The CSDP and NATO: friends, competitors or both?

By Matteo Ricci | 17 January 2014

To quote this document: Matteo Ricci, “The CSDP and NATO: friends, competitors or both?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Friday 17 January 2014,, displayed on 03 February 2023

One of the main points of contention of the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy is the relationship of the CSDP with the existing NATO framework. This article aims to present the current status of this complex relationship and the problems affecting their co-existance.

The relationship between the EU and NATO is based on an indisputable and unavoidable fact: each body consists of 28 different members, with 22 of those members belonging to both organizations. Such a distribution ensures that a strong relationship between the two entities exists. However, it is not until one examines which states are a member of only one organization that the origins of the problems between the two bodies emerges.

The neutral side

Of the six EU Member States that are not member of NATO, five (Austria, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden) are countries which have adopted a strict position of neutrality when it comes to armed conflicts. However, despite their neutrality, these countries (especially Sweden) also have a long tradition of conducting peacekeeping operations under the flag of the United Nations. Keeping this history in mind, it is easy to understand that participating in a military alliance like NATO runs against the political traditions of these states. Their participation to the EU’s CSDP allows the EU to mobilize their resources and experiences in a way that is politically acceptable for the neutral country and is something that would be close to impossible for NATO. A good example of this is the Nordic battlegroup, one of 18 such units at the disposal of the EU, which brings together troops from Estonia, Ireland, Finland, Sweden and Norway. In an example of the complexity of NATO-EU relations, Norway, which is a member of NATO not the EU, has joined the battlegroup under the flag of Nordic cooperation and has developed a special working relationship with EU staff on this issue.

Despite the complexities surrounding neutral nations, it is the presence of EU Member State and non-NATO member Cyprus that causes the most friction between the two institutions.

The Cyprus-Turkey question

The island of Cyprus sits at the heart of NATO-EU relations. Following the attempted coup d'état of 1974 and the subsequent Turkish invasion, the island has been split between a Greek-majority South (which is the only government recognized by the international community) and a Turkish-majority North. Although the Greek section of Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, Turkey continues to refuse to recognize the Cypriot South, leading to a strained relationship between Ankara and Brussels. Turkey as a key military pillar of the Atlantic Alliance also further complicates relations between the EU and NATO. This position has allowed Turkey to continuously block NATO-EU deals citing the unresolved Cyprus issue.

The problem of Turkey within the paradigm of the EU-NATO relationship is partially due to an absence of official communication channels. This is actually one of the cases where a relationship has worsened with the deepening of EU integration. During the 1990s, the EU had effectively «subcontracted» its defence policy to the Western European Union (WEU). Following the decisions taken at the Petersberg meeting of 1994, the WEU developed a multi-layered structure to deal with the different levels of involvement in military affairs. In addition to its core members the WEU created the statuses of associated member for those European states that were part of NATO, but not of the EU, along with observer status for those states that, while part of the EU, did not wish to take part in a military organization due to their neutrality (Ireland) or foreign policy priorities (Denmark).

The result was a very flexible arrangement. On one side the neutral countries, thanks to their observer status, were kept fully informed of all WEU decisions while retaining their freedom of action. This meant that they could avoid participating in those operations that ran against their foreign policy position without preventing a common action from the other WEU members. On the other side, the associated member status created a structured way to exchange information with non-EU European states like Turkey and Norway while allowing them to participate in WEU missions including the planning of the operation. The absorption of the WEU within the EU during the first decade of the XXIst century has complicated the status of the neutrals, as they now have the same rights as every other <ember State. Furthermore, the absorption has also cut off the channel of communication with non-EU states, further complicating relations with Turkey.

The Atlantists vs. Carolingians debate

Along with Turkey, five other countries are members of NATO, but not of the EU. Three of them, Albania, Iceland and Norway, are European countries with strong relationships with the EU, ranging from Norway's participation in the Nordic battlegroup to Albania's recent accession to the status of EU candidate country. The main difference between the membership of the EU and that of NATO is in the two non-European countries: Canada and the United States. The dominant role that the US play within NATO is one of the defining elements of the Alliance and is at the core of an ideological split that has characterized Europe's military integration.

The ideological split is between the proponents of a Carolingian Europe and those of an Atlantic Europe. In the view of the Carolingians (referring to Emperor Charlemagne who unified most of Europe during the IXth century), Europe should fully develop its military sphere, with the aim of eventually being able to conduct the full range of military missions. Such a move requires the creation of structures found in sovereign states, including permanent military forces, as well as military academies and headquarters. The Atlantists argue that Europe already has its military organization in the form of NATO. Any military structure created outside of NATO would be a waste of resources while weaken a transatlantic link, which was the key of the victory in the Cold War.



