Military cooperation in Europe: possibilities and limitations

October 10, 2005 - nr.31

1. Cooperation is broader than task specialisation.It has advantages,but it also has a price.

The different forms of military cooperation all have their own mix of advantages and disadvantages and conditions for success. The greater the degree of integration, the greater the advantages. AND the higher the price in terms of national decision-making. That effect is clearest in the procurement of common resources and when sharing tasks. It will therefore come as no surprise that there are few, if any, examples of those types of cooperation.

An international framework within which compulsory exchanges of tasks can be implemented is only possible if states are willing to surrender some or all of their sovereign authority in the area of defence. Bilateral exchange is possible in theory, but only if it is not in conflict with the national minimum. One could investigate whether closer maritime cooperation and, over time, task specialisation would be possible with Belgium, with the latter assuming responsibility for anti-mine activities and the Netherlands assuming the frigate escort tasks.

2. Most possibilities over the short term are at the lowest level of cooperation: pooling and development and procurement of materiel

States retain the greatest proportion of their sovereignty in cases of the least intrusive forms of cooperation, namely, pooling and cooperation in respect of materiel. That is, therefore, also where most possibilities can be found for intensifying cooperation over the short term. That may not seem like much, but it is worth the effort, partly because pooling and cooperation in respect of materiel can lead to greater degrees of cooperation in the future. One example is the pooling of maritime patrol aircraft (candidate partners for the Netherlands: Norway and Germany). Another possibility is collective training of Apache helicopter crews with the United Kingdom. In both of these examples, initial lower-level forms of cooperation can lead to cooperation at higher levels over time.

3. Operational cooperation requires close coordination and willingness to actually deploy forces

In setting up operational cooperation, the assumption is often made that complete sovereign decision-making remains intact. Cooperative arrangements are set up on that basis. The Netherlands, at the insistence of the House of Representatives, regularly insists on this principle. Holding on to that principle, however, can seriously undermine the effectiveness of the cooperation over time. That applies to multilateral relationships, such as the NATO Response Force. That problem can be avoided by building in a degree of redundancy, although that conflicts with the objective of cost-efficiency. The possibility of building in redundancy is virtually non-existent in a bilateral operational context (such as the Dutch-British Amphibious Force and the Dutch-German cooperative relationship in 1 German-Dutch army corps). The partners must be able to rely on each other, in regard to meeting training obligations and preparedness for actual deployment. The partners must be aware that participation in operational cooperative relationships has compulsory consequences in regard to authority over the parts of the armed forces assigned and for the associated budget items. These issues should be explicitly considered politically when entering into such cooperative arrangements and, where possible, laid down in writing.

4. The success of operational cooperation requires that some national decision-making authority be surrendered

The advantages of bilateral operational cooperation may not be inconsiderable but are difficult to express in figures. The advantages include increasing interoperability, build-up and maintenance of expertise, contributing to more equitable burden-sharing, strengthening the political relationship between the countries involved, etc. Investments are required initially. Any economies of scale will only become available in the long term, for example, because a particular task specialisation is assumed within the cooperative arrangement. Such arrangements therefore require staying power. That is why it is wise to coordinate national decision-making as well as possible between participants.

In regard to participation in the multilateral NRF, the AIV is of the opinion that such participation can only succeed if the participating units meet their training obligations and the Member States involved can count on the deployment of all units, as decided by the collective of the Member States. Member States who insist on retaining their rights of control over the units that they have made available until the last moment are not doing justice to the concept of the NRF and should probably not participate. For the Netherlands -which also appears to hold on to the idea of retaining full decision-making authority even in the event of participation in the NRF- this determination is at odds with procedures used for the national framework for final decision-making in regard to deployment at a late stage of the process.

5. The EU and NATO frameworks for cooperation and build-up of capabilities is in a start-up phase and offers no direct framework for exchanging tasks.

