February 2001

ISIS European Security Review No. 4


Controversy over EU Access to NATO Capabilities*
by Otfried Nassauer and Catriona Gourlay


At a meeting of the Alliance’s North Atlantic Council (NAC) in December, Turkey made every effort to block automatic EU access to NATO’s military planning capabilities. While Turkey is often identified as the principal obstacle to achieving a working EU-NATO relationship, the controversy over EU access to NATO capabilities is wider and reflects a fundamental disagreement over the interpretation of the ‘autonomy’ of the EU’s nascent military crisis management capability.

NATO and the EU interpret ‘autonomy’ differently. While in NATO language this means independence in decision-making but not necessarily in implementation, for the EU there can be no real autonomy in decision-making without unconditional access to necessary capabilities – including military planning capabilities, intelligence capabilities and other assets.


Access to NATO planning capabilities

The current principal dispute is over whether NATO should agree to the EU’s demands for ‘guaranteed permanent access’ (legally binding automatic access without NAC-decision) to the Alliance’s military planning capabilities at its military headquarters (SHAPE) when conducting EU-led operations. Some non-EU NATO members such as Turkey would prefer that such access be agreed on a case-by-case basis. Turkey is resentful that the modalities of participation in EU-led missions do not allow third countries to take part in the decision to launch an operation, and fear that unless NATO can check EU actions on a case by case basis, the EU might act against its interests. Others, notably the US, recognise that guaranteed access to NATO planning would give NATO members substantial input into an EU-led operation through their staff’s involvement in the planning process and hold no objections to the proposal. Fearing too much foreign influence over EU- perations, France maintains that the EU should not rely on NATO for its planning and is holding up developments on the EU side.

The US is also aware that making access to NATO’s planning capabilities contingent upon case-by-case approval could provide a strong incentive for the EU to build its own capabilities independent from those of the Alliance and in addition to the existing assets of EU member states. This was France’s original intention, and it was only in the face of opposition from other NATO members, notably Britain and Germany, that the EU decided first to seek guaranteed access to NATO capabilities. In view of the difficulties in obtaining such access, positions might still shift. Germany’s Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has warned that while it would be preferable to avoid duplication of NATO structures, Turkey’s position might force the EU to build a military planning capability of its own. Moreover, EU countries might feel compelled to procure additional military capabilities under its own control instead of within the Alliance, as pledged in the Defence capabilities Initiative (DCI). If this happens, Ankara’s and Washington’s opportunities to influence EU military actions will shrink drastically.

At the North Atlantic Council meeting in December no agreement was reached even though a working group specifically set up to conduct consultations on the modalities for EU access to NATO assets had been meeting for months. Negotiations remain at a standstill in both institutions. Many are waiting for Turkey to capitulate on the one side, and for France to soften its position on the other. This will probably not happen before the Swedish Presidency ends in June, but many hope for resolution by the end of the year.

Access to other NATO Assets

The controversy over access to assets is, however, likely to be a broader one. The EU is also interested in access to some of NATO’s common assets such as command-and-control capabilities and the use of AWACS planes and may also seek access to additional national assets normally available for NATO operations. The US is not likely to approve the EU’s access to all common assets on a ‘guaranteed’ basis, but may agree to ‘assured access’ (a politically binding promise that nevertheless requires case by case decision-making in the NAC). With regard to national assets, the US has already stated that it will not pre-identify its national assets as available for non-Article 5 operations (i.e. crisis management operations). This falls short of the EU’s request that all non-EU NATO members identify national assets and capabilities that are presumed to be available to the EU albeit subject to a case by case decision by the NAC. A further request from the EU for ‘guaranteed access’ to these national capabilities would inevitably be resisted. Thus, while the EU might gain guaranteed access to some of NATO’s collective assets it is unlikely to gain the same kind of access to some of the operationally most important assets such as intelligence, space based reconnaissance and heavy airlift, which are in most cases controlled by the US. Decision-making arrangements for the availability of such core assets will need to respect the decision-making autonomy of both institutions. The Union is therefore likely to seek arrangements with NATO and the US which identify assets made available to each other in accordance with the principle of reciprocity.

The future of these negotiations will depend on the position taken by the new US administration and on changing European attitudes. A Bush administration reluctant to engage in European crisis management might be less critical of a truly independent European capability than its predecessor, which was intent on setting limits for EU action outside NATO. Alternatively, if the new US-administration continues to push for limited EU-autonomy, the EU consensus to attain full operational autonomy may crumble. Given the financial and political benefits of institutionally embedding the US in European Security, several EU Member States may still prefer Europe to be operationally dependent on NATO.


, Berlin Information-center for Transatlantic Security (BITS) and Catriona Gourlay, ISIS Europe


* This article has been adapted from an article by Otfried Nassauer and Clara Portela in the Project on European Nuclear Non-Proliferation (PENN) Newsletter, No. 13, February 2001.