Europe’s security in NATO

24 January 2023 Joris Voorhoeve

1. Russia’s war against Ukraine shows once again that a large dictatorial state is the enemy of surrounding democracies and countries that aspire to freedom. Ukraine holding out against the Russian military might shows that support from North America, Great Britain and other Western states is essential for the preservation of freedom. (The United Nations, whose main task is to prevent war, is unable to do so, because of the Russian and Chinese veto.) For democratic states around the Atlantic, the alliance with the United States remains essential. After all, the US is the largest democracy, though not perfect, and India, a neutral democracy, is not an ally. (India may wish in the future to join a grouping of states seeking to curb China’s power.)

2. The U.S. has by far the greatest military means of any democracy. It provides leadership in NATO. Without leadership, there is no effective alliance. In Europe, Germany is hesitant to lead, and cannot do so politically or militarily. France is financially and economically not strong enough. The UK lies literally and figuratively between North America and the other European states. It contributes one-fifth to the conventional defense of Western Europe, but is too small to lead and has placed itself outside the EU.

3. While the European Union has an alliance commitment in its Lisbon Treaty, it lacks a strong and credible military position. Moreover, not all European states are in the EU, just as not all European states are in NATO. The neutral European states of Austria, Ireland, Sweden and Finland were outside NATO, but now that Sweden and Finland desire to join NATO, the differences between the EU and the European members of NATO are diminishing.

4. The EU has no “strategic autonomy”. It does not itself possess nuclear weapons necessary to neutralize the enemies’ nuclear power with counterthreat (deterrence). The willingness of EU members to form a European nuclear force is extremely low. Nor is there a federal EU government that could lead it. The recent proposals from the EU to become “strategically autonomous” are  like a soufflé that collapses as soon as it is pricked into. The French and British nuclear powers are relatively small and do not impress today’s Russia. The British nuclear power is linked to NATO and does not serve the EU. Whether the French one is at the service of the EU is unclear. Conclusion: NATO is the only effective solution. Improving the EU’s self-defense is best pursued by a more effective contribution and influence on NATO decision-making.

5. Greater European influence in NATO was especially desired during the period of President Trump whose statements weakened NATO. But more European influence was already sought earlier. The trick is to shape that influence in such a way that the promise by the U.S. to defend European members can be relied upon, if necessary with the threat of nuclear weapons against NATOs enemies. This improved influence could be achieved in several ways:

a. Giving some member states a consultative say in U.S. nuclear weapons policy, involving in particular the European nuclear states France and the UK, and the non-nuclear state Germany, as well as other NATO members that permit the stationing of U.S. nuclear weapons on their territory. This is already the case in the Nuclear Planning Group.

b. Nuclear power may not forever be the only crucial element of strategic autonomy. New, hypersonic and very precise missiles with non-nuclear explosives may upset the seeming stability of the cold peace among the major powers. For instance, the US is developing the Prompt Global Strike,  a missile category that aims to destroy targets anywhere in the world in about one hour. Russia is attempting something similar and China also works in this direction. An arms race for such weapons in large numbers may lead to a first strike capability if most nuclear weapons of an enemy could be hit by surprise. In theory, NATO and EU members could agree to join the US in this new category, to remain superior in military power over potential enemy states. The same could be the case in theory  with space weapons. There are also other factors that could end the nuclear stalemate among the greatest powers.

c. The EU and NATO members could agree to increase their share of non-nuclear defense relatively and absolutely. The US can then devote more attention to security problems in the Far East.

(Note: one should not loosely speak of Europe as a military grouping, as Ireland and Austria are members of the European Union but not of NATO. Finland and Sweden are expected to join NATO. Turkey is a separate case: it is a member of NATO but not the European Union. Sometimes Turkey pressures the EU members in NATO to disagree with NATO proposals, as Turkey is kept out of the EU. Also Cyprus is a special case: Turkish-controlled Northern Cyprus is not a member of the European Union, and Cyprus is not a member of NATO. One should further keep in mind that Canada is a “North-European” NATO country in many non-geographical aspects and often supports policies of EU members. Britain is an important European county outside the EU. These are all reasons to avoid a clear separation of NATO and the EU.)

d. Inviting Ukraine to join the European Union could strengthen NATO even when Ukraine is not yet a member of NATO. Ukraine has demonstrated highly effective and well-motivated armed forces and a willingness to make great sacrifices for freedom and democracy. Depending on the course of Russia’s war against Ukraine, there may also be an opportunity for Ukraine to become a NATO member. This is not discussed further in this note.

e. If one or more members of the EU or of NATO block Ukraine joining the EU or NATO, it could be considered that individual members of the European Union and Ukraine conclude a treaty with each other and North America, in which they accept alliance obligations. This could circumvent the veto that Hungary, for example, could exercise on proposals to remove the defense veto from the Lisbon Treaty, or if a member blocks unanimity in NATO. This could also break Turkey’s obstruction within NATO regarding the accession of Sweden. There may be other, simpler means to make wayward leaders accept the enlargement of NATO. If a new Aachen treaty, concluded by several European states, gradually gains enough members, it could look somewhat similar to the membership of the European Union. The future Aachen group could either be included in a new Treaty of Lisbon, or be an addition to  the present Lisbon, to prevent that Member States could block  Lisbon’s revision. So a new multilateral Aachen treaty remains a sensible idea as plan B.

