The 2016-2017 common set of proposals has played a vital role in improving EU-NATO coordination and cooperation in the field of countering hybrid threats. However, multiple obstacles remain in place and there is still room for increased cooperation, both with regard to the existing set of cooperation topics as well as in exploring new potential. Furthermore, the structural limitations of EU-NATO cooperation also raise the question of whether other formats should be explored to strengthen international counter-hybrid cooperation.
Before exploring additional areas of EU-NATO cooperation in countering hybrid threats, it is important to acknowledge the following. First, this EU-NATO cooperation is a necessity as such. The EU and NATO need each other, as neither of them can address hybrid threats by itself. This is especially true in light of the complex nature of hybrid threats. Hence, the analysis of hybrid threats needs to be multidisciplinary, and in addition a comprehensive approach is necessary when developing counter-mechanisms and building resilience. Considering their different toolboxes, the EU and NATO can or rather must complement each other. Furthermore, it should be reminded that creating resilience is, by nature, a state matter, rather than an EU or NATO issue. However, no one state or organisation can address hybrid threats by itself. Consequently, the EU and NATO have a vital role to play in reinforcing the resilience of their respective member states. Finally, the obstacles to closer formal cooperation between the EU and NATO will continue to exist for the foreseeable future, as explained in the previous chapter. Therefore, it is unlikely that maximum cooperation between both organisations will be established, and this should also not be expected. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of opportunities to optimise the cooperation between both organisations. These will be outlined below.
First of all, room for improvement can be found on the conceptual level. From the literature and interviews the perception arises that it is not always completely obvious what exactly can be expected from the EU and NATO. Where do the responsibilities (and possibilities) of the EU and NATO begin, and where do they end? Of course, there is a wide understanding of the general differences between the two organisations: the EU is a much broader focussed organisation with a mainly civilian and legal outlook, while NATO is a more narrowly focussed political-military organisation as has been stated in chapter 3. It is also obvious that there is a certain overlap between the organisations’ capabilities and responsibilities, and more importantly, even a certain complementarity when it comes to countering hybrid threats. The cooperation between the two organisations has successfully intensified in the past few years. Yet, expectations as to the respective roles of the EU and NATO with regard to countering hybrid threats could be better managed. Do the EU, NATO and their member states fully realise where the responsibilities of both organisations begin and end? What are the possibilities and limits of both organisations?
Based on various interviews that were conducted for this report, the image arises that there is a grey zone in the expectations from different sides. An example is the delineation of responsibility and military tasks with regard to cyber threats. A related perception arising from interviews is that for the EU, NATO is only one of many partners in countering hybrid threats, while for NATO the EU is at least one of the main, if not the main partner organisation in this field. The different levels of expectations may sometimes lead to disappointments at staff levels or in member states. More clearly and publicly identifying the capabilities and limits of both organisations when it comes to joint activities to counter hybrid threats could be helpful in managing expectations. This could help in updating the list of common proposals in the counter-hybrid area. Retreats, organised by the Hybrid CoE, could again be used to explore any necessary updates to the list and to explore the potential for additional categories.
With respect to the obstacles to information sharing, the analysis presented here has demonstrated that open-source information sharing between EU and NATO staff members has improved over the past few years, but additional steps for full implementation still have to be taken. This lies primarily in embedding regular exchanges of information between the EU Hybrid Fusion Cell and the NATO Hybrid Analysis Branch. Examples may include the exchange of analyses of potential hybrid threats and recommendations on how to address them. In this regard, one could think of creating a (digital) information-sharing platform, within the Hybrid CoE, in which relevant stakeholders, both civilian and military, could share information and research results on hybrid activities. Naturally, the EU Hybrid Fusion Cell and the NATO Hybrid Analysis Branch should be included in such a platform. In addition, in order to achieve a comprehensive approach, one could also think of involving relevant private actors, such as companies that specialise in cyber security. Such a platform would greatly benefit open-source information sharing in general and would enhance situational awareness on hybrid threats more specifically.