An international framework within which participants can arrive at a compulsory exchange of tasks is only possible if states are prepared to surrender some or all of their sovereign authority in the area of defence. The ESDP does not yet seek such a framework, nor does NATO. The initiatives for strengthening military capabilities, which both organisations have commenced, have made important contributions to creating a consensus on the existing deficiencies. The awareness seems to be getting through to people that the time for large-scale reductions in defence has passed. A climate for further-reaching international cooperation is also coming into being. The initiatives identified have not led to the achievement of the objectives (capabilities build-up, increasing interoperability, more equitable burden-sharing). While it is true that a first step has been taken, many more are still needed. In that regard, it is important that:


  1. The possibility for collective financing of materiel be looked at more closely, allowing for national contributions as well;
  2. Attention is also given to the output of the defence budgets, to complete input. The British-French proposal for an Agency as a result of the ECAP process contributes to this step. The WEAG -under Dutch chairmanship for the coming years- can play a complementary role (the answer to the question of the degree to which a country’s defence budget supports the EU and NATO objectives could be to the benefit of the Netherlands);
  3. Political engagement is increased. NATO scores somewhat better on this point at the moment than the EU does;
  4. Over time, a common strategic concept be developed for the EU. It is not an absolute condition for further progress, but it would be useful in decision-making in regard to the deployment of military personnel.

6. Cooperation at a lower level should fit in with the developing EU/NATO construction

The Netherlands is firmly convinced that the future entails further-reaching military cooperation among the European countries. The AIV shares that opinion. Since 1995, the development and strengthening of relationships in which the Netherlands participates in that regard have taken wing to a certain extent. These cooperative relationships have arisen ad hoc. No overarching strategy lay at their creation. Recently, a framework has begun to develop within the EU and NATO within which such a strategy could develop. Unmistakeably, a ‘hook’ has therefore developed on which to hang international cooperative relationships.

7 Cooperative relationships at lower levels should meet the requirements of “Policy Guidelines for International Military Cooperation ”,still to be developed

We have described above how the situation in Europe in regard to military cooperative relationships is far from ideal. We must therefore be satisfied with ‘second best’ solutions: cooperation in smaller groups.

In seeking cooperative relationships that will contribute to eliminating the deficiencies on the ECAP and PCC lists, the Netherlands must bear in mind that the most obvious partners for each Service are different. The Royal Netherlands Army, for example, is more Germany-oriented, and the Royal Netherlands Navy more UK-focused. The consequences for the Netherlands could be that the Netherlands is restricted in its political freedom of movement and in the possibility of choosing other collaborators.

The EU/NATO must, however, still provide the broader framework. Even then, however, a key point will continue to be the retention of sovereign decision-making authority.

Guiding principles Dutch investments in cooperative relationships, which could be included in a set of Policy Guidelines for International Military Cooperation, include:

  • Cooperation should not bring the Netherlands into conflict with unambiguously defined national core tasks of the military capabilities;
  • Cooperation should, over time, leading to an increase of military capabilities which can be traced back to the capabilities initiatives of the EU and NATO as directly as possible;
  • Cooperation should benefit both NATO and the EU;
  • Cooperation should lead to an increase in interoperability, within both EU and NATO;
  • The consequences of cooperation for national decision-making authority should be considered in any decision-making concerning entering into military cooperative relationships and the results of that consideration should be clear both domestically and internationally;
  • Cooperation should be sustainable over a longer period of time. That means that the participating partners enter into engagements for longer periods of time, with clearly defined interim evaluation points. This would persuade the partners of each other’s/one another’s reliability.
  • When entering into cooperative relationships, the Netherlands should consider its relative place within the EU and NATO.

Cooperation is not a goal unto itself. Cost-efficiency is sometimes a result, but not always. If cooperation and coordination lead to freeing up funds that can then be invested effectively elsewhere, it can lead to ‘more defence for the same money’. But the principle that cooperation has consequences for sovereignty and autonomy always applies. That repeatedly requires a careful weighing of issues.

8. The AIV recommends setting up a multilateral ESDP and NATO-PCC audit.

The way the Member States implement the priorities as formulated by ECAP and PCC remains for the time being a matter of national decision-making authority. The degree to which these exercises are used as guidelines in defence planning is at the discretion of individual Member States. The Netherlands and other Member States indicate that they involve ECAP and PCC in their defence planning. It would be good to be able to evaluate that at a supranational level. That only makes sense if all the Member States were to subject their plans to an additional multilateral audit. The Dutch govern-ment, for example, could take the initiative to propose to develop such an audit, on the basis of the PCC and the Headline Goal at the EU and NATO levels, for all Member States involved in relation to their defence efforts. That could fit in well with the British-French plans for an Agency, as described above.


