of military capabilities, based upon an objective assessment of current and likely future threats; identify those areas where their capabilities fall short; agree together on how to rectify those shortfalls; and find the resources for the task.

Today, seven years later, I think that long-term vision is still valid.

But it is also worth recalling that most American, Canadian, and European defense and military planners at the time did not foresee the extent and complexity of NATO and EU operational commitments that we face today.

Nor did they envision how an operation begun under NATO auspices might transition to EU leadership, or how the two organizations might cooperate within an ongoing stabilization operation involving many thousands of military and non-military personnel, including international actors from the UN and non-government organizations.

This operational focus forces—or should force--both NATO and the EU to worry less about statements of principle and what they do separately and think harder about what they could and should do together.

Failure to do so will have real and serious consequences.

Take, for example, Afghanistan.

More than half of the approximately 37,000 troops in ISAF are European, and most of those are members of NATO and the EU.

There is broad agreement that building the capabilities of the Afghan police is one of the critical components to waging the counterinsurgency effort, extending effective governance throughout the country and, over time, reducing the requirement for NATO military forces.

It is my understanding, however, that while the U.S.-led training and equipping coalition, the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, known as CSTC-A, can provide about 1,000 police trainers, only about half of some 195 police trainers authorized by the EU for this ESDP mission, known as EUPOL, are currently deployed.

Moreover, most of the EUPOL presence is still in Kabul—not in the Provincial Reconstruction Teams or embedded in the Afghan National Police where they are most needed.

And while it is good news that the CTSC-A commander and EUPOL commander are cooperating informally--and that a recently created International Police Cooperation Board should improve coordination among the various international community actors working with the Afghan National Police—the lack of a formal NATO-EU agreement hampers the police training effort.

Security and logistics arrangements between NATO and EUPOL are too important to be left indefinitely to ad hoc solutions..

Still, while the EUPOL effort is a hopeful first step, much more clearly needs to be done in this area, as evidenced by the fact that a significant share of the additional U.S. brigade slated to deploy to Afghanistan over the next year reportedly will be embedded as trainers for the Afghan police.

In Kosovo, NATO and EU technical teams have been working productively on cooperation modalities between the 16,000-strong KFOR and the projected ESDP mission of some 2,000 international police, judges, prosecutors and customs officials, once a final status settlement is in place.

Beyond the scale of the endeavor, NATO-EU cooperation in Kosovo could be precedent-setting in another way, as the United States has pledged some 100 civilian participants to the planned ESDP mission.

Still, the two organizations lack the high-level political dialogue and agreements needed to ensure this “joint venture” in Kosovo--where they and many of their member states have invested so much political, financial and economic capital—can maintain stability and security whatever the outcome of the troika talks or subsequent decisions regarding Kosovo’s status.

In my view, the stakes for most Allies and EU members alike are too high to assume that NATO and the EU can “muddle through” on the ground if their political bosses in Brussels and their respective capitals cannot break the deadlock among the very small number of governments who are blocking those agreements.

And forgive me for stating three obvious points:

  • First, neither organization can afford to fail, or afford to see the other fail, in either of those operations.
  • Second, it’s not just the organizations that would pay the costs of failure, but it’s their member states and personnel on the ground—the German, Dutch, French, Romanian or other Allied soldier who may face a higher risk in ISAF or KFOR because that EU police trainer or legal expert or whatever could not be effectively employed to improve the indigenous security forces.
  • And the administrations and populations we are trying to help in Afghanistan and Kosovo, along with the UN, would lose confidence in us.

In my view, Afghanistan and Kosovo are, or could be, models for future NATO-EU cooperation in operations, as they bring together a range of military-led and civilian-led stabilization capabilities that hopefully could be complemented by those of other international actors, such as the UN and NGOs.

This would be a different type of collaboration than that foreseen under the Berlin Plus arrangements, which are essentially oriented to NATO-EU cooperation in the military domain.

That said, and while Americans might have different views on this point, I am not among those who contest the EU’s efforts to develop the capability to act alone—that is, without recourse to Berlin Plus—to mount and conduct a military operation.

Moreover, I am not convinced that arguments over whether NATO has or should have a “right of first refusal” are necessary or productive. “A determination to coordinate NATO and EU military operations on the basis of strategic rather than bureaucratic considerations” will be needed1

But I would like to add a few observations.

First, the stress of ongoing operations—particularly when combined with relatively low defense investment in a number of European countries—is having a serious impact on the NATO Response Force and EU Battlegroups.

