EU-NATO Defense Cooperation

EU-NATO Defense Cooperation
Eu flag inside a spiral” by European Parliament is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Europe’s significant though incomplete security response to Russia’s war in Ukraine suggests that the achievement of European strategic autonomy exists on an extended timeline.  In the near-term, deepened defense integration between the European Union (EU) and NATO will support capability modernization and interoperability while expanding European equipment procurement networks.  The NATO 2022 Strategic Concept’s cooperative security provisions and the EU’s 2022 Strategic Compass provide a practical framework for strengthened EU-NATO cooperation.  

Shifting Timeline for EU Security Independence 

The EU’s decisive but deficient defense response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine diminishes the near-term viability of European strategic autonomy. Europe’s wartime reliance on US materiel support demonstrates that the EU’s autonomous defense capabilities likely cannot meet continental security threats. 

Efforts to expand EU defense integration have prioritized institution building and broad conceptual frameworks over actionable policy solutions. However, improving the EU’s operational capacity requires practical initiatives, including substantial investments in military capabilities and increased defense spending by national governments. Finally, the war’s outcome remains uncertain and heightens the urgency of implementing the pragmatic policy initiatives presented by NATO and the EU. 

Strategic Concept and Strategic Compass Cooperative Security Provisions

The Strategic Concept and Strategic Compass address the myriad policy deficiencies limiting European defense independence. NATO’s Strategic Concept acknowledges the value of expanded European defense capabilities underpinned by EU-NATO interoperability. Practical steps supporting interoperable defense capabilities include “policy initiatives to increase defense spending and develop coherent, mutually reinforcing capabilities while avoiding unnecessary duplications.” Investment and cooperation across alliance systems support resilient EU-NATO integration, eliminate capability redundancies, and reduce the US’s burden. 

The Strategic Compass calls for increased defense spending buttressed by enhanced political and military partnerships. EU member states have committed to increasing defense expenditures and promoting technical innovation through targeted investment. The Compass offers two complementary paths to strengthen EU-NATO cooperation. First, to improve political coordination, the EU “will organize more frequent and inclusive joint EU-NATO high-level meetings that focus on strategically relevant issues.” Improved political dialogue allows the EU-NATO partnership to enhance strategic communication and share essential intelligence. Second, to strengthen military cooperation, the EU seeks to expand the EU-NATO Parallel and Coordinated Exercises by incorporating joint and inclusive exercises. These include scenario-focused discussions and military mobility in joint military exercises which support interoperability and likely builds trust. Achieving collective defense objectives will require increasing aggregate EU defense spending.           

Inadequate Defense Expenditures 

Aggregate EU-NATO defense expenditures do not meet the 2 percent of GDP threshold, and a broad collection of countries’ equipment expenditure as a share of defense expenditure falls below the 20 percent guideline (see figure 1).  As a result of consistent underinvestment and deficient equipment expenditure, European militaries’ capabilities have declined by 35 percent over the last twenty years.  

Figure 1: Defense expenditure as a share of GDP and equipment expenditure as a share of defense expenditure

Limited defense spending has precipitated capability gaps. Europe depends “on US support for critical enablers such as air-to-air refueling, strategic airlift, and reconnaissance and intelligence capacities.” The necessity of US materiel support throughout the war in Ukraine again evidences the importance of raising aggregate EU defense spending above the 2 percent of GDP threshold and prioritizing bridging capability gaps through increased industrial investment.   

While EU member states spent $225 billion on defense in 2020, equipment expenditures were fragmented. National governments often prioritize domestic procurement agendas rather than furthering a coordinated EU equipment procurement strategy. The lack of collective procurement has exacerbated the EU’s capability redundancies. The EU’s militaries possess “29 different types of destroyers, 17 types of main battle tanks, and 20 types of fighter planes, as compared to four, one, and six, respectively, for the United States.” Extensive redundancies decrease interoperability, increase the EU’s reliance on the US, and impede European security independence.  

Expanding the EU-NATO Industrial Base and Political Cooperation 

Eliminating redundancies through coordinated procurement policies would require enhancing EU-NATO political cooperation and expanding NATO’s industrial base. The EU-NATO partnership’s industrial base do not seem to be able to replenish weapons stocks and replace capabilities efficiently. Further, the lack of diversification in raw material sourcing and insufficient domestic production of essential components jeopardize the EU’s strategic response. 

Successful industrial base development requires EU-NATO political cooperation and a strengthened transatlantic alliance. The Strategic Compass states that the EU “will enhance ongoing cooperation on political dialogue, military capability development, and military mobility.” Furthermore, including an industrial base expansion on the mutual policy priority list would allow the EU-NATO partnership to advance the prospect of European defense independence.  The EU-US bilateral relationship is also essential to Europe’s strategic autonomy project. Enhanced strategic dialogue regarding defense expenditures and industrial base development would support the evolution of the Euro-Atlantic alliance.   


In the 2018 EU-NATO joint declaration, member states welcomed political agreements prioritizing security and defense in budgetary negotiations. The language of the 2022 Strategic Concept and Strategic Compass directly calls for increased defense spending and strategic coordination, though national governments’ defense expenditures do not yet reflect the conceptual frameworks provided in the documents.  

Practical, joint policy implementation will require political will across European national governments and a strengthened transatlantic partnership. Without political agreement regarding industrial base expansion, targeted investment strategies designed to bridge capability gaps, and collective procurement policies, redundancies will very likely continue to hinder interoperability and EU security independence. Increased EU-NATO defense spending and strategic integration would, in all probability, reduce Europe’s reliance on US support, inoculate the Union against US political uncertainty, and accelerate the realization of European strategic autonomy.

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