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Avoiding the institutional ‘beauty contest’ in countering Somalian piracy

Commentary, 19 December 2008
International Institutions
As the European Union launches a counter-piracy operation in Somalia (EU NAVFOR), the likelihood of an institutional ‘beauty contest’ between NATO and the EU is again in the offing.

As the European Union launches a counter-piracy operation in Somalia (EU NAVFOR), the likelihood of an institutional ‘beauty contest’ between NATO and the EU is again in the offing.

By Bjoern H Seibert, Visiting Fellow, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), and Research Fellow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

The relationship between NATO and the EU has never been an easy one, despite the substantial overlaps in membership. Though relations are said to have improved in recent months, the likelihood of an institutional ‘beauty contest’ between NATO and the EU is again in the offing as the European Union launches a counter-piracy operation off the coast of Somalia.

Until recently, NATO undertook Operation Allied Provider which oversaw a counter-piracy effort off the Somali coast. This was replaced by the EU’s Operation Atalanta. The underlying principle behind this transition was ‘no voids and no duplication’. NATO forces were to remain in place until EU forces became operational, at which point the EU would take over the operation.

NATO’s presence was meant to be an interim solution from the beginning. The rise of Somali piracy which disrupted major sea lines of communication, prompted individual European capitals to undertake counter-piracy actions. However, as assembling an EU naval force required time and thus impeded a rapid response, an interim solution was found by diverting the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2) – long scheduled to undertake port-calls in the Persian Gulf – to ensure counter-piracy operations. This allowed for a rapid response to the threat of Somali piracy, while also facilitating more practice time for a force-generation process within the EU.

While the EU’s Operation Atalanta is now operational, there is increased consideration within NATO to redeploy a fleet to the Gulf of Aden in the spring, and run a parallel operation to that of the EU. Although the area of operations is large enough to accommodate both an EU and a NATO operation, such a situation could be problematic on a number of levels: it would cause unnecessary duplication, add complexity to an already challenging operation and sustain an already prevalent institutional rivalry.

Assuming that co-operation between the two Brussels-based organisations – which share twenty-one member states – were to go smoothly, the result would inevitably lead to some measure of unnecessary, albeit unavoidable, duplication. For example, as both organisations are unlikely to agree on a common headquarters, the operations would be commanded from two separate headquarters – Northwood (UK) for the EU and Naples (Italy) for NATO. This would mean unnecessary – and expensive – duplication of command structure, adding a layer of complexity to an already complex international effort, involving several navies under separate command structures.

Seamless co-operation would certainly be welcome, but it is by no means guaranteed. One telling example occurred in 2006 when the African Union requested logistical support for the deployment of its African Union Mission in Sudan II (AMIS II). Both organisations were unable to co-ordinate and co-operate, and thus embarked on separate and inefficient efforts. Given the scale and importance of the current counter-piracy operation, such a situation would seriously compromise resource allocation at a time when European navies are already overtaxed.

Beyond these immediate operational challenges, there is the more serious underlying risk of institutional rivalry between the EU and NATO. At a time when both organisations are redefining themselves, the current counter-piracy operation could be seen by both as an opportunity to carve out a new area of competence. The high visibility of the Somalia operation could in fact be presented as an important precedent in the potentially growing field of maritime security operations – an edge that neither organisation would want to concede.

Somali piracy is increasingly threatening European interests and needs to be addressed. Given the scarce resources of European defence budgets and existing challenges of the counter-piracy operation (for a discussion of the various challenges see EU NAVFOR: Countering Piracy in Somali Waters), there are legitimate fears that a duplication of the EU and NATO counter-piracy efforts would be unnecessarily harmful. Given that the EU member states have decided to undertake a one year counter-piracy operation under the institutional framework of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), Europeans should focus their attention on adequately resourcing Operation Atalanta and if deemed necessary, augmenting it, rather than tasking NATO to run a parallel operation.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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