international analysis and commentary

How the Europeans can help refocus NATO


 It is important to look beyond the technicalities on the NATO-EU relationship, including the assessment of the 74 common missions – from dealing with cyber threats to crisis management. The basic facts are well known: 21 NATO members are also EU members, but nine are not, including key countries like Turkey and the UK. How to involve them, avoiding paralysis, remains a crucial issue. It could be useful, for instance, to encourage NATO members to participate in Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) projects: this has already happened for the US, Canada and Norway, which have recently joined PESCO’s project on military mobility. Equally important is third party access to the European Defense Fund (EDF), which, by the way, is a collateral victim of the COVID-19 crisis.

European leaders Ursula von der Leyen, Emmanuel Macron and Mario Draghi with US President Joe Biden


But I will focus on four strategic points, more than on the institutions.

Firstly, with Joe Biden in the White House we are back to a situation in which the US states the obvious: from the American standpoint, the Alliance with Europe provides a comparative advantage in global power competition. American support for NATO will remain strong, out of self-interest if you wish. But even the most Atlanticist American president will ask Europe to sustain its part of a Transatlantic bargain fit for the present, not for the past.

Since America’s priorities are domestic renewal and competition with China, a Transatlantic bargain fit for the present has the following contours: NATO, with American support, will focus mainly on Europe and collective defense; at the same time, Europeans will support Washington in containing China, in diplomatic and economic terms. If this is the case, the EU must avoid complacency, dispel ambiguities about its so-called “strategic autonomy” and keep its side of the bargain.

More specifically, in front of US-China “extreme competition”, to use Biden’s formulation, Europe cannot remain neutral without paying a high price on the Transatlantic front. To make this bargain functional, a more political NATO and a more globally wise NATO must emerge – and to be effective, both dimensions require a stronger NATO-EU link. The reason is very simple: some of the solutions to common security challenges come from EU member states as the outcome of policy coordination at the EU level. Sanctions are a case in point, with their relevance in allied response to Russian behavior, still seen by NATO countries as the main threat to Euro-Atlantic security. The same is true for many different dimensions of competition with China.

Secondly, the “how to deal with China” issue, which is so relevant in strategic terms, is not currently very relevant in purely military terms, since Washington is not asking the European allies to support the US militarily in Asia. Some individual allies are offering and will offer military contributions in the Indo-Pacific region, starting with the UK (the doubt here is whether Washington would prefer to see London even more focused on Euro-Atlantic security). NATO as a whole, however, is bound to remain a regional defense alliance.

As a consequence, the challenge for NATO2030 is how to adopt a globally wise perspective – if it does not, NATO could be side-lined, with a growing gap between European and US security perceptions – while preserving its core tasks of collective defense and deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic region.

A more global NATO, as mentioned, will not engage militarily in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet, it will have to discuss and confront the implications of China’s rise on Euro-Atlantic security. That means, for instance, reducing vulnerabilities in value chains in strategic sectors, monitoring strategic foreign investments, preserving technology edge, countering cyber attacks and taking up the mission of building the resilience of democratic societies. This widening of the very concept of security – above all in functional terms – involves the EU, with its economic leverages, more than in the past. Thus, by definition, coherence between NATO and the EU is becoming a key factor for Transatlantic security. Risk assessment, from this point of view, has a crucial relevance. This is an important reason to keep the focus on drafting a new strategic concept for NATO2030 and the EU’s strategic compass.

Thirdly, as part of the new Transatlantic deal, European NATO allies will have to take on more defense responsibilities in Europe and especially around Europe – given a partial reassessment from the US of its own direct role in the Mediterranean and in the Balkans. In theory, NATO will lead on the Eastern front, with the EU’s support; while the EU will increase its projection in the Mediterranean.

