How will the NATO-EU competition evolve in the post Brexit era?

Donald Tusk and Barack Obama Nato Warsaw July 2016

The President of the EU Council, Donald Tusk, on the left, and Barack Obama, President of the United Stated of America at the NATO Summit in Warsaw last weekend (© European Union , 2016 / Photo: Etienne Ansotte)

Last Saturday NATO’s Summit in Warsaw concluded after two days of tight discussions between member states on how to address current threats and react to new challenges. Two years have passed since the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, but the many evolutions of the past 24 months made the Polish meeting a crucial one in the North Atlantic treaty’s history. The 28th NATO Summit in Warsaw was indeed a road map to an enhancement of NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe, and at the same time the first one since the UK referendum and the last one of the Obama era.

Strengthening the NATO presence

The board covered already last Friday one of the most delicate points of the agenda summit, and the summit started with a critical decision. NATO leaders indeed announced they have “decided to strengthen the Alliance’s military presence in the east” of Europe, by placing four battalions in Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania “on a rotational basis”, as announced in an official press release on NATO’s website. The battalions will be operative starting from next year.

“We have decided to establish an enhanced forward presence in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to unambiguously demonstrate, as part of our overall posture, Allies’ solidarity, determination, and ability to act by triggering an immediate Allied response to any aggression”, said the official Warsaw Summit Communiqué, issued by the Heads of State and Government of the member countries of the North Atlantic Alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg underscored the importance of the moment on the same day, talking about a “defining moment” in the history of the alliance. He then became more precise and openly mentioned the launch of a reinforcement of NATO’s “collective defense and deterrence”, the “biggest since the end of the Cold War”.

Obama’s legacy

On that same day, the United States President Barack Obama announced the deployment of another 1,000 US troops to Poland “to bolster NATO’s eastern flank”. The 1,000 American troops will make up one of four battalions deployed in this latest NATO resolution to Poland and the three Baltic countries mentioned above. According to the Wall Street Journal the headquarters will serve a previously announced brigade of 3,500 US troops and heavy weaponry that will move throughout Eastern Europe on a continuous roation, designed “to maintain a constant military presence in the region”.

“Poland will be seeing an increase in NATO and American personnel and in the most modern military equipment,” Mr. Obama said after meeting Polish President Andrzej Duda at the beginning of the NATO summit in Warsaw. US President Obama also described Warsaw summit as the “most important moment” for the alliance since the end of the cold war.

Cold winds blowing

During Warsaw Summit’s weekend, NATO leaders also announced that the alliance’s ballistic missile defence system in Europe is now fully operational. “Today a new milestone in the development of NATO BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense) has been reached and we are pleased to declare the achievement of the NATO BMD Initial Operational Capability”, the official NATO document said. “This is a significant step toward the aim of NATO BMD that offers a stronger capability to defend our populations, territory, and forces across southern NATO Europe against a potential ballistic missile attack”.

Officially, the latest moves announced by NATO during the weekend aim at strengthening the Alliance’s defence, and plans “to project stability in the wider neighbourhood”, especially against any threat posed by international terrorism, although it is impossible not to think to the worsening of relations with Russia. Indeed the deployment of the rotating military troops in Poland and the Baltics are surely a deterrent approved by NATO to secure those countries from possible Russian aggression, following the deterioration of the relations between Moscow and the former satellite-states.

Russia’s reaction

Many analysts are already warning of the risk of the Kremlin overreacting to NATO’s moves, as Moscow has already reportedly vowed to respond to North Atlantic plans by placing more Russian soldiers in the region. Last Friday, Reuters quoted Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, saying that any NATO suggestion that Russia posed a threat would be “absurd”. “It is absurd to talk about any threat coming from Russia at a time when dozens of people are dying in the center of Europe and when hundreds of people are dying in the Middle East daily”, Dmitry Peskov said to reporters. “We aren’t the ones getting closer to NATO’s borders”, Mr. Peskov added, with an apparent reference to terrorism.

Differing opinions

There were differing views of Russia at the summit though. The French President, François Hollande, insisted that Russia should not be seen as a threat, but as a partner instead, while Poland’s Foreign Minister, Witold Waszczykowski, said Western leaders should “reject” any type of “wishful thinking with regard to a pragmatic cooperation with Russia” as long as it keeps on “invading its neighbours”.

