Beyond Rivalry? EU–NATO Cooperation in Counter-Piracy Operations

By Simon J. Smith and Carmen Gebhard

Counter-piracy operations and maritime engagement in the Gulf of Aden is a puzzling case for anyone interested in the political and institutional problems underlying the attempts by both the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to cooperate in security matters. Since late 2008, both organizations have conducted counter-piracy operations off the Somali coast to reinstall some sense of stability in the region. Yet although the EU’s operation NAVFOR ‘Atalanta’ and NATO’s ‘Ocean Shield’ operate in the same theatre (and with similar mandates), there is no formal link between them either currently or at anytime previously. The two operations in fact run outside the so-called Berlin Plus framework established in 2002 to formally regulate both strategic and operational cooperation between the organisations. In reality, this means there is no joint planning or official task sharing between the two security actors. Despite this actuality, our recent article in Cooperation and Conflict (written with Carmen Gebhard), ‘The two faces of EU–NATO cooperation: Counter-piracy operations off the Somali coast’ demonstrates that cooperation and coordination between EU and NATO forces has, nevertheless, worked surprisingly well at the operational and tactical levels.

What we have tried to demonstrate is that, on closer inspection, two faces of EU–NATO cooperation become apparent. This translates into the following: while the political level remains dominated by a permanent deadlock, EU and NATO operational staffs have developed an informal and practical relationship that allows them to deliver towards their respective mandates. Based on 60 interviews with EU and NATO officials (2010–2013), the article demonstrates how the operational and tactical levels have developed ways of coordinating efforts informally despite the lack of a formal framework. The article demonstrates in detail how the two sets of operational staffs have succeeded at bypassing organizational boundaries and how they have discovered creative ways in which to individually and collectively overcome political limitations. However, although these practices are becoming increasingly institutionalized, it remains to be seen whether this will translate into formal changes between the two security actors.

There is very strong empirical evidence that international personnel within both the EU and NATO have developed informal practices to effectively overcome political limitations. Such practices have included facilitating coordination, information exchanges and efforts at deconfliction. Not only have EU and NATO staff proactively sought out ways to circumvent institutional barriers, but they have also shown a readiness to challenge or push back at established organizational redlines intended to limit cooperation between the two organisations. As a general rule, the more informal, under the radar and away from the political sensitivities of Brussels these processes are, the more their political minders tend to look the other way.

Furthermore, this institutionalization of informal cooperation has both institutional and pragmatic elements. For example, bodies such as the Naval Coordination Cell (NAVCO) and the Shared Awareness and Deconlfiction group (SHADE) have been established. SHADE, in particular, has been critical in coordinating the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) and for setting up MERCURY, a secure but unclassified internet-based communications system. In fact, because EU and NATO communication systems wont talk to each other for security purposes, even platforms as mundane as Yahoo Instant Messenger have been productive towards achieving informal collaborations. Northwood in the UK, which houses both the EU and NATO OHQs, has also been used as a ‘fusion centre’ for the exchange of sensitive information and, finally, a long historical tradition of international maritime cooperation has certainly facilitated cooperation as well.

Maritime engagement in the Gulf of Aden is thus a puzzling case for anyone interested in the political and institutional problems underlying the attempts by both the EU and NATO to cooperate in security matters, and in terms of their developing roles as actors in crisis management. To date, the academic literature has focused more on the strategic foundations of multinational counter-piracy operations in this region (e.g. Bueger et al., 2011; Chalk, 2010; Germond and Smith, 2009; Willett, 2011) as well as on the international legal framework for operational action in this area (e.g. Bueger, 2013b; Geiss and Petrig, 2011; Roach, 2010). Instead, this article aims to illustrate how limitations at the political and strategic levels affect and condition working realities at the operational and tactical levels within both organizations. The article holds that a lack of cooperation by the two organizations at the formal level is not, necessarily, primarily a matter of inter-organizational competition or rivalry.

Ultimately, we argue that the lack of formal EU-NATO cooperation is more about the way in which international organisations are used by their member states as a means to maximize specific national interests than it is about competition between security organisations per se. Needless to say, operational staffs working in both the EU and NATO take fulfilling their mandates very seriously indeed. However, until the political challenge that limits EU-NATO formal cooperation is overcome independently of EU-NATO operational requirements, it is unlikely that these informal practices alone will lead to such changes in themselves. In other words, the EU and NATO have certainly advanced their operational efficiency through informal cooperation aimed at tackling piracy, but that will not be enough to change the status quo at the formal level.

Literature and Further Reading

Bueger C (2013a) Piracy studies: academic responses to the return of an ancient menace. Cooperation and Conflict. Epub ahead of print 8 July 2013.

Bueger C (2013b) Responses to contemporary piracy: disentangling the organizational field. In: Guilfoyle D (ed.) Modern Piracy: Legal Challenges and Responses. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp. 91–114.

Bueger C, Stockbruegger J and Werthes S (2011) Pirates, fishermen and peacebuilding: options for counter-piracy strategy in Somalia. Contemporary Security Policy 32(2): 356–381.

Burwell FG, et al. (2006) Transatlantic Transformation: Building a NATO-EU Security Architecture. Washington, DC: Atlantic Council of the United States.

Chalk P (2010) Piracy off the Horn of Africa: scope, dimensions, causes and responses. Brown Journal of World Affairs 16(2): 89–108.

Geiss R and Petrig A (2011) Piracy and Armed Robbery at Sea: The Legal Framework for Counter- Piracy Operations in Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Germond B and Smith ME (2009) Re-thinking European security interests and the ESDP: explain- ing the EU’s anti-piracy operation. Contemporary Security Policy 30(3): 573–593.

Howorth J (2009) NATO and ESDP: institutional complexities and political realities. Politique Etrangère 74(4): 95–106.

Hunter RE (2000) The European Security and Defense Policy: NATO’s Companion or Competitor? Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Kramer FD and Serfaty S (2007) Recasting the Euro-Atlantic Partnership. Washington, DC: CSIS.

Muratore A (2010) EU-NATO co-operation and the pirates of the Gulf of Aden. Australian Journal of Maritime and Ocean Affairs 2(3): 90–102.

Roach JA (2010) Countering piracy off Somalia: international law and international institutions. American Journal of International Law 104(3): 397–416.

Seibert BH (2009) When great powers compete, the pirates win. Foreign Policy. Available at: pirates_win (accessed 18 November 2012).

Smith SJ (2011) EU–NATO cooperation: a case of institutional fatigue? European Security 20: 243–264.

Willett L (2011) Pirates and power politics: naval presence and grand strategy in the Horn of Africa. The Rusi Journal 156(6): 20–25.

About the authors

Carmen Gebhard is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh and a Research Associate at the Institute for Peace Support and Conflict Management at the National Defence Academy, Austria. Her research focuses on transatlantic and European security as well as small state foreign policy.

Simon J. Smith is a Research Associate at the University of Bath, an Honorary Research Fellow at Aston University and a Senior Research Fellow at the Scotland Institute. His doctoral research focused on EU and NATO cooperation. He is currently researching the drivers of military trans- formation in Europe.