In fact, any serious concept of EU operational deployment needs to be selective, at least for a decade or so: where Europeans could realistically develop and deploy military missions – possibly taking advantage of NATO’s support – is in the Mediterranean basin, including the Western Balkans. Here, the Turkey factor will be critical. Beyond this strictly geographical definition of its core interests, the EU is capable of developing a common cyber strategy, and of course an industrial policy designed to serve these goals. The question is: is the EU ready? So far, the answer has been no.

EU member states, in fact, remain divided and uncertain on foreign policy and security and Brexit, in geopolitical terms and military capabilities, has weakened the EU. Germany is living through a difficult internal transition; Italy is potentially an important player due to its unique geographical position (Libya, the EastMed sub-region) and yet it will suffer resource constraints; France, looking to recent trends in the Sahel, is more ambitious than capable. Gaps in perceptions do persist in Europe, between East and West.  Meanwhile, tensions between Turkey, Cyprus and Greece prevent effective NATO-EU coordination on the Southern flank.

The current European dilemma, in security and defense, also depends on capabilities shortfalls: European capabilities are insufficient for missions that EU interests would call for autonomously but even for the contribution to NATO that all allies are already committed to making. This is not healthy for the future of NATO.

It may be time to really change the debate: In the view of Washington, the only way to address Europe’s defense shortfall is for European nations to spend more. However, this focus on national defense spending levels – embodied by the 2014 NATO member commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense – simply has not worked. European defense today remains anemic despite noticeable increases in spending. More integration at the EU level would help. On duplications, for instance, effectiveness needs integrated plans (from risk assessment to procurement, and all the way to operational planning). Which means that any form of integration is better than no integration – including EU integration, which is not by itself a threat to NATO cohesion.

A possible step forward would be to focus EU efforts on areas where the EU already has a critical role (for instance, countering disinformation, resilience, crisis management) and reinforce capabilities that already exist: clear cases are maritime capabilities and “enabling technologies” with dual-use potential (linked to hybrid and cyber threats).

Of course, it cannot be taken for granted that EU leaders will manage to persuade their public opinion of the need for more spending related to increasing efforts in the defense field – but the key argument should really be for better spending in a coordinated context.

The fourth and final point is that a working NATO-EU relationship requires more clarity on the concept of “strategic autonomy”. This started as a debate on how to reinforce the European ability to act alone when needed and by the awareness of potential costs and risks connected to an overall dependency on others. In particular, the EU cannot just assume it can rely on the US as it once did. Still, this conceptual shift is not translating – as mentioned – into more ambitious EU security policies and better capabilities (as the very combination between policy ambitions and capabilities is what would be a game changer). And it is clear that no amount of declaratory policy can substitute military and other operational capabilities. The entire edifice of CFSP and CSDP has become somewhat trapped in this incomplete dynamic.

My view, in any case, is that within the European debate the focus of strategic autonomy is already shifting from defense to other sectors – from health to energy.

Since an important incentive to conceive strategic autonomy came from the declining trust in the US security guarantee, the opposite risk could emerge today: from over-ambition to complacency.

The only way out from this predicament, in my view, is taking note that outside NATO European defense is not credible, both today and in looking towards 2030. This means that the Alliance remains the major security organization for Europe. Asymmetry in the defense sector will remain a structural feature of Transatlantic ties. However, for the reasons mentioned, the European contribution to NATO must consistently grow to preserve a working Alliance. This very shift – implying an important increase in the European contribution to NATO, combined with EU-led missions in neighboring regions – will also gradually allow the EU to become a more credible defense and security actor in the future.

In a nutshell: we could clarify the terms of the recent debate, coming to the conclusion that a stronger EU dimension in security could more easily be built through cooperation with NATO than in competition with NATO. This approach would possibly favor consensus among member states on the way ahead, and would help in solidifying trust between the two organizations. Trust, after all, is what will allow the 74 common missions to succeed.



This article is based on the speech given at the conference “NATO 2021 – Rebuilding the consensus for a new era”, organized by the NATO Defense College Foundation in Rome on June 9-10, 2021