  • As I understand it, the next rotations of the NRF might reach only around 60 percent of the Combined Joint Statement of Requirements, with significant shortages in strategic lift, helicopters, and combat service support.
  • Moreover, NATO funding practices continue to create disincentives for nations to contribute to the NRF or agree to its use.
  • The EU Battlegroups appear to face similar capability shortfalls, but since they are smaller and less capable formations to begin with, this raises questions whether they can actually perform the quick response function for which they were conceived.
  • Moreover, several of the Battlegroups rely on framework and participating nations with little or no operational experience in Africa—the area of operation where many believe the Battlegroups should be ready to deploy.
  • Given these situations, it is ironic to hear some in the EU suggest a “use it or lose it” approach to the Battlegroups when they have argued against that approach within NATO.
  • But my broader point is this: Given the increasingly apparent strains on the European “pool of forces”, NATO-EU cooperation—between the NRF and Battlegroups, of course, but also at all levels of capability development and training—must go far beyond deconflicting schedules.
  • If U.S. and European forces—specifically, those capable of deployment and conducting stabilization missions in harsh environments—are overstretched, there will be competition among missions.
  • If we have more helicopters than needed in Kosovo, but not enough in Afghanistan, our forces will suffer more casualties. Both organizations need to agree on collective ways to meet collective responsibilities that they have decided to undertake.
  • It needs to be aimed at maximizing capabilities available to either organization, because – as NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer put it in a keynote speech last January, “it is becoming increasingly clear that NATO and the EU have specific capabilities that can ultimately promote positive change in crisis regions but only by working together.”2

My second observation has to do with transparency in planning and conducting EU “autonomous” military operations.

  • To date, the EU has worked hard to ensure that such operations have a clearly defined UN mandate, a relatively low level of risk, and a short timeline.
  • It is preparing to undertake in Chad what could be its most challenging operation to date, which might explain some of the apparent difficulties—at least, so far--in assembling the EU force of some 3-4,000 personnel.
  • As the U.S. military and others have learned, operational surprises can occur.
  • If European forces engaged in an ESDP operation were to encounter unforeseen circumstances, especially if those forces were put at serious risk, it is reasonable to assume that their longstanding Allies would be inclined to help.
  • Thus, I would suggest that military and political transparency regarding ongoing and potential future operations is a prudent measure, not a luxury.

My third observation does not involve NATO-EU cooperation per se, but does involve how practices in one operation can affect practices in another.

  • I have in mind those restrictions on how a specific Ally’s forces can be employed by a NATO commander, whether those restrictions are parliamentary or governmental in nature and whether they are declared in advance or only surfaced when a specific request for action is received.
  • Known, of course, as “caveats,” these restrictions can, I believe, have a very serious effect on NATO’s performance in operations and, eventually, the underlying political solidarity of the Alliance.
  • I raise this issue carefully, since I recall that it triggered some vigorous reactions when I mentioned it at last year’s NATO Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Washington.
  • I also understand that the situation is somewhat improved since last year.
  • A frank discussion aimed at reducing and eventually eliminating operational caveats, while difficult, seems unavoidable. Unlike Kosovo and Bosnia, where NATO did not suffer combat fatalities, NATO-ISAF is too complex, fluid, and intense for political considerations to trump military prudence.

If Allied governments show solidarity on this issue, they stand a good chance of convincing nervous parliamentarians and publics. Ironically, several of those governments were once openly critical of a perceived American reliance on “coalitions of the willing,” but the practice of caveats produces the same result.

  • And European capitals especially interested in mounting EU-led military operations need to consider this: will fellow Europeans who sense a lack of solidarity and willingness to share risks in NATO-ISAF be willing to participate fully in EU operations? Put bluntly, caveats could be contagious and affect ESDP.
  • Indeed, according to some European officers with whom I’ve spoken, the ESDP operation in the Congo in late 2006 was obliged to cope with restrictions that, in NATO parlance, amounted to caveats.
  • When General Bentegeat addressed this Assembly at its meeting in Paris in May 2006, he stated that “the many caveats imposed by nations hobble commanders on the ground and increase the risk to their forces.”
  • In my opinion, he was right, and his admonition applies to both NATO and the EU, where he now chairs the Military Committee.

As I mentioned at the outset, I see some potential positive developments, as well; these relate to the ongoing debate in France on whether and, if so, how to change its relationship—its “statut specifique”—with regard to NATO.

Many European and American observers—myself included—believed that the previous French government was ambivalent, at best, about the so-called “strategic partnership” between NATO and the EU, publicly accepting its logic but frequently maneuvering behind-the-scenes to limit cooperation.

Over the past several months, however, I have seen several promising indicators of change.

