Nineteen of the European Union’s member states also belong to NATO, so when they created the European Defence Agency (EDA) they exposed themselves to charges of bigamy. But for many of them it was to mean a double life that far from reinforcing their commitments to defence after the military disengagements of the post-Cold War era, the EDA was to offer yet another excuse for relaxing.

The birth of the EDA had been widely seen as akin to opening Pandora’s Box, exciting fears of overlap, confusion and still greater rivalry between the EDA and the NATO secretariat. In fact, although it’s wrong to suggest there is no duplication between the work being done by the EDA and by NATO, it is limited in scope and confined only to certain well defined areas, and is both necessary and justified, given the differences in membership of the two organizations and the distinction, and their different yet compatible missions.

When the EDA came into being in July 2004, it was tasked along the lines of the European Security Strategy the EU had adopted the year before. Its mandate was to support both the member states and the Council in their efforts to improve the EU’s defence capabilities, especially in the field of crisis management. Its overall purpose is also to sustain the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) as it now stands, and to help it develop further in the future. In practice, that means helping the EU develop credible, coherent and effective military forces, with the new Battlegroups a key element of the EU’s rapid response capabilities. These autonomous forces should, of course, be able to respond quickly and decisively in a whole spectrum of crisis management missions, including humanitarian and rescue operations, peacekeeping tasks and possibly disarmament operations, while also providing support for third countries in combating terrorism and undertaking security sector reforms.

The EDA’s mandate also took it well beyond developing ESDP military capabilities. Its broader tasking assigned it four other highly specific functions: to develop European defence capabilities, promote European defence research and technology, advocate European armaments cooperation, and create a competitive European defence equipment market while also strengthening the European defence technological and industrial base. In line with these responsibilities, the EDA developed four different strategies, each of which seeks to induce structural change in the way EU member states’ armed forces operate, train and are maintained and equipped.

The EDA has at the same time tried to create incentives that would encourage member states to opt for “European solutions” to most of their capabilities shortfalls, thereby making the EU more autonomous and reducing its dependency on non-European resources and technologies. Last but not least, the EDA is seeking in collaboration with the European Commission to develop projects that can be used in both military and civilian crisis management operations, such as unmanned air systems and a software defined radio.

NATO, meanwhile, does not seem to have made much progress in the non-capability related areas that are now the EDA’s focus. In its 60-year history, the alliance has failed to achieve much in the way of harmonization and integration of the defence industries of Europe and the United States. Nor has NATO succeeded in streamlining research and technology spending by becoming the hub of cooperative armaments projects. Improving the alliance’s overall defence capabilities through greater spending on cooperative armaments programmes and on joint projects across the Atlantic has quite simply proved to be out of NATO’s reach. In any case, it was never clearly identified as one of its purposes. When it comes to further developing Europe’s military capabilities, the forces required for the NATO Response Force (NRF) are much the same as those earmarked for the EU’s Battlegroups. They are expected to engage in the same types of operations, other than collective defence which is not part of the ESPD’s remit. Developing the EU Battlegroups therefore in no way compromises the ability of EU member states to undertake operations within NATO’s much broader mandate, and vice versa. ESPD is thus complementary to NATO in cases where the alliance’s either does not seek to become involved or cannot for one reason or another undertake a particular crisis management operation.

The difference between the EDA and NATO activities is therefore one of advantage rather than weakness. In the case of the EDA, most of the EU’s so-called “neutral” states are significant contributors to the EDA’s research and technology efforts and are also important players in all of the three other areas it is active in. And despite the absence of the United States from the EDA’s programmes, most EU member states regard the EDA as a more effective framework than NATO for mobilizing political will and marshalling the greater resources needed to improve Europe’s defence capabilities.

The EU’s comparative advantage here is that is also has a wide range of non-military soft power instruments at its disposal, such as financial, judicial, police and administrative capabilities. NATO is focused on collective defence and crisis management operations that are generally limited both in scope and time, while the EU’s crisis management operations are always a part of medium or long-term political projects.

Against this backdrop, it is in all of our best interests to ensure an effective and transparent dialogue between the EU and NATO, and to create more synergies between the two. The relationship between the EU and NATO should be cooperative and complementary, not competitive. Both ran their missions from the same forces, and both prepared for compatible if not exactly the same type operations, and drawing upon countries with the same relatively low levels of defence spending that are not likely to increase significantly in the years ahead. Close coordination between the EU and NATO is therefore essential to avoid duplications, overstretch and the diversion of our already limited military resources.

The EU-NATO relationship clearly needs to be strengthened through the establishment of an open and constructive dialogue between EDA and NATO working bodies. Otherwise, NATO and the EU will continue to develop independently from each other, greatly increasing the risk of overlap, confusion and rivalry that is neither politically acceptable nor financially affordable. The EU needs NATO to maintain a healthy transatlantic relationship with the U.S., our closest ally, and in post-war Europe long the final arbiter of our security, stability and well-being. Without U.S. support, the EU will not be able to fulfil its global ambitions and play the more active role it seeks in maintaining international peace and security.

The EDA´s launch in 2004 was just the beginning of our efforts to develop European defence capabilities in a more comprehensive fashion. The EU needs to continue developing a strategic culture that spans both institutional and conceptual frameworks. With luck, the EU has a new reform treaty within its grasp that will put the EU defence and security framework onto a new basis of permanent structured military cooperation while also codifying ESDP practices through the EDA.

A continuous review of our security ambitions on the basis of the European Security Strategy is going to be indispensable. As EU defence capabilities improve, so will demand for EU military and civilian crisis management grow. The EU therefore has to continue developing its crisis management strengths while also creating the conditions under which its enhanced hard power defence capabilities can be used. Otherwise, the EU will be more likely to fall short of realising its global security ambitions. That in turn carries the risk that an incoherent and inefficient European response could lead to a two – or multiple – tiered defence capability that would quickly undermine the credibility of the ESDP, and thus the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).