A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.


Cornelius AdebahrNonresident fellow at Carnegie Europe

In this time of global uncertainty, let’s make a bold prediction: NATO and the EU will not only cooperate but also merge someday. That these two organizations existed separately made perfect sense during the Cold War, when one provided external security and the other internal prosperity. However, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, political differences between overlapping memberships as well as competition for tasks and resources have exposed an institutional anachronism.

Especially traditional transatlanticists have viewed European security ambitions as a threat to NATO while belittling the EU’s efforts to establish a common defense policy. Given the timidity of EU member states so far, it looks more likely that the alliance’s death knell will sound in an increasingly erratic and isolationist Washington. Thus, Europeans ought to start thinking about organizing their security without U.S. backing, just in case.

This is not about creating new institutions—the proposed European Defense Community of 1952 never got off the ground—but about expanding what the union already has: a mutual assistance clause incorporating a half-century-old defense commitment made by the Western European Union, NATO’s erstwhile little brother that the EU absorbed in 2011. If European and Americans wanted to, they could immediately and jointly build European security around this pillar.


Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, director of the Foreign Policy Initiative at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and D. German distinguished visiting chair at Appalachian State University

Yes, they can and they must. The 42 common proposals that the EU and NATO approved on December 6 are a positive sign. So is the agreement on security cooperation that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini signed on the same day.

However, the key question is: What does the EU want to do in the field of defense? For a long time, both the United States and the UK discouraged the EU from integrating on defense. European leaders were happy to blame the lack of progress on the UK and keep the status quo, allowing NATO (read Washington) to provide security for the European continent.

The combined effect of Britain’s vote to leave the EU and the incoming U.S. presidency of Donald Trump now offers a great opportunity for Europe to finally create a European defense community. With no more excuses to hide behind, let’s hope EU leaders will act.


Paal HildeAssociate professor at the Center for Norwegian and European Security of the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies

NATO and the EU both can and should cooperate more closely than they do today. Cooperation based on complementarity and division of labor would benefit both. In the early 1990s, the most important aim of enhanced cooperation was to accommodate European ambitions for greater autonomy in security and defense. In the 2000s, it was to support stabilization and reconstruction, notably in Afghanistan, under the label of a comprehensive approach. Today, it is to counter so-called hybrid threats.

However, members of the two organizations are unwilling to allow cooperation to develop. Europeanist ambitions and Atlanticist concerns about competition and duplication are obstacles that have faded but not disappeared. A settlement for the divided island of Cyprus may open the door to closer cooperation, but other political hurdles still stand in the way. Not all is black, but despite the EU-NATO joint declaration issued in Warsaw on July 8, 2016, and the two organizations’ December 6 common proposals, hopes for a breakthrough are low.

Political will is needed, and European leaders should find inspiration in the task given to NATO’s Three Wise Men—the foreign ministers of Canada, Italy, and Norway—in 1956: “to develop greater unity within the Atlantic Community.” NATO and the EU are integral parts of this community and need to stand united. With the uncertainty the West faces today, this is more important than ever.


Pauline MassartDeputy director for security and geopolitics at Friends of Europe and vice president for outreach and operations at Women in International Security (WIIS) Brussels

They already do. Not perfectly, not always smoothly, not as formally as some would like. Greater planning between NATO and the EU certainly sounds appealing. But as unexpected events such as Britain’s vote to leave the EU, Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president, and the (more predictable) rejection of proposed changes to the Italian constitution have highlighted, it may be time to chuck plan making out of the window.

Political leaders love strategies and the accompanying rhetoric—witness the June 2016 EU global strategy and a flurry of declarations on European defense. Grand frameworks can be useful to communicate priorities and values and harness citizens’ interest. But EU-NATO cooperation is complex, and a clean institutional framework is a more elusive prospect than an EU army. Internal factors, such as Turkey’s increasing instability, the rise of populism, and a series of uncertain elections in 2017, combined with growing global complexity, mean that a certain dose of (some would say British) pragmatism will be needed to keep things moving in European and transatlantic security policy.

Even Germany, the most planning friendly of EU and NATO member states, has accepted a measure of uncertainty by enshrining the need for flexibility as one of the five priorities of its 2016 defense white paper. Surely, others too can adapt.


Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy

This is an old question but one with a new sense of urgency given Britain’s vote to leave the EU and the impending U.S. presidency of Donald Trump. Europeans will have to take on substantially more responsibility for their own security while retaining the U.S. nuclear guarantee to deter any possible Russian aggression or nuclear blackmail. They should continue recent moves to enhance the EU’s security role, including a European command and more spending for European defense, while doing more to Europeanize NATO.

The goal should be to have a European commander of NATO’s military and an American as the alliance’s secretary general. (Traditionally, an American has always held the former position and a European the latter.) This would allow for close coordination between the EU and NATO and the development of the kind of two-pillar structure for transatlantic security that former U.S. president John F. Kennedy recommended in 1962.

American security commitments to Europe have been declining under Republican and Democratic presidents alike but will reach a new level of disengagement under the Trump administration. At the same time, the European security environment is now more unstable than at any time since the end of the Cold War. For the EU to survive, it has to demonstrate to its populace that it can provide secure borders and security from terrorism and criminal networks.


Jan TechauDirector of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum at the American Academy in Berlin

Yes, but cooperation is unlikely to happen at a level where it would make a strategic difference. To make a substantive contribution to European security, the two organizations would have to integrate their operations at a very high level: political programming of missions, joint operational planning, streamlined capabilities, coordinated command and control, large-scale exchange of information, joint training and exercises, a fine-tuned division of labor, and so on. All this would be necessary to create real value added.

This is highly unlikely, given the ages-old, fully entrenched political conflicts that have prevented highest-level political cooperation between NATO and the EU for so long. Following the recent souring of relations between Turkey and the West, the prospects look even dimmer than they have in quite a while.

But the big strategic problem does not lie with the impossibility of NATO-EU cooperation. The big problem is the power vacuum that the United States might leave in Europe should President-elect Donald Trump decide to abandon NATO’s Article 5 mutual-defense clause and U.S. nuclear deterrence for Europe. An alliance hollowed out that way could cooperate with the EU as much as it wanted, but its strategic value would be lost.