Cooperation between the EU and NATO in countering hybrid threats is not only desirable, but even necessary. Considering the broad and dynamic area of threats, both organisations cannot deal with them alone and their toolboxes are complementary. This is also realised within both organisations and their member states, as can be seen in the intensified cooperation of the past few years.

There is no internationally agreed definition of hybrid threats. However, the common ground between all available definitions is that hybrid threats consist of a combined use of military and non-military means to undermine societies. Less clear is which activities should be included in the toolbox for countering hybrid threats, although undoubtedly they have to consist of a mix of military and non-military measures. The absence of an agreed definition – also in the EU-NATO context – leaves room for flexibility in expanding cooperation between the two organisations in countering hybrid threats.

What has been achieved so far?

Countering hybrid threats makes up for approximately one third of the total of 74 projects on the EU-NATO list, thereby underlining the importance of the topic as an area of cooperation between the two organisations. These 22 cooperation areas are distributed over five categories: situational awareness, strategic communications, crisis response, bolstering resilience, and cyber security and defence (the last area listed in a separate section of the list, but generally considered as ‘hybrid’). Generally, EU-NATO cooperation in those five areas has improved in recent years. As the assessment table at the end of chapter 2 shows, staff-to-staff contacts have expanded in all categories. Furthermore, the structured (political) dialogue and joint exercises are important highlights for underscoring the positive judgment. The Helsinki-based European Centre for Countering Hybrid Threats – being neither an EU nor a NATO institution but open to all member states of both organisations – plays a key role as the hub for sharing information and offers the dating venue of national and international experts.

However, the record is more mixed when cooperation starts to involve the formal exchange of information, developing common approaches, combining analyses and initiating activities involving both the EU and NATO. There is still a considerable gap between the political rhetoric of ‘EU-NATO cooperation is going well’ and the reality of real and concrete ‘working together’. One example is that the agreed list of EU-NATO cooperation areas is not fully used. For example, cooperation in the area of situational awareness has not progressed in the sense that both sides have a shared threat assessment. The same applies to the cyber security and defence area, in which the identification of potential synergies in responding to cyber threats has not been operationalised. Another example is that the list has remained unchanged since 2017, while new hybrid threats have emerged such as the use of migrants as a weapon by Belarus.

Important obstacles to enhanced EU-NATO cooperation continue to exist, despite the well-functioning high-level political contacts between the two organisations. Some of these obstacles might be overcome in due course – such as recognising the different character and nature of the EU institutions and the NATO organisation – but others are likely to remain, at least for the foreseeable future. The political blockade caused by the Turkey-Cyprus issue remains the key factor that hinders a better use of the formal cooperation channels and continues to block the exchange of classified information. Staff are able to circumvent the sharing of (classified) documents, but a full exchange of information among all member states of both organisations is a hurdle that cannot be cleared. Thus, caution is needed to consider a widening of staff-to-staff contacts as the panacea to improve EU-NATO cooperation. The staff contacts can certainly be used to deepen the cooperation at that level, but they cannot replace the required political willingness of all EU member states and NATO Allies to agree to the exchange of all required information. Related to the information exchange blockade is the lack of a secure communications system between the two organisations – a primary requisite if this issue is to be addressed and resolved in the future. Finally, member states themselves can be reluctant in sharing information related to hybrid threats and responses as they regard this to be a domain within predominantly national responsibility.

Potential for future cooperation

The EU and NATO, based on the 2016-2017 list of common proposals, have focused the cooperation efforts since then on concrete matters. However, the orientation on items such as situational awareness, crisis response and the other headings of the list ignores the need for a strategic vision. The focus tends to lie on finding appropriate responses to the deployment of hybrid tools, while less attention is paid to the actors’ objectives and intentions behind the use of these hybrid tools.[105] Adopting a more strategic approach, in which more focus would be directed towards the objectives and intentions of (potential) adversaries, could benefit both organisations in the long run. A strategic dialogue between the EU and NATO at the level of high-level officials and in ministerial meetings could be a way to overcome this shortfall. Naturally, China and Russia would be high on the agenda for the EU and NATO in determining the strategic level objectives and intentions of these major powers.

