Just two weeks after the United Kingdom’s historic vote to the leave the European Union (EU), Heads of State and Government of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) convened in Poland for the 2016 Warsaw Summit. NATO currently faces an array of challenges emanating from its surrounding neighborhoods, and the Alliance agreed to various measures meant to quell members’ concerns about their own security, and to signal strength and resolve amidst challenging times. But throughout the Summit, the issue dominating many bi-lateral and multi-lateral conversations was the impact that Brexit would have on the future of European security. Perhaps the most important deliverable from the Summit in this regard was a joint declaration on increased EU-NATO cooperation.
For outsiders, the EU-NATO declaration may seem inconsequential, but given the history between these two organizations, it is actually revolutionary. Twenty-two of NATO’s 28 (soon to be 29) members are part of the EU, but a constant theme is the friction and lack of communication between the two bodies even though they are both located in the same European city, and despite the fact that there have been frequent attempts to increase cooperation between them. One reason for this is the hostility between Turkey and Cyprus which has undermined EU-NATO cooperation since Cyprus joined the EU in 2004; another is the deep divides amongst NATO and the EU caused by the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Whatever the subject, the bottom line is that historical squabbles and underlying trust issues have gotten in the way of deeper cooperation which could mutually benefit both organizations in times of crisis.
But times are different now. Europe and NATO are struggling under the weight of an abundance of security issues ranging from a historic migration crisis to an aggressive Russia to an overarching threat of terrorism to the rise of far-right parties. Combined with the increasing loss of faith in European institutions, these security challenges have dealt a crushing blow to the European project. The true depth of these concerns came to a shocking head with the Brexit referendum in June. Few people, international leaders included, saw it coming, and few were prepared for the consequences of such a historic decision. This vote in and of itself should demonstrate that no matter what issues Europe and NATO face beyond their borders, some of the biggest hurdles still emanate from within. In order to successfully focus on outward security challenges, Europe must simultaneously look inward to fix its own underlying issues.
This is precisely why the joint declaration between the EU and NATO, signed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and European Council President Donald Tusk, comes at such a crucial time. Among some of the most important points contained within the declarationare the development of complementary and interoperable defense capabilities between the EU and NATO, stepping up coordination on exercises, and broadening operation cooperation at sea and on migration. Another notable development is the agreement to increase intelligence sharing between their respective staffs. This point alone could help quell ongoing concerns that the recent Brexit could have an adverse effect on European security. This is because Britain will continue to be a member of NATO when, and if, Article 50 is invoked, which will help facilitate continued cooperation between the two bodies even with Britain out of the EU.
But as history proves, simply having a signed piece of paper is not enough. There must be clear signals from the top of each organization that deeper cooperation is a priority. The joint declaration is a good start, but this should only be the beginning. A follow-up NATO-EU Summit to work through some of the potential hurdles would be a good way to show true commitment to these agreements. On an operational level, NATO must be sure to deliver on its promise to provide real time information on irregular migrant flows to the EU from the Aegean Sea, and the two sides must cooperate on their responses to terrorism on the European continent. Progress should be continually assessed, and leaders must stay committed to holding up their ends of the bargain, even under pressure. Given the stakes, it would be detrimental to the future of European security for the EU and NATO to fail in this regard.
There is no doubt that it has been a rough few years for the European continent, and amidst the uncertainty of the Brexit, international leaders are now questioning the strength of both NATO and the EU. Although the future is uncertain, the joint declaration between the two organizations is a step toward putting those concerns to rest. Now, leaders must get to work to make sure that the deliverables within that declaration actually come to fruition. The future of European security and the strength of transatlantic relations could depend on it.
Rizzo is a Research Associate in the Strategy and Statecraft Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).