More problematic, however, is the sharing of classified information. The most pressing issue in this regard is the need for an appropriate and secure communication system through which EU and NATO staff are able to exchange classified information. At present, such a system is not available, and EU and NATO staff members sometimes have no other option than to meet in person in order to share more sensitive information with their counterparts. Although no easy solution is available, exploring options for a shared communication platform is advisable. Perhaps specific priority categories of exchanging classified information between the two organisations could be chosen and agreed upon by both organisations as a starting point.
With reference to the area of crisis response, the EU and NATO have undertaken valuable efforts in the past six years. Nevertheless, more cooperation and coordination are needed to enhance the proposal for a further synchronisation of the crisis response activities of both organisations. The various exercises that have taken place and the interaction between EU and NATO staff during those exercises have proven to be very valuable. From this perspective, such exercises could be organised more often. The exercises help to deepen cooperation between the two organisations and their member states, but also reveal where improvement is still needed and possible. This includes, for example, the exchange of (classified) information and more effective secure communicationsas already mentioned. In an attempt to improve cooperation in these two areas, it would be advisable that NATO and EU staff structurally embed the regular exchange of information and scenarios in their coordination and cooperation processes, so that this becomes common practice for both organisations. Furthermore, in the long term, when the EU and NATO have optimised their cooperation efforts, they could consider expanding these exercises by also including the participation of private actors, which have become increasingly important when it comes to addressing modern security threats and could therefore prove to be a valuable addition to these exercises – perhaps not as direct participants but by inviting representatives of companies to response cells.
In addition, with reference to the proposal to enhance the synchronisation of the EU’s and NATO’s crisis response mechanisms more efficiently, additional capacity should be created. At present, the increased interaction between EU and NATO staff members does not provide a solid basis for guaranteeing an effective collective response in case a real crisis emerges. In that respect, it would be helpful if a roadmap or playbook for a collective response to a (hybrid) crisis is created. This roadmap could address different scenarios in which a collective response by the EU and NATO would be required and could define the respective roles of each of the organisations in those scenarios. Such a roadmap or playbook could also elaborate how and when member states are allowed to chip in or stay out regarding certain counter-hybrid activities, according to their national interests or concerns, without slowing down the rest.
With regard to the hybrid threats in the cyber domain, EU-NATO cooperation is effectively intensifying, although this is slow. Opportunities for further cooperation remain. First of all, information exchange, including a common understanding of cyber threats and possible countermeasures, offers room for improvement. Yet, some of the obstacles to improved information exchange will not be easy to overcome (see chapter 3).
However, an additional way to improve information exchange may be the following. In July 2021, the European Parliament (EP) proposed the creation of a common EU-NATO cyber threat information hub, as well as a joint EU-NATO Task Force for cybersecurity, in order to define and agree on collective responses to cyber threats. The EP also called for stronger coordination between the EU Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) and the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence and for increased EU-NATO coordination as regards establishing collective attribution for malicious cyber incidents. A recent Clingendael report also advocates transforming the existing NATO Cyber Centre of Excellence in Tallinn into a joint NATO-EU Cyber Centre of Excellence that could provide the main forum for strategic discussions, joint training and exercises. Establishing a completely new institution to further improve EU-NATO cooperation regarding cyber threats does not seem very beneficial, yet exploring whether to make existing organisations more ‘joint’ might be worthwhile to further improve information sharing, staff-to-staff contacts, joint workshops and exercises.
Additionally, synchronisation between the EU and NATO response activities to cyber threats deserves more attention. The EU and NATO could discuss more concretely the delineation of responsibilities and especially of military tasks with regard to cyber threats: when and how should the EU and/or NATO respond to actual cyber threats? For example, a logical division of labour could be an EU focus on enhancing coordination and cooperation among its member states regarding the protection of critical civilian digital infrastructure, while NATO concentrates on enhancing coordination and cooperation among its member states concerning the protection of military digital infrastructure. The focus for both organisations in this regard should be both preventive (sharing threat analysis and protection advice) as well as responsive (in case of actual cyberattacks). The development of a set of EU-NATO basic principles or (non-binding) guidelines on what would trigger a joint response would be a useful step as well. The Tallinn Manual published by the NATO Cyber CoE could offer assistance on how to define these principles while respecting the application of international law. Some experts advocate a common EU-NATO cyber strategy to better align EU-NATO efforts in tackling cyber threats, but currently there seems to be little support for this idea among the member states.