The past record of EU-NATO cooperation shows that progress can be made, but step-by-step and at a relatively slow pace. As the overall conditions for speeding up the cooperation between the two organisations remain unchanged due to the political blockades of the Turkey-Cyprus problem, it is unlikely that big steps can be taken. At the same time, the EU and NATO could take two other steps. Firstly, there is still scope for fully implementing the existing 22 proposals dating back to 2016-2017. This applies in particular to training and exercises as well as to further exploiting the use of the Hybrid CoE in Helsinki as the information-exchange hub and dating venue for experts. Secondly, future cooperation could be expanded as stated below, including the use of other formats which could offer more potential for deepening cooperation, also in countering hybrid threats.


Expectation management

Adopting a more strategic approach towards countering hybrid threats, whereby the emphasis should lie on the strategic objectives and intentions of (potential) adversaries.

Clearer and publicly identifying the capabilities and comparative advantages of both organisations when it comes to (jointly) countering hybrid threats.

High-level retreats, organised by the Helsinki-based Hybrid Centre of Excellence, should be restarted to explore these issues with EU and NATO staff members together.

Information sharing

Intensifying the exchange of open-source information, for example by creating a digital information-sharing platform in which relevant stakeholders, both civilian and military, could share information and research on hybrid activities. Potentially, certain external stakeholders could be included to some extent as well so as to enhance the ‘whole-of-society’ approach.

Exploring options for a shared communication platform for the exchange of certain classified information, perhaps based on a number of priority categories.

Crisis response

NATO and EU staff should structurally embed the regular exchange of information and scenarios in their coordination and cooperation processes, so that this becomes common practice for both organisations. More efficient synchronisation of the EU’s and NATO’s crisis response mechanisms including creating additional capacity.

Creating a joint roadmap or playbook for a collective response to (hybrid) crises, addressing different scenarios in which a collective response by the EU and NATO would be required and define the respective roles in those scenarios.

In this context, exercises should be organised more often, helping to deepen cooperation between the two organisations and their member states.

Cyber threats

Exploring the potential of making existing organisations, in particular the NATO Cyber CoE, more ‘joint’ to further improve information sharing, staff-to-staff contacts, joint workshops and exercises.

Delineation of responsibility and especially of military tasks with regard to cyber threats: when and how should the EU and/or NATO respond to actual cyber threats?

Development of a set of EU-NATO basic principles or (non-binding) guidelines on what would trigger a joint response would be a useful first step.


Increasing the number of joint scenario exercises, including a change of mindset from a reactive to a proactive approach: 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.

Bolstering resilience in the area of disaster relief by expanding the cooperation between NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) and the EU Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC), starting with exchanging best practices and lessons learned. Include pandemics in (joint) exercises.

Assess the potential roles of the EU and NATO in areas such as general societal resilience, the resilience of critical infrastructure, protecting the stability of democratic systems, and financial and economic resilience.

New EU-NATO Joint Declaration

Insert in this Declaration, to be released in December 2021, a more strategic approach by the two organisations in countering hybrid threats, such as a delineation of responsibilities and listing additional areas of counter-hybrid cooperation.

Other formats

Noting that the existing limitations in EU-NATO cooperation will continue, explore the use of other formats, such as: third countries’ participation in Permanent Structured Cooperation projects; using other European security and defence cooperation models; and explore the cooperation potential in the EU-US dialogue context.

Discuss options for cooperation with partners, in particular with countries challenged by hybrid threats from China, as called for in the EU Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

Actions to be undertaken by the Netherlands

Inject constructive ideas into debates within both organisations, bridging various perspectives and sensitivities, while realising that patience is required to allow other member states to overcome sensitivities or not to chip in because of other priorities or a lack of specific resources.

Introduce and generate discussion on ideas and suggestions for EU-NATO cooperation in bilateral and subregional formats (such as the Benelux and the Nordic Group) and with larger European countries (France, Germany, the UK).

Ensuring high-quality staff in key positions by allowing national public servants to stay longer in a position or to return more often to positions in EU or NATO. Coordinated efforts to promote able candidates to key staff positions and strategic secondments to gain more influence in practical staff-to-staff cooperation are an option as well.

Information from interviews.