Finally, the AIV wonders whether the internal departmental exercise ‘joint plan’ (recently rechristened the Integrated Defence Plan) in support of the pending budget provides sufficient basis to give an adequate answer to the question of what may be expected from the Dutch armed forces in the near future and how these should be quantitatively and qualitatively structured.

That relates to two issues. The first is what has been referred to in this advice as the ‘national minimum level’ or ‘core tasks’. That means military capabilities which the Netherlands believes should not be traded with any other state under any conditions. This is an area that is in a state of flux, as demonstrated by the consequences of the increased threat from international terrorism. It is important that these core tasks be defined clearly on the basis of a current threat perception.

The second issue is the ambition level for the armed forces that the Netherlands wants to keep intact as a minimum and for which it must be prepared to reserve the required financial resources.

In the opinion of the AIV, these two questions demand the formulation of strategic perspectives concerning the Dutch objectives in relation to the tasks and functions of the armed forces both domestically and abroad, accompanied by their financial consequences. Such a framework would not only serve as a basis for making choices and setting priorities. It would provide continuity in regard to objectives, ambition level and the budget policy; a continuity that is crucial in order to be a reliable and attractive partner in entering into military cooperative arrangements. It is needed if the government -as appears from the request for advice- is seriously considering to go further along the trail of military cooperation already blazed.

It appears from the above that, for the foreseeable future, reality compels us to look for far-reaching cooperation primarily in those forms of cooperation entailing the smallest loss of decision-making authority. Nevertheless, the search for broader forms of cooperation over the longer term should not be abandoned. The creation of a multilateral cooperative framework within which collaborating partners are willing to surrender some of their sovereign decision-making authority -regardless of how difficult to achieve that now seems to be- can help to break the current impasse over the long term.

Advice request
Ministry of DefenceMinistry of
 Foreign Affairs
P.O. Box 20701P.O. Box 20061
2500 ES The Hague2500 EB The Hague
Telephone +31 070-3188188Telephone +31 070-3486486


Chairman, Advisory Council on International Affairs 
Mr. F. Korthals Altes 
P.O. Box 20061 
2500 EB The Hague 
Developing European defence capabilities further 



In the context of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), the Netherlands has developed a number of initiatives in recent years aimed at strengthening European military capabilities and promoting military cooperation. Various bilateral and multilateral projects and, of course, the European Capabilities Action Plan (ECAP), were the result. The capabilities initiatives of NATO (DCI/PCC) and the EU (Headline Goal) were the catalysts for the current developments in Europe. The Dutch vision on this question has been expressed in a speech by the Minister of Defence on 15 January 2001 at the NATO symposium on Defence Planning in Oberammergau (Germany). Recent letters from the ministers of Foreign Affairs and of Defence in light of the NATO summit in Prague also deserve mention in this context. The tasks set in the Strategic Accord underline the need to continue vigorously the policy concentrating on strengthening European military capabilities.1


Against that background, the government requests advice from the AIV in regard to complementary possibilities to intensify the cooperation among the European countries in planning, acquisition, maintenance and deployment of military capabilities. As set out further below, the government favours a pragmatic ‘bottom-up’ approach and would appreciate it if the council would give that item specific attention in its advice.2

DCI and Headline Goal
Strengthening military capabilities has been a fixture on the European political agenda since the Kosovo crisis. In 1999, NATO launched its Defence Capabilities Initiative (DCI) and, in the context of the ESDP, the European Union set itself the goal of achieving the Headline Goal. Although attention in recent years has concentrated on the Headline Goal, the accent has shifted over the past few months to strengthening capabilities for the benefit of NATO. This is primarily in relation to the Prague Capabilities Commitment, which is a consequence of the DCI and the forming of the NATO Response Force. These various efforts are just two sides of the same coin, however: strengthening European military capabilities benefits both NATO and the EU.

