After the successful 2011 Libya operation, it appeared the U.S. and European allies were on the cusp of a new era of working together on international crises, only to stall out thanks to economic austerity and populist elections. Now that the refugee crisis in Europe is subsiding and allied troops and equipment have deployed to Poland and the Baltics, the window of opportunity has once again opened for deepening relations between the European Union and NATO.
By setting up an EU-NATO informal track, regularizing operational transitions and embarking on expanded coordination in out-of-area operations — all of which are more crucial, given a potential Brexit and the 2020 U.S. election — these two crucial, overlapping alliances can step into a new era.
There are two logical diplomatic tracks to be pursued: a formal track centered on implementation of EU and NATO ministerials/summits, as well as an informal track centered on working through difficult issues and preparing them for decision-makers. Senior officials from both organizations have commented recently that the informal track would be particularly useful for the kind of deep-dive, “peer around the corner” strategizing that busy officials are rarely afforded an opportunity to engage in.
The EU is a global leader in what it calls “crisis management,” and what NATO refers to as “stabilization and reconstruction.” Joint planning ahead of such operations, aligning civil/military planning in advance, will allow for improved outcomes in theater. In general, NATO would gain a new capability to act in the immediate aftermath of its military operations when a crisis occurs, and the EU would gain the opportunity to spearhead joint Western crisis management as a matter of course.
Taking a cue from the so-called changing of berets in the 2004 NATO mission in Bosnia — when European soldiers involved in the terminating NATO mission simply changed their uniforms out for EU uniforms and remained in place to take part in the EU follow-on mission — there is a strong likelihood that a similar arrangement can be made for deployed civilians.
The EU and NATO have ample reasons to agree to regularize operational leadership transitions in moving from the military phase of a conflict to the post-conflict stabilization phase.
Here’s how it could work: The EU would be designated to spearhead the stabilization phase, having jointly planned this phase of the operation with NATO civilian planners at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. NATO would commit to always selecting a European as the head of the NATO temporary civilian operation, and would call up a modest number of civilian experts from the nations, who would deploy to theater and engage in a delimited number of core stabilization tasks with the plan for a larger EU-led civilian deployment to absorb the NATO operation.
NATO civilian operators would focus on a discrete set of core stabilization tasks awaiting the follow-on EU mission to become more comprehensive. Once a decision to deploy a civilian mission occurs in Brussels, the NATO stabilization mission would devolve to the EU. Most of the civilian experts will already be from EU countries, with the mission head also European. The rest of the NATO civilians can be seconded to the civilian operation mission via framework agreements such as the extant one between the U.S. and the EU that already has seconded Americans to EU missions in Africa.
This operational compromise would prevent either alliance from playing second fiddle, ushering in a new era of co-planning and cooperating for both. Why can’t both sides “just do it,” i.e., simply enact a leadership transition in theater whenever the need arises? Pragmatism can work in the moment, but it doesn’t set precedents, as proven by the fact this is not already happening; past “impromptu” experiences of working together on the ground have not led to any pattern or even expectation of repeat or improved cooperating since.
This proposal is firmly in the EU’s interests, as it will put it fully in the driver’s seat of crisis management and bring the EU the recognition it deserves for its existing capabilities and substantial operational experience. This proposal is also firmly in NATO’s interests, for the alliance that almost split over its ongoing Afghanistan operation has no interest in further prolonged field deployments.
There is also an additional strategic opportunity for both, as closer EU-NATO cooperation would be an important means for keeping the U.K. connected with its EU partners in the security and defense field following Brexit. But with crises around the world proliferating, in more pressing terms these two critical overlapping alliances among Western allies need to jointly become more operationally ready.
Despite the political challenges in numerous Western countries, an agreement to overcome the EU-NATO operational impasse is on the cards. Prior to the negative impact of U.S. President Donald Trump’s arrival, NATO-EU relations had been at their pinnacle. With an EU-NATO informal track and a means for overcoming the operational hurdle in hand, substantial progress can still be made prior to the next U.S. administration.
Jeffrey A. Stacey is a former U.S. State Department official in the Obama administration. He consults for the United Nations and a variety of “global south” countries.