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23 June 2022

NATO and the EU are not the driving force behind defence cooperation in Europe

Defence cooperation in Europe is not driven by NATO or EU policy but is governed by an unprecedented number of small-scale, military collaborations between states, according to a new book by a King’s College London researcher.

Nato and EU flags

Dr Bence Németh, Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at King’s, says there is a web of hundreds of such partnerships which can often come about due to personal relationships between leaders, as well as the economic and political priorities of states.

His book How to achieve defence cooperation in Europe – The subregional approach offers an innovative theory to explain the dynamics behind creating successful defence collaboration in Europe. The book provides useful insights for policymakers and researchers grappling with the future of European defence, in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Dr Németh said:

As a result of the war in Ukraine, policymakers in Europe and North America have scrambled to strengthen defence cooperation in Europe. The headlines inevitably focus on NATO and the European Union. Yet this ignores the reality of how European defence cooperation is actually established, fostered, and solidified.

Dr Bence Németh

The decade-long research project undertaken by Dr Németh, who previously spent eight years working as a defence official at the Hungarian Ministry of Defence, reveals that the essence of European defence cooperation is a complex network of hundreds of bilateral and minilateral collaborations. While these forms of cooperation are not new, their recent proliferation is unprecedented in Europe’s history. Agreements range from multinational military units to cooperating on armaments, training, logistics, surveillance, operations, and command and control.

To better enhance European defence, policymakers should appreciate the dynamics of these many collaborations. Taking advantage of the current circumstances to build more mini and bilateral ties, particularly where leadership and financial circumstances are most conducive, will strengthen Europe and make its multilateral institutions such as NATO and the EU, that much more formidable.

Dr Bence Németh

According to Dr Németh, usually, NATO and the European Union work merely as a framework into which these European countries channel their ongoing bilateral and minilateral defence collaborations. Often these arrangements can be rebranded as EU and NATO projects quickly if necessary, and even shape NATO and EU policies from the bottom up.

Factors such as the personal relationships between leaders in different states and the domestic and international political climate, as well as the need to pool limited defence budgets between countries, help create windows of opportunity for military cooperation.

According to the book, cooperation usually starts when leaders — politicians, civil servants, or military officers — invest the extra effort needed to foster closer ties, often when they have good chemistry. For instance, David Cameron, the former British Prime Minister, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president at that time, were able agree on the Lancaster House Treaties in 2010 due to their good working relationship. Dr Németh says it is hard to imagine something similar occurring between Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron, due to their strained relationship.

A supportive political environment is also needed, according to the research. This can come either from the domestic or international developments. Currently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has created a political climate in Europe that is extremely supportive to defence collaborations.

Dr Németh says the theory his book introduces can also explain how small-scale collaborations are often crucial in developing significant partnerships. For example, the UK and Estonia built on close relations established after 10 years of joint operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan, with the UK taking on a leading role working with Estonia, as part of NATO operations on its eastern flank. Another example is the way Lithuania has become a defence market for Germany and a recipient of German NATO troops. Furthermore, thanks to cultural similarity and extensive previous military cooperation, the Czech Republic has sent the most troops to Slovakia and oversees the international forces located there, and for similar reasons, France deployed 500 troops to Romania.

Buy How to achieve defence cooperation in Europe – The subregional approach.

In this story

Bence Nemeth

Senior Lecturer in Defence Studies Education