As the EU Crumbles, Only NATO Can Keep Europe Together

In 2012, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for guaranteeing peace and stability in the last sixty years. Yet, in 2013, its very existence is in doubt. It is time to consider NATO as Europe's guarantor of peace.

By Felix F. Seidler

The British Prime Minister's set-piece speech will have a profound impact for the UK's role in the European Union. Mr Cameron promised an in-out referendum about the UK's EU-membership after 2015. This announcement is coming at a time when the European Union's geo-strategic and economic position is very weak, and will be weaker still as Turkey is prevented from joining the EU.

The Union (then known as the EEC) was initially established to guarantee peace through economic co-operation. As the European Union endures further economic turmoil, and with the UK and Turkey on the outside, NATO's role as a guarantor of peace and security is ever more vital, as the following case studies demonstrate.

The Patriot's Value Is a Bridge to Turkey

In the first weeks of January 2013, the United States, Germany and the Netherlands have heeded a Turkish request to NATO for assistance in response to the on-going civil war in Syria. The appeal to NATO is Turkey's effort to internationalise the conflict, especially when Syrian jets and missile encroach Turkish sovereignty as it deploys them against the  Syrian opposition.

Washington, D.C, Berlin and Amsterdam have responded by deploying Patriot PAC-2 and PAC-3 missile batteries. The Patriot's operational role is to defend against any airborne threats, including ballistic missiles like Syria's scuds. However, in our case PAC-2 and PAC-3 are unlikely to be used for tasks other than defending Turkish airspace. The Obama Administration made clear that the US would not intervene in Syria, except when Assad uses chemical weapons. Moreover, PAC-2 and PAC-3 have a limited range. Based in Kahramanmaras, Adana and Gaziantep, the batteries will be too far away from the Turkish-Syrian border to fight hostile targets in Syrian airspace. Debating on their use beyond their narrow mission is therefore meaningless as their capabilities won't allow it.

Nevertheless, the Patriot mission's value is both political and strategic. The deployment is a suitable method for the alliance to demonstrate solidarity with the Turkey. An intentional missile strike on Turkey is unlikely as Assad wants to avoid deepening international involvement in the Syrian civil war. However as Turkey had made a formal request for NATO support it was appropriate for them to be deployed.

The deployment's strategic impact is more important. Turkey is on the geographic periphery but the strategic centre of NATO. Erdogan may have sought EU membership by 2023, but it seems increasingly unlikely. The EU is currently incapable of admitting new members and there is not a political majority within Europe for Turkish accession.

Therefore, NATO will remain the only instrument for Europeans and Americans to link a demographically, economically and politically ambitious Turkey to the West. The country is of enormous geostrategic importance for Europe and the United States. Not only as a transit country for hydrocarbon pipelines, but as a political bridge into the Muslim world. A Turkey not linked to the West through NATO may have taken different positions towards Israel, Syria and Kurdistan.

Alliance solidary expressed by sending Patriots missiles must be interpreted as a move to strengthen strategic Turkish-Western ties. Turkey is considered to be a 'Global Swing State', meaning its ability to shape international politics is rising. It is because of this growing international stature that the deployment is valuable as it sustains the link to Turkey rather than leaving Ankara alone. Finally, Turkey would not have received this kind of response by the EU or even by single European countries. Germany and the Netherlands would not have send Patriots on their own for a non-EU-member.

ISAF Ends While Instability in Europe Looms

The Cold War was won and, at a strategic level, the Alliance ever served its purpose for defence, security and stability. That is an unparalleled outstanding achievement. Even ISAF, the most difficult operation in Alliance history, will conclude in 2014. But NATO's role will not end there. ISAF's successor, the Afghan NATO Training, Advisory and Assistance Mission (ANTAAM) is planned to last until 2024.

Nevertheless, the era of large 'out-of-area' missions for NATO, especially when it comes to ground forces, will come to end due to the continued worsening domestic, economic, financial and social situations in many member states. Smart Defence, maritime security, missile defence - in all these areas NATO could play a successful role.

However, due to austerity and the lack of political will by member states, scepticism over NATO's ability for collective action endures.[1] This lack of tempo is exacerbated, as these issues currently are not key strategic issues. The European financial crisis has created problems that will demand much more from NATO. With the structures of the European Union crumbling under intense pressure, NATO remains a bastion of stability. It is the only organisation that can hold increasingly disparate European states, which are shifting politically apart in Europe.

