August 28, 2015
In recent years we have witnessed significant changes in Europe’s eastern and southern neighborhood that have had a profoundly negative impact on our security.

The threat from the East, whose nature could be described as traditional or conventional, stems from Russia’s aggressive posture. The illegal annexation of Crimea and the armed intervention in the eastern provinces of Ukraine constitute an assault on the post-Cold War international order. In addition, Moscow’s efforts to regain control over countries that once belonged to the Soviet Union are a direct danger to the security of some NATO and European Union (EU) member states.

Meanwhile, the threat from the South is asymmetrical. Jihadist organizations obviously cannot directly challenge the West militarily, but they can deal painful blows through terrorist attacks on European soil or disruption of energy supply. We are arguably better prepared to deal with this kind of threat as it has been present since 9/11. Currently, however, the scale of the danger seems much larger and likely to grow. The area of instability in the Middle East and North Africa, which is a breeding ground for terrorism, continues to enlarge, while the recent attack in Tunisia is a painful reminder that even in countries considered to be relatively stable, political transition is extremely fragile.

These threats constitute an unprecedented challenge to which the democratic Europe has to respond both as a group of NATO allies and through the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) framework.

NATO’s reaction to Russia’s aggressive posture was correct. It is a reaction that fortifies the credibility of Article 5 and considerably strengthens the feeling of security among Central European members of the alliance. The Readiness Action Plan approved at the NATO Summit in Wales in 2014 is being put into practice. A series of military exercises was carried out in 2014 and 2015 in the countries that constitute the alliance’s eastern flank, the major ones with participation of several thousand troops. In 2009, when following the Russian attack on Georgia—along with my counterparts from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—I requested a military exercise on the eastern flank, some allies questioned the necessity of such an undertaking. It took several years before the Steadfast Jazz exercise finally took place. Today the importance of military exercises on our eastern flank is beyond doubt.

Adaptation measures are being implemented as well. The Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, also known as the “Spearhead Force,” has seen its first action during the Noble Jump exercise in Poland in June. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced recently that, in accordance with the commitments made in Wales, the United States will preposition 250 tanks, artillery, and other equipment in the Baltic states, Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania. Furthermore, defence plans for the eastern flank will be updated. If we compare the current situation with the somewhat lukewarm reaction to the request for contingency plans, formulated by the defense ministers of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland in 2008, the contrast is striking. The assessment of the situation at NATO’s eastern border has manifestly evolved considerably—and rightly so. The measures mentioned above clearly demonstrate that NATO allies not only recognize the shifts in our strategic environment, but also take actions to prepare to face the possible consequences of these shifts.

In view of the upcoming NATO Summit in Warsaw in July 2016, it should be stressed that a successful implementation of the Readiness Action Plan—however important—is not enough. The meeting in Warsaw cannot just be a stocktaking summit, but should chart a way forward, too. Three suggestions can be made in this respect:

1) The time has come to consider changing the temporary deployment of NATO troops on the alliance’s eastern flank into a permanent one. Given the blatant breaches of international law by Russia, NATO’s declaration to refrain from “permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in this area, in the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation, must be seen as void.

2) Efforts to maintain a high degree of interoperability of our forces have to continue. Cooperation in the challenging conditions of the operation in Afghanistan has led to improved interoperability and we should strive to keep it this way. The Warsaw summit should craft an appropriate formula for continuing the work on interoperability through multinational exercises.  

3) A closer cooperation with partners is needed, and in particular with countries such as Sweden and Finland for whom the resurgence of revisionist and militaristic Russia is an important threat. Whether these countries will decide to join the alliance will depend on their citizens. Yet the example of the important Swedish contribution to Operation Unified Protector in Libya demonstrates that there is room for closer cooperation.  

The EU Common Security and Defense Policy is another vehicle of European power. It is, however, a vehicle in need of repair as we are dealing with the second CSDP crisis. The first one—provoked by the divergences between member states over the invasion of Iraq in 2003—was relatively swiftly overcome. In late 2003, the first European Security Strategy was adopted; the first significant CSDP mission—EUFOR-Althea—followed in 2004. The establishment of the European Defense Agency enhanced cooperation between member states around capability planning and development. These developments put the CSDP back on track.

The current CSDP crisis is more complex with both political and institutional causes. Apart from provoking cuts in the defense budgets of member states, the economic crisis has also blunted their determination to build a common security policy. There are worrying signs that the CSDP is stagnating and remains far from reaching its full potential. An overview of recent political crises in the neighborhood demonstrates that the EU is either too slow to act, paralyzed by lengthy and complicated procedures, sidelined by member states or contented with half-measures. In negotiations around the Russian aggression on Ukraine, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini plays second fiddle to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande. The recently launched operation in the Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR Med) provides a clear example of an action that focuses on symptoms rather than root causes of the problem—a worryingly frequent flaw of EU undertakings.

To make matters worse, useful instruments established by the Lisbon Treaty, such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation and Battle Groups, have not been properly used. Other mechanisms, such as Pooling and Sharing, have underperformed. As a result, the EU is punching below its weight. Given the still impressive means—both hard and soft— at its disposal, EU’s inability to shape the situation in its neighborhood is striking. It is difficult to imagine that today the EU could launch a more ambitious and complex CSDP operation than the one in Mali—small, with a limited mandate, and started only in the wake of an intervention by one of the member states. I fear that this situation may persist. CSDP missions will remain limited in scope and ambitions, and launched in a reactive manner, following a solo effort by a member state or a coalition of the willing.

The 2013 European Council summit, which was expected to provide an impulse for a renewal of the CSDP, did not live up to expectations. European leaders failed to tackle the most fundamental question of a long-term strategic vision of the CSDP. Without the strategic approach, the EU will not be effective in its neighborhood, not to mention world affairs. This assertion is true today more than ever before as on the global arena we have been observing the continuous rise of actors whose policy is clearly guided by a sound strategic outlook. In addition, the call for a more effective CSDP, expressed by the European Council, has not been followed by actions that would translate words into deeds.

The outcome of the European Council meeting in June was also somewhat disappointing as heads of state and government formulated conclusions that were certainly very sensible, but also very general. We cannot but applaud the emphasis on the necessity to create new comprehensive strategies for internal security and for foreign and security policy. The latter, in particular, is long overdue and could provide the necessary strategic direction for the CSDP. Yet even the most insightful and novel documents will not make up for political deficits.

An effective CSDP will demand adequate civilian and military capabilities. It is therefore reassuring to see the European Council call for a sufficient level of military expenditure and greater cooperation on capability development. The preparatory action on CSDP-related research that is currently taking shape is a promising initiative that could pave the way for greater cooperation of a large number of stakeholders (scientists, industry and MoDs) around defense-related technologies.

Finally, smooth cooperation between the EU and NATO should remain a top priority. It is an area where more can certainly be achieved. It seems that a new agreement, which could be dubbed an “enhanced Berlin Plus agreement,” is needed. It could include such issues as the relationship between the Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk and the European Defense Agency. Its purpose would be to provide a legal framework for those aspects of the relationship that are currently functioning on the basis of a political understanding: it would thus constitute an insurance policy, should this understanding start to fade.

In conclusion, it is important to emphasize that today NATO is better prepared than the EU to tackle the threats in the East and the South. What both organizations need from Europe is political will to deal with the current challenges, more generous funding, and a continuous commitment to developing cutting-edge capabilities. NATO should transform temporary measures supporting Article 5 into permanent ones, while the EU has to revitalize the CSDP, and thus regain credibility as international actor.

Bogdan Klich is a former Defense Minister of Poland.

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