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EU-NATO relations: between necessary cooperation, inherent competition and the inescapable change of paradigm

Hajnalka Vincze

EU-NATO relations are merely a symptom. They are the reflection of the power struggle between the two sides of the Atlantic on the one hand, and of intra-European schizophrenia on the other. At the heart of this complex arm-wrestling there is one single crucial issue at stake: European autonomy. As regards the choice allegedly to be made between EU-NATO co-operation or competition, this is a false dilemma. In the current balance of power situation, both are inevitable.

In fact, there is a deadlock: even if competition is inherent and will only go on increasing with the parallel evolution of the two organizations, co-operation is ensured - at least for the time being - thanks to a delicate balance, in which the two parties have fundamental interests (though antagonists in several respects) to maintain the status quo. A retrospective outline stresses the fact that neither the advent of George W. Bush, nor 9/11, nor the Iraqi war constitute turning points. They have only brought into light and accelerated some deep tendencies being there from NATO's very inception. In the field of transatlantic relations, two decisive moments can be identified: the end of the bipolar era and the launch of European defence policy within the framework of the European Union (by the European Council of Cologne in June 1999, under the impulse of the Franco-British pseudo-consensus in Saint-Malo in December 1998). Even if strong continuities can be observed throughout the last half-century, the collapse of the bipolar system meant the radical change of the whole context, from which the lessons were however drawn only after one decade of preposterous hesitations. And those latter are still not over. While going into the details of the large themes (such as the US’ attitude, the right of first refusal, the access to capabilities/refusal of "unnecessary" duplications, Member States being part of one of the two organizations but not of the other, the consultation mechanisms, operational planning, military capabilities and the definition of standards, the problem with multi-hatted troops, the division of the labour and guarantee of mutual assistance) an unimaginable number of surrealist polemics testify to the survival of transatlantic fictions to the detriment of a responsible awakening to realities. Concerning the evolution towards European autonomy, it is useful to distinguish between impeding factors and accelerating elements. As for the first group, one should begin by mentioning the interests linked to maintaining NATO in its present form, as the institutionalization of Atlantic control over Europe. For the United States, this is inter alia about: - a framework to legitimate its - not entirely altruistical - protectorate over its largest economic and commercial rival; - the fig leaf to cover its interference in the intra-European affairs; - an essential bridgehead on "the Eurasian chessboard"; - a division of risks and costs which is rather advantageous for him; - a market all the more "captive" for its own defence industry because NATO standards and doctrines are worked out in and by Washington; - pseudo-multilateral smokescreen for its military endeavours; - a means to prevent its "proto-peer competitor" from becoming a fully-fledged international actor on its own right (by limiting each aspect - strategic, political, operational, industrial and technological – of European autonomy) As for proponents of European autonomy, they need - at least temporarily - NATO even in its current asymmetrical shape, in order: - to mobilize the majority of the governments of the EU (most of them Atlanticists, as opposed to their public opinions and despite long-term strategic requirements) in favour of the development of European capabilities; - because their current level of military capabilities is far from what would be not only desirable, but also necessary for genuine autonomy in all circumstances. Most importantly, intra-European divisions constitute a major obstacle, for several reasons: - a fundamental three-level dividing line, sees the Member States ranged in two camps according to their approaches to 1. the transatlantic partnership (on the basis of autonomy or of subservience); 2. the content of the integration project (eminently political or having some kind of policy only where that is useful for the United States or at least does not bother their hegemonic designs); 3. the desirable evolution of the international system (multipolar order, i.e. the only guarantor of genuine multilateralism, thus of legitimacy, thus of long-term stability or a transatlantic uni-pole highly unbalanced inside and source of exclusion and grievances outside); - the political deficit of the European Union results in a loss of sovereignty: economic logic is not rebalanced and channeled by political priorities and choices; the Member States are deprived of an important part of their sovereignty without there being anything at the European level ready and able to defend their collective sovereignty; uncertainties as for the political model hamper the citizens’ attachment and identification which would inspire them to accept the inevitable sacrifices; - the decision-making at 25, on the basis of the lowest common denominator leads to a defence “light”: even if the project to set up a certain kind of European military capability is no longer called into question, it is its very heart which is - for the time being - missing (nuclear deterrence, common capabilities for territorial defence, collective military space assets), and the essential conclusions still remain to be drawn (in particular by making the safeguarding of European technological and industrial base a political obligation). Nevertheless, the accelerating factors towards political responsibilisation should not be neglected. The emphasis by the EU on the synergy between civil and military spheres helps to make the administrative part of the EU more sensitive to military issues and approaches, at the same time as it represents a marked difference and distanciation vis-a-vis NATO’s general attitude. The development of a European defence culture (essential in order to have distinct approaches, priorities, doctrines and standards) will be facilitated by the soon-to-be operational European Defence College. One should not forget either the Union’s formidable experience in institutionalization processes and in establishing common rules of the game on the one side, and public opinion’s support - up to now impeccable – on the other, both constituting a formidable asset. Also, once launched, the Europeanization of defence policies is a self-inspiring and self-regenerating process: as the Member States advance on this path, the necessity and the advantages of an autonomous position (and, a contrario, the absurdity and practical disadvantages of voluntary subservience) will become increasingly obvious even for most reluctant ones. In addition, the idea of a more ambitious avant-garde or core (which, after being created, would serve as a pulling force for the remainder of the Member States) is in itself an effective means of pressure. But before anything else, there are the determining structural factors. First, the functional logic of integration: in fact, none of the “acquis” in other fields can be consolidated and defended as long as European sovereignty is not ensured by an autonomous political entity. Second, the inherent tensions in transatlantic relation: between the ambition of an "overwhelming dominance" on one side, and the need for safeguarding decisional and operational room for manoeuvre on the other. The question of autonomy is at the same time the crux of the problem and its solution. And, almost as a bonus, it is the single chance for a genuinely balanced transatlantic partnership. With the two parties becoming able, if needed, to even engage in reciprocal dependences, because liberated from the unhealthy reflexes of domination and subservience.

Full text in Hungarian.

(In: Az Észak-atlanti Szerződés Szervezete a változás korában, SVKK, Budapest, 2005)


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défense européenne, ue-otan, otan


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