The capabilities initiatives of NATO and the EU have not yet resulted in substantial strengthening of European military capabilities. That is partly due to the limited financial resources available to European countries, the fragmented European defence efforts and the length of time required to acquire military capabilities. Nevertheless, one can say that the DCI and the Headline Goal have already had far-reaching consequences for European armed forces:

  • Both initiatives have underscored the necessity to modernise European armed forces radically. There is a lack of adequate operational capability and associated capabilities, especially in the area of command and control, strategic transport and intelligence gathering and analysis. It is also necessary to improve greatly interoperability among the armed forces. Countries, especially the smaller countries, only operate in international coalitions any more. Modern crisis response operations are inconceivable without multinational and modular deployment of military units;
  • The DCI and the Headline Goal have led to the insight that the need for some capabilities has declined. That has led to discussions, in NATO and other fora, of whether countries should not reconsider their defence priorities.;
  • With the DCI/PCC and the Headline Goal, NATO and EU countries have a rudimentary common set of priorities for the first time and fora to be able to deal with the requirements in a coordinated fashion. ECAP, for example, which tries to deal with military deficiencies through country panels of representatives of interested countries in consultation, is being used to pursue the Headline Goal. A report on the progress in ECAP will be published in the fourth quarter of 2003.

Dutch ESDP policy
The DCI and the Headline Goal have also had an effect on defence policy in the Netherlands. Strengthening European military capabilities is one of the spearheads of Dutch defence policy. Dealing with European military deficiencies, especially in the area of intelligence gathering, strategic transport and command and control, is at the heart of Dutch ESDP policy. NATO’s PCC covers four capabilities areas: 1) defence against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks; 2) ensuring secure communications, command and control and ‘information superiority’; 3) improving the interoperability and the combat power of deployed units and 4) ensure rapid deployment and sustainability of armed forces.

The government is aware of the many obstacles that must be overcome to achieve far-reaching European military cooperation. Long-term cooperation within NATO and far-reaching cooperation in carr ying out non-Article 5 Crisis Response Operations notwithstanding, the Defence organisation still finds itself emphatically within the domain of national sovereignty. Furthermore, institutional issues, such as the relationship between the ESDP and NATO, developments of a European materiel policy and the different pillars in the EU, distract one from the development of a coordinated European defence effort. Nevertheless, far-reaching cooperation, seems to be only way for European countries, and the smaller countries in particular, to be able to maintain adequate defence capabilities over time. Operationally, financially and in respect of materiel, no other choice is possible. The developments in NATO and the EU reflect that. The attention in this advice, however, should not, in the first instance, focus on these institutional issues.

The basic principle of Dutch ESDP policy is that, in addition to making extra resources available, defence cooperation among European countries should be strengthened, given the current fragmented defence efforts. The Netherlands strongly favours, therefore, a coordinated European approach, including, among other steps, the ECAP initiative. The Netherlands also favours strongly for intensification of cooperation, both bilaterally and multilaterally (such as in the European Air group and the European Maritime Initiative). That has led in the past several years to a series of projects, partly financed from ESDP provisions, that have been conducted with one or more European Allies. Recent examples include the development of common UAV capability with France, the air transportation agreement with Germany and strengthening the headquarters of the German-Dutch army corps.


Such a pragmatic approach is how the Netherlands wants to contribute actively to strengthening European military capabilities and increasing the effectiveness and the efficiency of European defence efforts. That can be done in a number of ways, including common acquisition, creating modules, pooling of military assets and role and task specialisation. That could result in maintaining, expanding and disposing of tasks. Opinions differ as to the applicability and desirability of those and other forms of cooperation. Perhaps the Council can cast some light on that issue, as well.

What is next?
The tasks set in the Strategic Accord have again underscored the need for cross-border military cooperation. Maintaining and acquiring capabilities will increasingly depend on the possibilities of embedding them internationally. Against that background, the government asks the council to advise on additional possibilities for further intensifying cooperation among European countries in respect of acquisition, sustaining and deploying military capabilities and the related prior planning. In that regard, one could also look into the different possibilities for financing that have been used so far (such as common budgets, leasing, etc.), the advantages and disadvantages of them and possible alternatives.

Yours sincerely,



1 On 8 November 2002, the Minister of Defence and State Secretary for Defence sent a letter to parlia-ment concerning the consequences of the Strategic Accord.

2 The interdepartmental policy study on European defence capabilities, which has already started, primarily concentrates on the financial returns of task specialisation in the sense of possible cost reductions. As far as the Defence organisation is concerned, the better question is how the financial returns from task specialisation could be used for further intensifying European cooperation.

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