Forget European enlargement and Europe's prospects of embracing its eastern region. A month after Nice, it is time for a (not so) shocking revelation: the future shape of the EU is being molded in the West. The most prestigious European club has begun to establish a stronger and more coherent identity, more decisively and with less controversy than ever before, by debating its future relationship with NATO.
If the project bears fruit, the EU will make more sense both internally and to its international partners. By reaffirming its commitment to the North Atlantic treaty and the US, the European Union has re-affirmed its own personality. And by including NATO firmly in its vision of European defence, the EU may have guaranteed the Alliance a place in the twenty-first century. This is the kind of irony that makes diplomacy interesting.
The creation of a European Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) at Nice, intended to be complementary and not competitive to NATO, is a form of reconciliation between political realities on one hand and European ambitions for greater independence on the other. To achieve this, European defence structures that are largely integrated into NATO are just the first stage. What may appear remarkable, however, is the possible outcome, for NATO and its still-evolving post-Cold War role, as well as for the definition of Europe as a whole.
A joint EU-NATO security guarantee
The defence declaration at the Nice Summit agreed a 60,000-strong rapid reaction force to be ready by 2003. Its role: to participate in actions where NATO itself is not willing to take part; meaning where the US does not have a clear strategic interest (one good example of that was the collapse of government authority in Albania in 1997).
The option of a wholly autonomous European army was specifically rejected by the bulk of EU members as both unrealistic and undesirable. The only exception was France, which wanted the new force to have an independent planning structure. The French lost that argument. The other members insisted that any other principle ran the risk of a damaging, public rupture between the EU and NATO, threatening the Alliance; this was aptly described as "borderline schizophrenia" by Elizabeth Pond. (Come Together: Europe's Unexpected New Architecture. Foreign Affairs, Mar/April 2000, Vol 79 Issue 2, p 8).
Thus Mr Tony Blair, this time in agreement with most of his other counterparts, went to great lengths "to make it absolutely clear" that "European defence cannot be a rival to NATO, it has to be a complement to it and this is exactly what has happened."
Despite such reassurances, and despite some concrete provisions already agreed (for instance, the force is to be deployed at 60 days' notice and sustained for up to a year; the types of operations that it might be involved in and the number of troops available from each EU member were also laid down) the RRF must overcome a number of challenges if it is to be successful.
These include: not duplicating activities that NATO would anyway do better; finding efficient channels of communication with countries that are in NATO but not EU members and vice versa (Turkey's opposition to the RRF is the most obvious and recent example of how the lack of dialogue might prove troublesome); deciding on how the planning would be done in the case of an EU-led operation; and so on. Nevertheless, more interesting and not less important—while not so much discussed—are some of the feasible advantages of an effective joint EU/NATO defence mechanism.
Who needs whom?
Both NATO and the then European Community (EC) entered the post-Cold War global order without any formally interlocking mechanisms. NATO was predominantly about safeguarding the Western world against a possible Soviet threat, while the EC's attempts at deeper defence cooperation could hardly be taken seriously before 1989. Then came the crises in Bosnia and Kosovo, and with them clear evidence of how heavily dependent Europe was on US forces within NATO.
This led to a more active approach towards the consolidation of a common foreign and security agenda. What followed was the creation of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) at Maastricht. The ratification of the Amsterdam Treaty provided for common defence policies. Understandably, the provisions made were all rather tentative and were based on old-style intergovernmentalism rather than creating new mechanisms to bring about the "ever-closer union" that remains the real motivation behind the EU.
There were, however, some implicit conceptual advances and, it seemed to many enthusiasts, a renewed vision for the European project. Until then, the picture was clouded by lack of vision—and lack of visionaries. Western Europe's Cold War dependence on NATO, and thus the US, had already started to turn into a more complex interdependence.
The constant reaffirmation in EU treaties of the need for a strong and clear transatlantic bond, declaring the importance of compatibility between the European Security and Defence Identity (ESDI) and NATO, were symbolic of the strains in the relationship; if things had been settled, there would have been no need for so many promises of undying loyalty.
Proof that this was gesture politics came with one of the first tangible steps towards European integration in the area of security and defence—the re-activation of the Western European Union (WEU), a defence association of ten EU members formed after the Second World War but mostly dormant following the inception of the Common Market. In the mid-1980s, there was some discussion of the so-called "Platform on European Security Interests"; in the 1990s the WEU was called upon to provide some of the naval logistics for the largely ineffectual monitoring of sanctions on Yugoslavia during the war in Croatia and Bosnia.
Confusion seemed to reign in those early months after the end of the Cold War: why try to turn a hollow organisation, WEU, into a pretend fighting force, if not to prepare for NATO's eventual demise?
With regards to NATO planning on the other hand, the picture has been far from clear too. Faced with an extended definition of European security to include socio-economic issues, the Alliance has had a hard time addressing the new security agenda adequately. It took many years of Balkan conflict to forge the first effective response, which was rapid reaction forces—mobile and flexible, and above all, multinational. Slowly, NATO was forced to move from explicitly military Cold War tasks to implicitly political post-Communist ones.
The consensus is that, although European security has a diminished that military component these days, that certainly cannot ever be disregarded. And it would be foolish to waste the tested military structures and skills of an organisation like NATO. When the first concrete proposals for European defence came at the Helsinki summit in December 1999, all EU defence enthusiasts stressed that the Euro force would take the peacekeeping and humanitarian tasks while NATO would remain the primary real war fighter.
But it became obvious that such a distinction is hard to make when the nature of conflict itself is more and more difficult to specify. This seems to justify an increasingly interwoven functioning of the two supreme clubs of Europe based on defined institutional channels of communication. If all the small operational details are pinned down timely, the new security order in Europe might have begun to take shape.
Life after RRF?
It is the widespread view that successfully pooling together the military experience of NATO and the sophisticated diplomatic machinery of the EU would somehow inevitably make dealing with conflicts within and outside Europe easier. Hence, an effective guarantor of European security will have emerged. All this seems sound. Until one tries to imagine what the future of traditional concepts and institutions might start to look like. That is the challenge facing EU and NATO leaders now.
Europe is becoming a more enigmatic concept than ever before. It is a political landscape of complicatedly interrelated institutions, whose functions often seem to overlap chaotically. Redefined by new necessities, some of the organisations are dying altogether (like the WEU). Others are shifting away from Western Europe to deal with CEE states only. A relationship that is going to deepen for sure, though, with the most interesting potential, is the EU-NATO co-existence.
Even if the new Bush administration undertakes a more limited definition of national interest, and a more wary international posture, Europe and NATO will still be bound by the need for joint action. Experience shows this is the only manner in which they can respond effectively to the demands of a Europe with no Berlin Wall. NATO and the RRF could shape each other and need each other. Indeed, a more isolationist America might well turn NATO into a more European enterprise than ever before.
The idea that NATO's survival depends, in part, on a greater defence independence of Europe is quite surprising, bearing in mind the last fifty years of history. Could this be a Europe, in concept at least, which extends across the Atlantic?
Branimira Radoslavova, 15 January 2001
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Kosovo through CER
- Return to CER front page