Wary of Russia, NATO Reaches Out to EU on Troop-Movement Aid

(Bloomberg) -- For decades, they ignored each other from headquarters in the same city. Now, amid Russia’s renewed muscle-flexing abroad, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union are forging bonds in Brussels to bolster Western security.

The EU on Wednesday unveiled a military-mobility plan that may help NATO ensure it can rush troops and equipment across Europe in the event of an incursion on the eastern front. The initiative ranges from cutting red tape at national borders to making bridges strong enough for tanks.

“NATO and the EU will be able to do some really good alignment work,” European Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc said in an interview in the Belgian capital. “This alignment and the fitness check are absolutely necessary. We’re talking about dual use of the same infrastructure -- for civilian use and for military use.”

NATO is revamping its defense strategy for the third time in 70 years. After massing troops on the inner German border during the Cold War and then focusing on out-of-area terrorist threats after the Soviet Union collapsed and al-Qaeda struck the U.S., the alliance is concentrating on rapid force deployments across Europe.

A prime driver of the new strategy is Russia, which has annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea, stoked rebels in eastern Ukraine and allegedly carried out cyber and other attacks in the West. Two days ago, in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reelection, 14 EU countries joined the U.S. and Canada in expelling Russian officials in response to a nerve-agent attack on a former spy in Britain.

Security Bill

At the same time, with U.S. President Donald Trump demanding that European nations foot more of the common security bill, the EU is rushing to bolster its own defense clout.

“A defense strategy for the EU is one of our top priorities,” said Bulc, who comes from Slovenia, once part of communist Yugoslavia. “Infrastructure, especially transport infrastructure, is of course the foundation for that.”

The EU military-mobility plan complements a move by NATO to upgrade its command structure for the first time since the end of the Cold War. The alliance is increasing the number of military headquarters from seven to nine, including a new command center responsible for troop movements in Europe.

The initiative by the European Commission, the 28-nation EU’s executive arm, seeks to:

  • align standards on priority European infrastructure projects with military requirements
  • streamline customs procedures for cross-border military activities
  • harmonize national rules on the transport of dangerous goods
  • limit value-added tax for defense operations

A team from NATO’s defense-capabilities unit has been in regular contact for the past year with the commission’s transport department. In that context, NATO has four priorities of its own:

  • getting a complete picture of EU infrastructure, especially in member countries that belonged to the former Soviet bloc
  • ensuring roads, railways, tunnels, bridges and ports in the EU can handle military movements
  • sharing with EU policy makers the alliance’s specific infrastructure needs in Europe
  • arguing for an adequate share of the EU’s planned 2021-2027 budget to be devoted to dual-use infrastructure projects, with the priority being East-West, North-South and Rhine-Danube corridors

“For the EU to take into account military requirements in infrastructure projects would help NATO to defend its members,” said Oana Lungescu, spokeswoman of the 29-nation alliance. “Military mobility can become a prime example of what NATO and the EU can accomplish by working together.”

Better Idea

Bulc said a recent “pilot test” gave the EU a better idea of the challenges ahead on the infrastructure front.

“We want to make sure that all dimensions and all weights and also the core corridors that are envisioned for the military are fit for purpose,” she said. “Bridges are our biggest concern.”

While EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg have given priority to cooperation over military mobility, tangible progress is likely to be hard-fought and gradual.

For starters, six EU countries -- Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Austria, Malta and Cyprus -- aren’t NATO members and may balk at aspects of deeper policy coordination between the two organizations.

Furthermore, the EU faces a 10 billion-euro ($12.4 billion) annual budget hole that’ll result from the U.K.’s planned departure next year. Not only is infrastructure built to military standards costlier, defense planners generally ask for more of it to boost their options.

Bulc downplayed the political hurdles ahead, saying the EU’s national capitals are conscious of the need for bolder European defense action.

“They are fully aware of that,” she said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.