Finally, for EU-NATO cooperation in the field of bolstering resilience more steps are needed, despite the progress that has been achieved since 2016. This is underlined by a recent EP resolution on EU-NATO cooperation, which highlights that, for example, “efforts to create more synergies between civilian and military components, to advance common resilience and hence avert future hybrid threats” are necessary. Some even argue that, at present, the resilience strategies of NATO and the EU are not sufficient in countering hybrid threats. Fortunately, resilience is an area that has a great deal of potential for further cooperation between the EU and NATO, mainly because this area is not yet very politicised.
In general, more effective counter-hybrid efforts would require tailor-made responses, an increased number of (joint) scenario-building exercises and a change of mindset from a reactive to a proactive approach. In addition, suggestions that have been outlined above to enhance cooperation in the areas of crisis response and cyber security and defence will also contribute to enhancing cooperation in the field of bolstering resilience. In particular, this refers to the following suggestions: more regular organisation of joint counter-hybrid exercises (with a specific focus on resilience); a joint EU-NATO taskforce for resilience building; and clarifying the delineation of responsibilities between the EU and NATO.
Another opportunity to enhance cooperation for the benefit of bolstering resilience lies in disaster relief. During the corona pandemic, the ERCC and the EADRCC have demonstrated that advanced cooperation is indeed possible. The EU and NATO should build upon this experience. This should start with exchanging best practices and lessons learned. This could then be a solid foundation for and ease future cooperation. In addition, the number of (joint) crisis management exercises could be expanded. Such exercises should include those scenarios that test the resilience of member states, including hybrid threats, cyberattacks and pandemics. In case a real crisis would occur, the EU and NATO would already have an idea of what is expected and which actions will be required.
In addition, bolstering resilience at the benefit of countering hybrid threats entails more than merely responding to immediate and sudden calamities and crises. One should also take into consideration, amongst other things, general societal resilience, the resilience of critical infrastructure, protecting the stability of democratic systems, and financial and economic resilience. To assess the potential role of the EU and NATO in these domains, their respective toolboxes should be analysed. In this regard, it makes sense that NATO will be responsible for enhancing the resilience of the critical (military) infrastructure of its member states. In contrast, the EU might be better equipped to promote resilience in the societal, financial-economic and political domain. Both organisations should discuss the delineation of responsibilities in the area of resilience.
In December 2021, a new Joint EU-NATO Declaration is planned to be released. This occasion should be used to boost cooperation between the two organisations, in particular in view of addressing the changing security challenges of the coming decades. Countering hybrid threats has to be an important part of the new Declaration, not only to fully implement the agreed list of topics but also to explore the potential for additional areas and subjects to increase EU-NATO cooperation.
Even though experts have emphasised that, preferably, cooperation on countering hybrid threats occurs within the EU-NATO framework, there is a risk that this is not always possible. The remaining political obstacles to the enhanced use of the EU-NATO format should not restrict the potential for increasing international cooperation on countering hybrid threats. If the ‘royal road’ is blocked, alternative avenues should be explored. Below, three alternatives for cooperation are outlined: cooperation in European formats; increased EU-US cooperation; and using EU and NATO partnerships.
European countries cooperate in various constitutions on security and defence matters: bilateral, subregional or other ad hoc formats. An important initiative in this regard is the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). It is a framework and process to deepen defence cooperation between those EU member states which are capable and willing to do so. Twenty-five EU Member States participate in PESCO and have subscribed to binding commitments to invest, plan, develop and operate defence capabilities together, within the Union framework. The objective is to jointly arrive at a coherent full spectrum of defence capabilities available to the member states for national and multinational missions and operations, not only in the EU context but also for operations in, for example, the NATO or UN context. If the political obstacles to a further improvement of EU-NATO cooperation on countering hybrid threats may be regarded as too difficult to overcome, at least on certain aspects, PESCO may offer an opportunity to invest more in joint counter-hybrid capabilities in the EU context. For example, there are at present already eight PESCO projects in the cyber domain, which could contribute to enhancing countering hybrid threat efforts. The third-party rules allow for non-EU states to join PESCO projects. This option is already used by NATO members Canada, Norway and the United States by joining the military mobility PESCO project.