For example:

  • Last June, France dropped objections to NATO’s role in the Strategic Airlift Capability program involving the purchase of C-17 transport aircraft by 15 Allies and two PFP countries—15 of whom are also EU member states.
  • The following month, a report by three eminent French Senators asked aloud what many analysts had been wondering privately: Does the French position in NATO allow it to make its voice heard and be listened to, or does it have the contrary effect of isolating France from its partners and weakening the positions it tries to defend within the Alliance?
  • In fact, the Senators concluded that there is a contradiction between France’s desire to deepen cooperation in the defense field with its European Allies and its desire to maintain a special status in NATO.
  • Last month, I attended a major conference in Toulouse where I heard Defense Minister Morin state: “I am convinced that European Defense will not progress if we (France) do not change our behavior within NATO.” And his listing of the pros and cons of a closer engagement with NATO seemed weighted, overall, toward the pros.
  • In his speech in August to French Ambassadors and interview last month with the New York Times, President Sarkozy suggested that a heightened French participation in NATO structures could be entirely compatible with strengthening European defense.
  • And just last week, General Bentegeat stated in an interview that “a normalization of France’s relations with NATO will make it easier to achieve progress with European defenses. With the situation of having ‘one foot in, one foot out’ France is always suspected of having a hidden agenda. If France takes its place at the same level as the rest, numerous anxieties and preconceptions will be defused.”

In my opinion, it is still too early to predict exactly how this discussion will turn out within France and then within the Alliance; some “anti-rapprochement” sentiments are already being echoed by various French commentators.

Still, I am struck by the fact that this issue is being looked at very seriously and methodically, that top French officials no longer seem bound by a “zero sum game” approach to the NATO-EU relationship, and that the discussion is not framed exclusively in terms of French-U.S. relations but is looking closely at France’s relations with European partners who are also members of both organizations.

Returning to the sub-committee report, I would like to add just a few additional recommendations.

On the political roadblocks hampering closer NATO-EU cooperation in capability development and operations, I have no magic solution.

Still, it should be possible to find ways to improve the breadth and depth of EU consultations with Turkey on ESDP and establish some kind of ties to the European Defense Agency.

After all, Turkey has contributed to ESDP operations—for example, it contributed a key air asset, a C-130, to last year’s Congo operation—and its forces operate alongside NATO Allies who are also EU members in Afghanistan and the Balkans.

Given sufficient appreciation of the need for NATO-EU cooperation and the longer-term costs of being viewed as a “spoiler” for such cooperation, hopefully both Turkey and Cyprus will come to see it in their interest not to block closer ties.

In the interim, as foreign ministers from the NATO and EU member states, plus a few others, have met informally in the so-called “transatlantic dinners,” why not consider using that format for meets of defense ministers, as well?

There are some other links that would be helpful to establish on a routine basis.

I think we could make better use of the NATO and EU liaison cells that exist within the EU Military Staff and SHAPE, respectively, to include some joint “lessons learned” reviews of their operational experience.

And in the capabilities area, I understand that to date there has been rather sporadic and informal contact between NATO’s Allied Command Transformation and the European Defense Agency; more regular and multi-level contacts between those two can only benefit both organizations and the efficiency and interoperability of forces.

Finally, I would like to restate here an idea to improve the political interoperability of NATO and the EU.

As a potential crisis develops, senior representatives of member states of NATO and EU, plus the NATO Secretary General and EU High Representative and senior military representatives of both organizations, should gather—if need be, on “informal” basis—for a tour de table to air and discuss initial assessments and hear from each other what capabilities might be available to formulate a comprehensive crisis management response.

The member state representatives would then take information back to capitals to deliberate on an appropriate response.

The initial NATO-EU meeting would not be “joint decision making”—everyone understands that both organizations will want to maintain autonomous decision making--but it would serve the purpose of getting key parties to put their cards on the table, allowing all member states and NATO and EU officials to make better informed decisions.

Some NATO-EU tensions likely are inevitable, as the organizations are different and national political calculations will come into play in any specific case. But with better tools in place to cooperate, the chances of an effective response will increase if and when the political will exists to do so.

I sometimes think of NATO and the EU as a dance couple, moving gradually from a minuet to a tango.

Every one of their members has a vital stake in this partnership, for if, in the end, one partner slips, the other surely risks stumbling as well.

So let me close with both a question and an invitation: Shall we dance?

Thank you very much for your attention.

1 Allin, Dana H., Andréani, Gilles, Errera, Philippe and Samore, Gary (2007) 'Ten Propositions for Transatlantic Consensus', Adelphi Papers, 47:389, page 12, accessed at:

2 NATO and the EU: Time for a New Chapter, Keynote speech by NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, 29 Jan. 2007, accessed at