NATO, EU and France: a call for cooperation in the Mediterranean

The 27th NATO Summit held in Warsaw, Poland, on 8th and 9th July gathered together heads of state and heads of government of the North Atlantic Council. The discussions held this year confirmed NATO´s role in ensuring the collective defense to safeguarding the freedom and the security of the Allies. But the instability at the border of NATO needs a new policy and new methods to face geopolitical threats from East and North Africa as well as non-conventional threats such as terrorism, hybrid warfare, and cyber and nuclear threats.

In particular, the instability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has affected peace and security at a global level and has contributed to a seemingly unstoppable refugee and migrant crisis. Daesh and terrorist attacks across the world have paved the way to an unprecedented level of concern. The Warsaw Summit declaration made it clear that in case of armed threat to the security of one of the Allies, the Alliance will take all the necessary measures to preserve collective security, especially because the instability across the Middle East and North Africa demonstrates that now we are living in the shadow of a domino effect impacting the security and the stability of NATO and the EU, and having a negative effect on the politics of every country. It is bringing to light the weaknesses of every European Member State’s defensive system.

The summit acknowledged the need to strengthen NATO´s presence in Eastern Europe by 2017; the declaration of use of the Operational Capability of NATO´s Ballistic Missile Defense as counter threat measure to respond to the intimidations posed by Iran and North Korea; further strengthening of national and collective measures to assure proper cyber defense and to recognize the cyberspace as a new operational domain; the introduction of the BOEING E-3 Sentry AWACS to guarantee the surveillance of planes, as to provide information and intelligence support to the Global Coalition to counter Daesh from Turkish and international airspace (this was drawn up before the coup attempt took place); the start of training and capacity building inside Iraq; the continuation of the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan beyond 2016 until 2020; the approval of a Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine by the NATO-Ukraine Commission;  the Joint Declaration signed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the President of the European Council Donald Tusk, to take the partnership between NATO and the EU to a higher level. In particular, the Declaration sets out areas where NATO and the EU could cooperate such as maritime security and hybrid warfare, strengthening the exchange of information among national intelligence agencies and the increasing number of armed forces along the Baltic and the European southern borders, to protect them from the Russian threat; the expanded maritime presence in the Mediterranean Sea to cope with the European migrant crisis and human trafficking.

The security of the Mediterranean Sea in NATO policies has always had a central place, in order to guarantee the protection of the Southern boundaries of the Alliance, considered as its weakest part. The role played by France and Germany has had a crucial importance in the ensuring of the European security equilibrium. Both countries have an intermediary role, which is useful for the mediation between the European countries. In the case of the Mediterranean, France has a strong position and is able to have an influence on the measures to take because of its historical interest in the area.   

The Mediterranean context has changed since the Arab Spring and the French government seemed not to be able to help stabilize the changing regional dynamics. In this context, the French Mediterranean policy seemed old and inadequate. Moreover, the involvement of Paris in sedating the uprising in Libya, bombing the territory to help defeat Al-Gaddafi, had many consequences in the area as well as on domestic and international politics. With the election of François Hollande as President of the Republic, France tried to present itself as an external interlocutor of the democratic parties.

In the wake of the Arab Spring and pushed by the need for the European Union to support the political tensions and promote sustainable economic development, two initiatives were launched to reinforce the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). One of these initiatives has been directed by the Union for The Mediterranean (UfM) towards concrete operations to promote better regional integration, dialogue and cohesion in the area. The Union was a French project proposed in 2007 by Nikolas Sarkozy before his election, and launched the following year. The creation of the UfM emphasized the role of France in the Mediterranean, showing once again to Europe the French grandeur, the heritage of the past, and the commitment of the Country in fostering the stability of the region.

France’s role is different within NATO, where the country has been reintegrated in 2009.  The country proved a reliable, steadfast and essential ally for the implementation of NATO’s missions, but it has always posed its foreign policy priorities before those of the Alliance, the agreements, and the international equilibrium. This is true especially for the Mediterranean area, which has always played a key role for France since the southern shore has always been a strategic scenario of considerable interest. In the words Alexandra De Hoop Scheffer (2016a), France has now been playing the part of a swing state in the Alliance.

France participated to the NATO’s Warsaw Summit in the past weeks, having at its back a horrible 2015, scattered by two terrorist attacks which showed political and intelligence defaillances in the national defense system. France’s main priority is to preserve a balanced and flexible Alliance with enough cohesion and ability to defend the countries from the threats coming from South, and especially the fight against Daesh. France is pivotal in NATO operations. NATO must ensure borders protection by mixing hard power and soft power, leaning on the role of the Arab diplomacy and reinforcing two NATO initiatives: the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. It is not by chance that during the Summit it was decided that five Middle East Countries would have a permanent representation to NATO: Israel and Jordan as members of the Mediterranean Dialogue and Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain as members of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative.

As France has always pointed out in the Rapport Védrin as well as in the White Paper on Defense and National Security, the country is on the frontline to guarantee the protection of the Southern borders since both NATO and EU have not often been considered by the French diplomacy as the leading powers to protect the Mediterranean. The French operations conducted outside the NATO-EU framework proved this. What France is hoping and asking out loudly is greater coordination between NATO and the European Union. The collaboration between the two, from the French point of view, will improve a weak strategic partnership that can assure, on a long-term perspective, an efficient threat-counter tool, especially for the dangers coming from the MENA region.

Given its own strategic priorities, France would continue to maintain a balanced approach to the Eastern and Southern neighborhood. When Sarkozy stated that “the future of Europe lies in the South” was speaking the truth and now we are assisting to a splitting of the European partnership from within. France will no longer play the role of “savior” of the Mediterranean borders. The European countries need to develop their intelligence system and smooth internal contrasts as to obtain a proactive role just as France has. The French political system itself needs to be changed and modified. The current tensions in the country could have effects on the foreign policy of France itself, as well as on European foreign policy. Many other Mediterranean countries should have a prominent role in assuring the defense and the equilibrium of the Mediterranean region. An interesting idea could be a spin off the Union for the Mediterranean with more powers and with a more defense oriented character, that could back the NATO-EU cooperative approach. But, France will continue anyway to have a leading role in the defense of the Mediterranean borders preserving its autonomy, especially from NATO. France has always been clear regarding its autonomy in the area and showed reluctance to adopt many political measures decided by NATO, for example the last enlargement of the Alliance with the acceptance of Montenegro as new member. According to France, this will increase tensions with Russia; tensions that France wants to avoid in order to preserve the relations with the country in the perspective of an anti-Daesh coalition. The Alliance has been considered by France too weak to pursue the fight against Daesh. For this reason, in the end, we could say that NATO has great potential to play a leading role in the fight against the so-called Islamic State and recreate a partial equilibrium in the area, acting as a toolbox to conduct antiterrorism operations, avoiding to leave France and other European allies to conduct operations alone. France encourages, in the meantime, allies to allocate more economic and human resources to boosting better organized and dedicated maritime policy to preserve the European southern borders and equilibrium of the rest of Europe.

Alessandra Vernile

Master’s degree in International Relations (LUMSA)


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