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EU/NATO: Analysis From Washington -- Contradictory Expansions

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 26 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- NATO expansion and European Union expansion, long assumed to be complementary processes, are having an increasingly contradictory impact on those countries which seek to join one or both, on the current members of these two key Western institutions, and on those like Russia which are unlikely ever to get into either.

These unintended contradictions, British defense analyst James G. Sherr concludes in a recent paper released by the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst's Conflict Studies Research Centre, reflect less the different purposes of the two organizations -- NATO is a security alliance and the EU is an economic one -- than the specific mix of policies they have adopted over the last decade concerning potential new members.

Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, Sherr notes, NATO has done everything it can "to soften the distinction between members and non-members," thereby successfully avoiding the drawing of new lines in Europe its leaders oppose while extending a penumbra of security to countries whose national sovereignty has been at risk.

NATO, Sherr points out, has been willing and able to tailor its relationships with all Partnership for Peace countries, developing close links with some countries like the Baltic states and Ukraine and maintaining somewhat looser ties with the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia. And because it is concerned with national defense, NATO has not made fundamental change inside these countries a precondition for cooperation.

Indeed, Sherr implies, this willingness of the Western alliance to accept such diversity in the countries with which it is cooperating has become one of NATO's greatest strengths.

The European Union has taken a very different approach. Sherr notes its main focus throughout this period has been the deepening of the integration of current members. And consequently, it demands that those countries which want to become members transform themselves at home and be willing to impose tighter border controls vis-a-vis their neighbors who can't or won't join.

In that way, the EU not only draws precisely the kind of lines in post-Cold War Europe that NATO has sought to avoid, but because the accession process takes so long, this EU approach has the potential to dramatically expand the size of the gray zone of political and economic uncertainty between East and West. And that in turn undercuts NATO's approach.

Not surprisingly, these differences between NATO and the EU have had a serious impact on countries interested in joining. Many of their leaders view NATO as the primary source of military security but are increasingly concerned by NATO's efforts to work out a cooperative relationship with Moscow whose policies are the primary reason these countries seek a relationship with the Western alliance.

At the same time, many aspirant countries see EU membership as the primary source of economic well-being. But they are nervous both about the impact of the demands of membership on their own societies and the tariff and visa walls the European Union requires its members to erect. Such tight borders will often cut these countries off from traditional partners, even after certain special transitional arrangements are approved.

But because NATO and the EU have such different purposes, few in Eastern Europe accept the notion, often promoted in the West, that the expansion of one is the equivalent of the expansion of the other. Indeed, they are ever more sensitive to the distinctions that either current members or those who oppose both institutions.

At the same time, this distinction is having an impact on NATO and the EU as they exist today. The approach of each of these institutions often undercuts the approach of the other, thereby reducing the effectiveness of both NATO's approach and the common European security and defense policy and exacerbating tensions between the two groups.

And this contradictory impact of the two approaches also has a major impact on countries like Russia, which are unlikely to join either, an impact that is all the greater because the Russian government does not appear to fully understand the distinctions.

Focusing on NATO's military past, Russian officials have largely ignored its variegated approach and its efforts to avoid drawing lines. And consequently, they have been almost unanimous in opposing the eastward expansion of the alliance, even as the alliance seeks to cooperate with Moscow.

And considering only the EU's economic role, these same Russian officials have largely ignored the tight borders EU membership requires and the impact such borders might have on the Russian economy. And not surprisingly, most of them have welcomed EU expansion both as a substitute for NATO growth, even though EU expansion might hurt some Russian interests more.

As Sherr notes, neither NATO nor EU leaders appear to be fully aware of the impact of such contradictions, but unless they consider them in the near future, both organizations will be helping to create a world in Eastern Europe very different than the one they and the countries of that region say they want.