Bringing Britain In From the Cold

The United Kingdom, always politically distant from Europe, will hold an in-out referendum, which may bring about its exit from the EU. A sentiment within the continent exists which would prefer to focus on mitigating the loss of the UK to the EU. Hence, in November 2012, EU staff investigated the possibility of creating an EU budget without the UK. However, without the British capabilities and without London's political will, the Europeans are without a close link to the United States and are, beyond the EU's borders, militarily impotent. Even the UK has cut its military spending dramatically, yet invested in future prospects and the expeditionary capability of its armed forces.[2]

London was never enthusiastic about the EU common defence efforts through the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Hence, the more Britain departs from the EU, the more important NATO becomes to keep the UK's capabilities and skills within Europe. To compensate for Britain's possible EU exit, continental Europeans are very well advised to invest more in the Alliance to keep London in. The importance of British capabilities became obvious during the Libya campaign. Thus, NATO's new mission should be to keep Britain within a wider European security policy.

Trouble Up North

Non-NATO but EU-members Finland and Sweden are quarrelling with the Union. Helsinki's exit from the Euro or even EU has become a plausible scenario. Stockholm has balked at the increase in the EU budget and will not join the monetary union. In addition, Norway, which carried significant burdens in NATO, is enjoying success outside the EU and will not seek greater integration with the Union while it is undergoing such a crisis. Iceland looks unlikely to join the EU and Greenland is considering independence. Considering the political centrifugal forces at work in Scandinavia, only NATO can counter these forces. Finnish and Swedish NATO membership is desirable, as Sweden's Air Force demonstrated in combat missions over Libya. However, it is an unrealistic prospect at the moment.

The great geopolitical game in the High North is taking off featuring ice-free waters, raw materials in Greenland and Russian rearmament. At the same time, the region's states show very little enthusiasm for the European political project. Allies like Norway and Denmark (for Greenland) bring new issues to the agenda. NATO provides security guarantees to Norway, Iceland and Denmark (Greenland) which acts as a stabilising factor. Furthermore, an extension of NATO partnerships with Sweden and Finland is a considerable option in the event they start to pursue the British way out of the EU.

In the High North, NATO's status as a political alliance is more important than military matters. The alliance needs to develop a long term security policy in the Arctic, which strongly outlines solidarity with the members Canada, Norway, Iceland and Denmark (Greenland) as well as the regional partners Sweden and Finland in response to Russia's and China's Arctic ambitions. Put into practice, this would mean an increased Arctic presence of air and maritime surveillance by the Alliance, along the lines of 'Air Policing' in the Baltics and over Iceland. As a formally independent state, Greenland would not have the capacity for an own Air Force and thus should join NATO and the 'Air Policing' umbrella. The tours over Iceland, Norway and Greenland may be lead by the British and flown by Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Finish pilots:  Britain is taking on responsibility and northern members and partners are playing an active role.

Outlook: Struggling EU, Stable NATO

NATO is unlikely to make any substantial changes to its larger strategic objectives. Until 2020, NATO has a valid and sufficient Strategic Concept. The Afghan issue is off the table and the Chicago Summit has shown that there are no serious political issues within the Alliance. The logical step is therefore a continuation of the military integration, the build-up of multinational units and new kinds of burden sharing cooperation, especially with regard to the UK, Turkey and Norway.

Protection for the countries on the eastern flank, security for the Arctic, stability in the Mediterranean's and the integration of Great Britain at the European western flank: NATO has an irreplaceable stability role to play.

We saw one mass demonstration after another in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy. Separatism and youth unemployment are growing. Europe is in the throes of recession. Hence, the EU faces an increasingly unstable future. In comparison, NATO is a tower of strength. Of course, NATO is structured to defend against external threats. Nevertheless, the Alliance's stabilising effect even inwards has an emerging importance. Regardless what fate the UK and Greece in EU may have, they remain NATO members. Thereby, they will continue to be strategically and politically linked with the rest of Europe. Dispute within mainstream policy debates in NATO cannot be expected soon. With the Strategic Concept 2010 and its sub-strategies (cyber, maritime, partnerships, Defence and Deterrence Posture Review) the Alliance has a clearly outlined perspective for the whole decade.

Expeditionary combat operations will likely become part of NATO's history. There is enough work to require stabilise to within and at the margins of Europe. All rejoicing over the Nobel Peace Prize for the EU must not obscure the fact that, above all, NATO has now a guarantor for stability on the European continent. Whether the EU and Euro-Zone may disintegrate or not, but NATO will sustain stability like it has always done. It is time for many Europeans to relearn appreciating NATO. They will need the Alliance far more than they will like.

Felix F. Seidler is a PhD candidate at Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany.


[1] Stephan Larrabee, Stuart Johnson et. al.,  NATO and the Challenges of Austerity (Santa Monica: RAND, 2012), p. XI.

[2] Stephan Larrabee, Stuart Johnson et. al.,  NATO and the Challenges of Austerity (Santa Monica: RAND, 2012), p. 12-17.


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