BRUSSELS — NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker have stressed the "vital importance" of the relationship between two organizations, saying cooperation is especially important to address new security threats facing the West.
At a meeting Thursday in Brussels the two men discussed ways to increase joint work to counter hybrid threats in several areas, including early warning, supporting critical infrastructure and cyber warfare.
Stoltenberg welcomed the organizations' deepening ties, saying "that is something we need more than ever because we face a more challenging security environment."
"A strong Europe is good for NATO and a strong NATO is good for Europe," Stoltenberg said. "Based on that common understanding we very much welcome that we are expanding our cooperation."
Stoltenberg said NATO and the EU can achieve "better and more" by working in close cooperation.
"I welcome the commitment to strengthen the cooperation between EU and NATO," said Stoltenberg after the meeting.
Much of the emphasis at the meeting was on Europe's worst refugee and migrant crisis since World War II, which threatens to engulf the continent.
On this, Stoltenberg said, "We are working closer than ever in addressing the crisis."
He stated that NATO's Maritime Command and the EU's Frontex have now agreed to operational and tactical level arrangements, enabling the exchange of liaison officers and the sharing of information in real-time.
Their activity will now be expanded to take place also in territorial waters and this was an "excellent" example of how NATO and the EU can work together to address common challenges.
Last year, close to a million people risked their lives to find safety on European shores. Of those, almost 900,000 people — more than the entire population of Amsterdam — risked the so-called Eastern Mediterranean route. That's five times the number who made the same journey in 2014.
Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 29, 131,724 migrants and refugees crossed the Mediterranean Sea, of whom 122,637 arrived in EU member Greece, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The figure is comparable to the total registered in the first half of 2015, when 147,209 arrived on Europe's shores. Many of those have moved on to Germany.
Speaking at a news conference, Stoltenberg said that NATO is now present in the territorial waters of Greece and Turkey, and that "we are planning to move further south in the coming days and weeks."
This will help Greece, Turkey and Frontex build a common picture of the situation and support their efforts to cut lines of human trafficking, he argued.
Last month, NATO decided to provide support to the international efforts to stem illegal trafficking and illegal migration in the Aegean. This was based on a proposal by NATO allies Germany, Greece and Turkey. Within the following 48 hours, NATO deployed a standing maritime group to the Aegean. It currently includes ships from Canada, Germany, Greece and Turkey.
They will conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance activities to provide critical information to the Greek and Turkish coastguards and other relevant national authorities, as well as to the European Union's border agency Frontex.
"This will help them carry out their duties even more effectively, in order to help save lives and to deal with the illegal networks that traffic in human suffering," a NATO source said. "We have also decided to intensify intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance along the Turkish-Syrian border.
"NATO ships will not do the job of national coastguards in the Aegean. Their mission is not to stop or turn back those trying to cross into Europe. And this in no way represents a militarization of the response to the crisis."
Looking ahead, Stoltenberg underlined that the European Council in June and NATO's Warsaw Summit in July will be "important milestones," marking a unique opportunity to deepen their cooperation.
For his part, Juncker said that he security environment is changing rapidly and "both NATO and EU have to adjust to this situation."
After discussing the threats Europe is facing Juncker underlined the need of both EU and NATO to be moving in the same direction, focusing on the quality of their talks and cooperation.
The former Luxembourg Prime Minister said he was "encouraged" by the discussions, adding "It is of vital importance that both EU and NATO are moving in the same direction. We will be working on that to allow us to present common views at the NATO summit."
Martin Banks covered the European Union, NATO and affairs in Belgium for Defense News.