The EU and NATO take their partnership to the next level

12 January 2023

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, met on 10 January 2023 at NATO Headquarters to sign the third Joint Declaration on NATO-European Union cooperation. The 27-member EU and 30-member NATO already cooperate on issues such as counterterrorism and cyber threats. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as Sweden and Finland’s pending accessions to NATO, have deepened the impetus for closer links between the two organisations.

A day later, on 11 January, NATO and the EU launched a task force aimed at boosting the protection of critical infrastructure. Ursula von der Leyen said there was a need to “confront” a new type of threat following last year’s attacks on the Nord Stream gas pipelines and Moscow’s “weaponising of energy”. Moscow and Western countries have traded accusations over the cause of the explosions in September along the pipelines, which run under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, but neither side has presented evidence of the other’s culpability. NATO has increased naval deployments in the region following the explosions, which officials in Sweden and Denmark are investigating. The task force is expected to propose security solutions related to transport, energy, digital and space infrastructure.

Launch of the new Joint Declaration

Speaking at a joint press conference on 10 January, Stoltenberg said: “we are determined to take the partnership between NATO and the European Union to the next level”. The Joint Declaration aims to further strengthen and expand the strategic partnership between NATO and the EU, building on progress in cooperation between the two organisations since previous declarations were signed in 2016 and 2018. While the new version is the first to mention Russia and China by name, the rest of the text remains largely unexceptional when it comes to identifying threats or practical commitments.

“This is a key juncture for Euro-Atlantic security and stability, more than ever demonstrating the importance of the transatlantic bond, calling for closer EU-NATO cooperation,” the new 14-point Joint Declaration said.

The leaders resolved to address growing geostrategic competition, resilience issues, and the protection of critical infrastructures – as acknowledged a day later with the launch of the joint task force. Other priority areas of work will include emerging and disruptive technologies, space, the security implications of climate change, foreign interference and information manipulation.

Stoltenberg stressed the importance of NATO-EU cooperation in the context of the changed security environment following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He further noted that the NATO-EU partnership “will become even more important once Finland and Sweden become full NATO members”, and that "with their accession, NATO will be protecting 96% of the citizens in the European Union, and a higher share of its territory than ever before”.

Enhanced cooperation faces hurdles

However, despite sharing 21 members in common there are formidable hurdles to bringing the EU and NATO closer together: the two organisations have vastly different internal dynamics and decision-making processes. Turkey, a NATO member state, has a troubled relationship with several European capitals, while France and leading EU officials have long argued for greater strategic autonomy in Europe. Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, for example, have defended the idea of a broader strategic autonomy for the EU as a process that encompasses more than military issues, to include, as von der Leyen said at the press conference, matters like vaccine and semiconductor production and self-reliance. However, efforts at greater European strategic autonomy have caused tensions with Eastern European members (of both the EU and NATO) who see Washington as Europe’s main guarantor of security. With Washington playing a leading role within NATO, the US agenda has long focused on getting its European allies to increase military spending, address cyber threats and strengthen infrastructure around the continent to enable military forces to be moved more quickly.

Negotiations on the latest Joint Declaration were therefore lengthy and difficult. Initially, the expectation was that it would receive a sign-off at the NATO summit in Madrid in June 2022, but was apparently held up by tensions between Turkey and Cyprus. Language on China was another sensitive issue. Although the United States regards Beijing as a rival and strategic competitor, Europe’s view on China is less clear cut and with a greater focus on trade relations. Hence the Joint Declaration simply proclaims in a single sentence, “China’s growing assertiveness and policies present challenges that we need to address”.

The new Joint Declaration makes clear that NATO “remains the foundation of collective defence” for its members and the broader Euro-Atlantic area. However, it also says, “we recognise the value of a stronger and more capable European defence that contributes positively to global and transatlantic security and is complementary to, and interoperable with, NATO”. The two organisations “play complementary, coherent and mutually reinforcing roles in supporting international peace and security”, it states, reaffirming the view among most NATO members that stronger European militaries are primarily geared towards supporting the US-led alliance, rather than offering an alternative to it.

Russia’s response

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the push for greater cooperation between the two organisations "confirms the complete subordination of the European Union to the tasks of the North Atlantic bloc, which is an instrument to guarantee US interests by force". She added that the Europeans faced "the unenviable fate of an American vassal, losing their positions in world politics and economics, falling into increasing dependence on Washington with every step".