In addition to the options that can be resorted to within the EU framework, there are also many security and defence cooperation formats that exist outside the EU and NATO frameworks. For example, bilateral or subregional arrangements exist between France and the UK, France and Germany, the Benelux countries, the Visegrád-4 and the Nordic countries. All these formats can be used to discuss and streamline national assessments of hybrid threats and to discuss potential responses. Practical results could be introduced by respective member states in the EU and NATO context in order to look for opportunities to widen cooperation potential to other countries, and perhaps to propose new cooperation issues for the EU-NATO list.
Besides cooperation within a variety of European formats, one could think of increasing cooperation between the EU and the US. At the latest EU-US Summit on 15 June 2021, the topic of security and defence was explicitly added to the agenda. Therefore, this offers a second possibility for transatlantic cooperation outside the EU-NATO framework in the field of countering hybrid threats. By cooperating with the US directly, some of the political obstacles in the NATO context may be circumvented (especially political tensions around Turkey, Greece and Cyprus). Therefore, it could be worthwhile to start some more relatively small test projects in this specific cooperation framework.
More concretely, one could think of the development of a ’strong collaborative relationship’ between the EU and the US in the digital and information domain. This would contribute to countering hybrid threats stemming from China and Russia. If this partnership is explicitly embedded in policies on both sides of the Atlantic, this will help to form a unified stance towards adversaries such as China and Russia. Despite the potential advantages that this may bring, one should also take into consideration the downsides that this format might bring about. Existing initiatives for direct EU-US (military) cooperation show that political and bureaucratic obstacles may still exist. A good example is the recent EU-US cooperation on military mobility, which is being hindered by bureaucratic red tape after the initial decision was taken to allow the three non-EU states to join the related PRSCO project. Moreover, care should be taken not to alienate the few NATO countries that are not EU members and might feel left out by increasing EU-US (military) cooperation.
Both organisations have an extensive network of partners across the globe, which should be used for exploring the scope of cooperation in countering hybrid threats. In particular, countries in the Indo-Pacific area are challenged by hybrid threats from China, e.g. Chinese fishing vessels sailing into their waters. Therefore, these countries seem to have a particular interest in teaming up with the EU and/or NATO. The recently released EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific refers to the increase in hybrid threats, and announces that cybersecurity cooperation in particular will be strengthened.
What could individual member states of the EU and NATO, such as the Netherlands, do to enhance international cooperation in counter-hybrid activities? First and foremost, The Hague should continue to promote increased EU-NATO cooperation. In May 2021, Germany and the Netherlands tabled a food-for-thought paper on enhancing EU-NATO cooperation, including on hybrid threats and cyber resilience. The proposals in this food-for-thought paper should definitely be further discussed in both organisations in order to explore the potential for further action, in particular with regard to situational awareness and resilience. The motto is leading by example, which in this case means: being open to and actively encouraging counter-hybrid cooperation between EU and NATO as much as possible, which may be an effective way to show more hesitating states that this is the most effective way to go.
Secondly, the Netherlands could introduce proposals in other formats, such as the Benelux, bilateral cooperation with larger European countries (France, Germany, the United Kingdom) and in multinational formats such as the Nordic Group. Ideas and proposals could be discussed in these bilateral and multinational formats as a first step. Experience gained in counter-hybrid cooperation in smaller international formats could be used to argue for the application of counter-hybrid cooperation in the EU-NATO context.
Thirdly, The Hague has to be more consistent in making human resources available to the EU and NATO. Due to the job rotation system for Dutch public servants, Dutch policy officers at the EU and NATO often leave their position relatively soon. Generally, it takes some time to gain knowledge of the organisations’ cultures and working methods before one can have an effective influence. This is particularly true for staff seconded to departments that deal with very complex matters such as hybrid threats. Some interviewees praised the quality of Dutch personnel among EU and NATO staff, but regretted that they leave too soon and do not return for a second or third posting during their career. The Dutch influence could increase if public servants could stay longer in a position or could return more often to positions in the EU or NATO. More coordinated efforts to promote Dutch candidates to key staff positions could also be considered, and strategic secondments might be an option as well in order to gain more influence in practical staff-to-staff cooperation.