6. The foregoing has not yet addressed the possibility that Russia will change greatly as a result of the war against Ukraine. For example, there is the risk that Russia will harden further and continue to follow a terrorizing course, or even use nuclear weapons to subdue Ukraine. In that terrible case, the US could enter the war by sending US troops to assist Ukraine, or it could destroy, with non-nuclear air power, military goals in Russia, or it could launch a limited counterstrike with tactical nuclear weapons to force Moscow to stop further use of nuclear weapons. I do not discuss now the pro’s and con’s.

7. There is also a chance that Russia will fall apart due to a civil war between parts of the armed and security forces and parts of the Russian Federation. An internal war could lead to another dictatorship as well as to a division, somewhat comparable to the falling apart of Yugoslavia. This could further increase the relevance of NATO.  It should be noted, however, that the majority of the Russian population, and the different ethnicities, have little or no experience with democracy and the rule of law. Civil war inside Russia could cause many casualties.

8. Whatever remains of Russia after the present war will be very dependent on China for support, or it will have to choose a new, less anti-Western course. There is a risk that the relationship between NATO members and China will deteriorate significantly, inter alia due to Chinese aggression against Taiwan, or because of worsening tensions in the field of trade and electronic warfare. The tensions  may also increase in military-relevant space technology. The relations with several more or less pro-Western states in Asia should also be considered. China is expanding economically and geographically, among other things through artificial islands and acquisition of rights to strategic locations in various Asian countries and ports.  It is not impossible that Russia (or a part of post-war Russia) chooses the Chinese side in the future configuration of major Powers

 9. The conclusion of the foregoing is that a new “reserve” security treaty of European countries in the form of, for example, a multilateral Aachen treaty, could be useful to circumvent blockades of members of the European Union or NATO. This could strengthen the necessary Western order and establish a treaty basis for a coalition of the willing. In the current situation, however, the usefulness of a multilateral Aachen treaty will not be seen as particularly great.  But if countries such as Hungary and Turkey or other members threaten to block progress in Western military cooperation, the Aachen project, proposed to Volt Netherlands, can thus remain useful as a contingency solution. It may also be borne in mind that it is not entirely out of the question that, in the future, another American president would show less interest in Europe’s needs, or adopt an unclear policy that would plunge Europe into uncertainty. In such situations, a multilateral Aachen treaty can help to overcome paralysis of the EU by unwilling states.

10. There is the unspecified proposal for a European Security Council, previously put forward by France, politely but not wholeheartedly supported by Germany, and somewhat elaborated by the Dutch Advisory Council on International Questions. This AIV proposed that the Council would be an informal consultation body with the participation of  Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the EU Council Chair and the Chair and Foreign Commissioner of the European Commission, and the NATO Secretary-General to establish a link with NATO. It is doubtful, however, that such a proposal will be implemented. Without direct participation of the United States, such a European Security Council will have little impact on potential enemies of Western Europe. If the United States were to be admitted to the European Security Council, the question arises as to what this Council would add to the NATO deliberations in which all members could participate. Furthermore, Britain will not want the European Union to take part in such an arrangement. A European Security Council with limited membership could also exacerbate the problems with Turkey and exclude Canada for no good reason.


11. On a related subject: proposals to forge the military intelligence and security services of EU members and the EU commission into a common service may sound logical but not very sensible and not feasible. One should take into account that the largest intelligence capacity lies with the United States and that its services show little willingness to share critical intelligence with many other states, inter alia because this may compromise sources, and lead to leakage of secret information. Not every European state has tight security against penetration by Moscow and Beijing. Only those security services trusted by the United States, like those of the United Kingdom, Germany and France, are involved in deep Western intelligence cooperation. (Fortunately, the Dutch AIVD also falls in this category.) But as soon as this becomes an EU project, the security services of the larger countries will stop sharing the most sensitive information with others, to avoid that crucial information leaks to less-trusted capitals. The idea that the European Union in its current composition can have a well-functioning military intelligence service that is fully trusted by the US and NATO underestimates what several individual EU Member States still need to do before they meet all requirements of close cooperation.