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NATO’s Washington Summit: Between expectations and reality – and how the EU can bridge the gap

Giuseppe Spatafora / Jul 2024

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On 9-11 July, NATO leaders will meet in Washington, D.C. for a summit that will be a milestone in the history of the alliance. They will celebrate 75 years of collective defence. Mark Rutte is widely expected to be appointed as the new Secretary General, resolving uncertainties surrounding NATO’s leadership after Jens Stoltenberg steps down in October. However, two significant issues will still cast shadows over the positive mood. One is the credibility of Ukraine’s path towards NATO membership. The other concerns gaps in European deterrence capabilities, especially in the defence industrial base.

The Washington summit will be significant for the EU. As HR/VP Josep Borrell has argued, ‘there is no alternative to NATO for the territorial defence of Europe’. But the EU can also play a role in key issue areas that will be addressed at the summit – European deterrence and support to Ukraine.

Up to now, NATO has not played a role in providing lethal assistance to Ukraine, leaving the initiative to individual members acting bilaterally and through the US-led Ukraine Defence Contact Group (UDCG). This will change at the summit. NATO plans to set up a facility for training and support to Ukraine in Wiesbaden, Germany, manned by 700 personnel to coordinate training and equipment donations. The Secretary General also aims to obtain a financial pledge to provide at least €40 billion in military assistance every year, which would match the average yearly amount provided in 2022 and 2023.

According to Stoltenberg, the mission will place ‘our support to Ukraine on a firmer footing for years to come’. This is true only to a certain extent. Embedding the mission within the alliance will leverage NATO’s well-oiled integrated command structure. This could facilitate a more efficient and structured delivery of aid – although its effectiveness compared to the current, US-led format remains to be seen. Furthermore, concerns persist about the mission’s ability to withstand future political headwinds. Will there be any backstop mechanisms to prevent countries from withdrawing in the future? Hungary has carved out an exemption from participating in exchange for dropping its veto. Others could follow.

Ukraine hopes to obtain an invitation to join NATO at the summit, but this is extremely unlikely, due to the lack of support among allies – including the US and Germany. Stoltenberg is seeking to include ‘a bridge towards membership’ in the summit declaration. Kyiv hopes NATO will go beyond the ambiguous phrasing that Ukraine will join ‘when allies agree and conditions are met’. But it is unlikely that the declaration will include practical steps towards membership, such as attendance at North Atlantic Council meetings and a timeline for accession.

Could the EU fill the expectations gap? The first EU accession conference with Ukraine on 25 June is a tangible gesture that Kyiv badly needed. While the path to European – and eventually, transatlantic – integration is long and complex, starting the process will send a powerful signal. This should be combined with written security commitments to Ukraine, as stated in May’s EU Council conclusions.

Practical steps will strengthen the credibility of the political declarations. As the largest provider of training for Ukraine, the EU should expand the size and scope of its own assistance, complementing the efforts of the new NATO facility. The EU should also seek to do more inside Ukraine’s territory, strengthen Ukraine’s own defence industry, and integrate it within the European defence and technological industrial base. Finally, the EU should implement agreed decisions on financing Ukraine’s war effort, such as utilising frozen Russian assets.

Deterrence and defence will be another major theme of the Washington summit. In the past two years, NATO has developed new plans for the territorial defence of Europe, reformed command and control arrangements, and set up a ‘New Force Model’ involving up to 500 000 troops at multiple readiness levels. However, there are still gaps. A recent CSIS report argues that ‘while NATO might be ready for war, the question remains whether it is ready to fight – and thereby deter – a protracted war.’ To fight a near-peer competitor, NATO will need a strong, integrated and resilient defence industry.

At the summit, the Secretary General will push NATO leaders to agree a defence industrial pledge to signal sustained demand to the industry, encouraging long-term investment. NATO should also agree to procure more platforms, air defence and artillery systems, and develop capabilities in emerging technologies.

Will this replicate the recent success of the defence investment pledge – which led 23 NATO countries to spend at least 2 % of GDP on defence, up from 11 last year? This will depend on political commitment from leaders and on specific incentives to follow through on the pledge.

The EU can decisively contribute to European deterrence where NATO still falls short. Initiatives like EDIP, the EDF, and EDIRPA incentivise Member States to develop the necessary industrial depth. The new European Parliament should approve EDIP as soon as possible, while preparations for the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) must set aside a significant portion of the budget for defence industrial purposes.

In addition to strengthening the European defence industry, these initiatives will have a twofold impact on NATO. First, they will boost the defence spending of the 23 EU Member States within NATO – currently accounting for 24 % of total allied spending – thereby increasing the total pool of resources at the alliance’s disposal. Second, they will incentivise a critical mass of countries to develop collective capabilities and increase interoperability. This will have positive spillover effects on cooperation between EU and non-EU allies in NATO. Ultimately, it will strengthen the Europeans’ weight in future relations with the US – especially in light of Donald Trump’s potential victory in November.

As the latest progress report shows, EU and NATO cooperation at the staff level is solid. Political disputes between some members will remain a factor. However, this should not prevent close coordination and complementarity between the two institutions. The gravity of the security threats facing the European and transatlantic community demands a unified response from both.

 

Visit also the EUISS website

 

Giuseppe Spatafora

Giuseppe Spatafora

July 2024

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