UK’s acting Prime Minister David Cameron also used quite clear-cut words when describing the whole question with the Kremlin, saying that Europe must “remain united in the face of the threat from Russia”. Speaking at the NATO summit on Saturday, Mr. Cameron said there had to be a “hard-headed dialogue” with Moscow to prevent any “misunderstanding or miscalculation” leading to conflict.

Post-Brexit stress

Mr. Cameron has been under the spotlight during the entire Warsaw summit. The world’s major media reported that the Brexit issue was driving “anxious conversations” behind the scenes for days, following the statement of a NATO official last week. “How can it not affect western cohesion? How can trillions being wiped out in market value not affect perceptions of western strength?” the official asked, as reported by the Guardian.

Warsaw summit was the first in the post-Brexit era, and the many questions that the British referendum has opened ultimately triggered uncertainty across the Atlantic. The first one to open the “Brexit box” was indeed US President Obama. “The vote in the United Kingdom to leave the EU has created uncertainty about the future of European integration”, he said. “Unfortunately, this has led some to suggest that the entire edifice of European security and prosperity is crumbling”, he also added.

The Brexit and the Transatlantic Treaty

President Obama immediately wanted to close any possible misinterpretation of his words though, and argued against exaggerating the impact of Brexit on the transatlantic partnership. “There have been those who have been questioning ‘what does this mean for the transatlantic relationship?’ Let me just say, as is often the case in moments of change, this kind of hyperbole is misplaced”.

President Obama also wanted to emphasise the crucial role of the European Union as well as the positive impact of the EU project on the world’s stability. He indeed quoted the EU as “one of the greatest economic and political achievements of modern times”. He also refrained from giving details about the future of ties between London and Washington, but the Financial Times quoted him as saying that “the special relationship between the US and the UK will endure”.

Hopes for an “orderly transition”

In an op-ed written for that British financial newspaper, Obama said that, despite difficult times ahead, he is “confident” that the UK and the EU will be “able to agree on an orderly transition to a new relationship, as all our countries stay focused on ensuring financial stability and growing the global economy”. “I have no doubt that the UK will remain one of NATO’s most capable members”, he also wrote.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, partially disagreed with US President Obama on the consequences of Brexit, and acknowledged that the geopolitical consequences of UK vote “may be very serious”. “It is important to send today a strong message to the whole world that Brexit, as sad and meaningful as it is, is just an incident, and not the beginning of a process,” Mr. Tusk said, calling for unity. He also said that the EU and NATO face “the same threats”, “whether from the east or the south, or within”, and need to push for closer integration.

A delicate moment

The 28th NATO Summit in Warsaw had indeed a very crucial importance. As stressed by US President, it came in a very “critical moment for the European Union”, both for internal and external causes. Relations with Russia are still tense after two full years of sanctions and strategic movements following the annexation of Crimea, and despite positive intentions claimed by leaders, a solution appears hard to find.

NATO can play a very pivotal role in such a delicate moment. Its appeal remains very strong, to begin with. Indeed, during a phase where the European Union is seemingly losing its allure to both member states and wannabes, NATO is still attracting new members. Montenegro has become the 29th member state to join the treaty last weekend, and the trend looks positive today more than ever.

Major competition between NATO and the EU

In seems now that the North Atlantic Treaty can indeed live up to a new major spring since the end of the Cold War ,where it had fogged up its mission during the past two decades.  However, at the same time this could be a major challenge for the EU’s mission. The risk is indeed that for areas such as external relations many countries would now rely more on NATO than the EU, something that would eventually weaken the EU’s mission significantly.

It is obvious that the US (aka NATO) will take keen advantage of Brexit and the turmoil the EU is now facing to strengthen its own interests, and in this case to boost the North Atlantic Organisation, which is a undeniably powerful tool of American interests globally. It is also obvious that NATO will possibly look more alluring to some countries right now compared to the EU, as major “protection umbrella”. And since it is always about money, this could eventually mean an increase of wealth for NATO by stealing “market share” from the EU.

The only reply then the EU could ever try to give to such risks is by remain united despite any centrifugal forces, and remembering its bright history and roots. Let’s face it; there’s no other political union in this world that has guaranteed peace to its members states to such an extent as the EU.

There’s surely no other way for the EU to continue to exist than by constantly reaffirming itself as the only strong, robust peacekeeper of the region.

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