Marek Kopanicky – European Regional Content Writer
From the perspective of the ordinary European citizen, the North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is just one out of many international organisations, aside from superficial knowledge gained from news or history lesson, it retains seemingly limited bearing on everyday life. The institution of the European Union, on the contrary, succeeded in being more tangible and closer to people in Europe, which is understandable, considering the relevance of its everyday activities and initiatives as well as extensive media coverage. However, the importance of the EU in economic and social affairs, is matched by NATO’s significance in the fields of defence and military cooperation. Needless to say, these fields are equally (if not even more) crucial for well-being and peaceful life of Europeans. However, NATO is currently beset by serious debates over its agenda and resolution of contested issues. This article aims to elaborate three matters which dominate the current debates among NATO’s European members, namely: defence financing, relation to Russia, and prospective new members.
Firstly, it must be clear that all 29 member countries make direct and indirect contributions to the costs of running NATO and its activities. This occurs in accordance with the agreed cost-share formula, based on Gross National Income. Since 2006, there have been ongoing and intense discussions regarding the commitment of the NATO member countries, and whether they should continue to spend a minimum of 2% of their GDP on defence. Interestingly, even the official NATO website stipulates that “the volume of the US defence expenditure effectively represents 72% of the defence spending of the Alliance as a whole”. Accordingly, this evokes a serious free-rider problem, especially among small inland EU countries. For example, Luxembourg, Belgium, Spain and Slovenia give less than 1% of their GDP on defence but continue to enjoy the military umbrella created by the NATO. The risk of minimal defence spending is mitigated by being geographically surrounded by other NATO nations, creating a convenient buffer zone. Meanwhile, Greece, the U.K. and Estonia are the only European countries fulfilling their commitments and contributing at least 2% of their GDP on defence. Again, this makes sense, since all of them are located at the geographical borders of the alliance and had quite turbulent historical and military experiences.
The second issue facing European NATO members is undoubtedly their relations with Russia. Historically, NATO operated as a counterweight to the Soviet-led military bloc of countries united under the ‘Warsaw Pact’. Although this was dismantled in the 1990’s, Russia has remained in the centre of interest for NATO even after the formal end of the Cold War. This became more urgent after NATO has grown to encompass countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The geographical proximity has gone hand-in-hand with acutely negative historical experiences with Russia, and the former Soviet Union, which has influenced the perception of Russia among European NATO member states. It is obvious that Poland or Estonia are much more aware and afraid of threats posed by Russia than the countries of Western Europe such as Portugal or the Netherlands. They simply do not have the direct experience with the implications of Russian expansionism. Indeed, this narrative has been strengthened after Russia’s actions in Ukraine in 2014. It would be a mistake not to mention the NATO-Russia Council, established back in 2002. While its beginnings looked rather promising, its operation is now paralysed as a consequence of Russian interventions in Georgia (2008) and Crimea (2014). In this regard, the recent incident in Salisbury, U.K., where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok is just another negative event, deepening an already deep ideational and diplomatic gap between NATO and Russia. Last, but not least, there is Turkey, an influential and semi-European NATO member, who’s relations with Russia have strengthened across the last few years.
Thirdly, NATO officially still has an ambition to admit new countries into the alliance, however this represents another complicated debate for current member states to grapple with. This issue is independently difficult; however, it is further complicated due to contested defence contribution commitments and the range of mixed and intractable perceptions of Russia across Europe. In the case of the most recent member state added to NATO, Montenegro, as well as four current aspiring members, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Macedonia and Ukraine, the question of financial capacities and Russian relations raise legitimate concerns for the organisation. Balkan countries have historically very complicated relations with Russia, highlighted by common Slavic and religious (i.e. Orthodox) roots. Georgia and Ukraine particularly have had very strained ties with Russia in recent years. Montenegro, a small Balkan state admitted into alliance only in 2017, may serve as a good case study. Its accession is a perfect example of a strategic signal without real practical meaning, since Montenegro will inevitably fail to meet its 2% contribution commitment and Russia has openly opposed its membership.
There is may be a clear, long-lasting consensus on the importance of peace and need for collective defence, which NATO embodies for more than 20 European member states. On the other hand, the approach to main issues for the organisation, such as financing, Russian threats or accepting new members is not consensual. On the contrary, states traditionally prefer their own national interests over the common ones and tend to be free-riding. There, the European perspective on NATO will continue to be contested and heterogeneous, and despite the ongoing importance of the organisation, there are no visible signs of consensus.