France and the United Kingdom are generally seen as the champions of the Carolingians and the Atlantists thoughts, France re-joining the integrated structure of NATO in 2009 that it had left in 1967, while the United Kingdom has often been one of the driving force in the development of common European military capabilities.

The current situation

Taking into consideration the varying political views in Europe, one can clearly understand that the current status of NATO-EU relations is a delicate balancing act between the positions of the Atlantists the Carolingians and the pressure from Turkey.

An initial agreement between the EU and NATO was reached during the 1996 NATO summit in Berlin and created the basis for all future accords. Known as the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) concept, it was based on the idea of «divisible, but not divided» forces: some structures and units belonging to NATO, but staffed by European personnel were to be earmarked for use by the EU to respond to crisis’ which did not concern NATO. This created a two-tier system in which NATO had the first option to respond to a crisis. If NATO chose not to act, it would then free the pre-selected CJTF forces so that they could be used by the EU. Such an arrangement allowed the EU to dispose of «hard» military capabilities like field headquarters and planning staff without having to duplicate what already existed within NATO. The downside was that the two organizations were not on equal footing, as the EU could act only if NATO decided not to act first.

The Berlin accords were just a preliminary agreement and the debate on how exactly to proceed with the CJTF concept went on for several years. The position of the United States was clearly spelled out by Madeleine Albright in an article that appeared in the Financial Times on December 7th, 1998, a few days after the United Kingdom and France had published their Saint-Malo declaration for an integrated European military force. In this interview, the then-Secretary of State affirmed that while the United States was in favour of deeper European integration in the field of defence, such an integration had to follow the «Three Ds» principle of:

  • no duplication of structures that already existed within NATO;
  • no discrimination of NATO members that were not EU members;
  • no decoupling of the transatlantic link.

The final agreement on the CJTF system was reached during the NATO summit held in Washington in April 1999. However, due to opposition from Turkey, the agreement, known as «Berlin Plus», entered into force in March 2003 and is still the framework governing EU-NATO relations today. It has been used twice since its adoption, in 2003 during operation Concordia in FYROM (Macedonia) and in 2004 in Bosnia and Herzegovina for EUFOR Althea.


Since 2003, the EU and NATO relationship has been governed by the Berlin Plus accords. These accords have faced increasing criticism during the last decade, in particular from the Carlolingians. The subordination of the EU structure to the one of NATO, they argue, was the right choice when the CSDP was in its infancy, but they believe it is now time for Europe to fully develop its capabilities without having to resort to the NATO «crutch». The current discussion about creating an EU military headquarters, proposed by the «Big Five» group of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland in 2011 but since then vetoed by Great Britain, is an example of the current debate. With the EU and NATO have launched parallel, and almost competing, naval patrol missions to combat piracy in the Horn of Africa (EUNAVFOR Atalanta and Ocean Shield respectively) can be viewed as another example of competing institutions.

Despite the assertion of the EU, it is NATO and not the CSDP, which offers the ultimate guarantee of military defence for Europe in the case of (however unlikely) a foreign attack.

To further complicate matters, the main pillar of NATO, the United States, is in the middle of a «Pivot to Asia», which will see a reduction of US military forces deployed in Europe and the Middle East. This has sparked calls from both the US and European countries for Europe to start paying more attention to its defence needs. The question of «burden sharing» within NATO is as old as the alliance itself, but the new element is that the US assets which until now have supported European forces, will potentially be reduced. If the Europeans do not manage to cover this gap, they will find, as was shown already in Syria, that their ability to influence the world around them will be greatly diminished.

The question of the future relationship between the CSDP and NATO remains. NATO was created to respond to the threat of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe and the end of the Cold War has left it without a clear mission. It has since reinvented itself as a tool that allows the US and European states to cooperate in military operations abroad, according to the slogan «Out of area or out of business», but despite this, many question the alliance.

One possible future scenario for NATO is that it involves in a «global NATO», expanding beyond the Atlantic to include all those countries, which share Western views regarding democracy and the market economy. In such a scenario, the CSDP could become the European pillar of an alliance spanning several continents, something similar to what was envisaged by French President Chirac when he first suggested that his country re-join NATO in 1995. Such scenario does not solve the question of the relationship with Turkey, except in the case of an increasingly unlikely accession of Turkey to the EU.

Another scenario is that of a «concentric circles» Europe, where a relatively small core of countries decide to forge ahead and reach high levels of military integration, probably by the way of a Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) as instituted by the Lisbon Treaty. In such a scenario, the EU would be able to conduct independent operations without the need to duplicate NATO structures, as it could use the joint structures put in place by the PESCO countries. All resources would however still be available in the case of a joint NATO action.

In the end, the only thing that is sure is that, due to their shared membership, the EU and NATO will still be forced to collaborate for many years still.

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Source photo: NATO headquarters in Brussels, flickr