Bilateralism and Minilateralism Are Europe’s Secret Strengths

As a result of the war in Ukraine, policymakers in Europe and North America have sought to strengthen defense cooperation in Europe. The headlines inevitably revolve around NATO and the European Union. However, this ignores the reality of how European defense cooperation is actually set up, promoted and consolidated. In fact, the essence of defense cooperation in Europe is a web of hundreds of bilateral and minilateral cooperations. Often, NATO and the European Union merely act as a framework into which European countries contribute their existing bilateral and minilateral efforts.

To better strengthen European defences, policymakers should appreciate the dynamics of these many collaborations. Using the current circumstances to build further mini- and bilateral relationships, particularly where leadership and financial circumstances are most conducive, will strengthen Europe and make its multilateral institutions so much more formidable.

A History of Bilateralism and Minilateralism

In a matter of months, NATO countries have deployed thousands of troops and considerable capabilities to bolster the defenses of members on their eastern flank. In a breathtaking transition, two traditionally militarily non-aligned EU countries, Sweden and Finland, have reassessed their geostrategic position and submitted bids to join NATO. The debate on strengthening the European Union’s “strategic autonomy” has intensified, and member states are once again discussing coordinating their defense spending through joint procurement.

These vital initiatives could not function without existing, important, lower-level collaborations. For example, Russian military actions in Ukraine in recent years prompted NATO allies on the eastern flank to work swiftly with their bilateral and minilateral partners. The UK took a leading role in Estonia, building on the close ties the two countries had forged while conducting dangerous operations in Afghanistan’s Helmand province for over a decade. Lithuania is a relevant arms market for Germany, and that is not surprising armed forces directs NATO efforts there. Thanks to cultural similarities and extensive previous military cooperation, the Czech Republic has deployed the most troops to Slovakia and oversees the international forces stationed there. For similar reasons, France sent 500 soldiers to Romania. Such comparatively low-key actions have been critical in developing the necessary bottom-up relationships, norms and experiences on which recent grandiose pronouncements are built.

Although Finland and Sweden intend to join NATO, they also considered it essential to sign bilateral mutual security agreements with the UK. That could happen quickly, largely because Helsinki and Stockholm have built trust with London by working together in the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force. The dynamics in the European Union are the same as in NATO. For example, in 2017 the European Union set up Permanent Structured Cooperation to strengthen defense cooperation between its member states following the Russian occupation of Crimea. However, most of their projects were based on existing bilateral and minilateral defense initiatives, and the participating states often just renamed them to match the new EU vocabulary.

The fact that existing bilateral and minilateral relationships form the basis of defense cooperation in Europe is not a new phenomenon. An examination of 70 examples of European defense cooperation showed that most have five or fewer participating States and many are purely bilateral. These collaborations range from the creation of multinational entities to cooperation in armaments, training, logistics, surveillance, operations, and/or command and control. Most of the time, these collaborations are not part of NATO or the European Union, but can be quickly renamed to EU and NATO projects if needed.

States can also use this cooperation to shape NATO and EU policies. For example, the 2011 NATO operation in Libya was essentially a Anglo-French war, as France and Britain pressed for intervention and took the brunt of the fighting. They used NATO’s command structure to coordinate their war effort, and the limited military support they received from some NATO members helped fill their capability gaps. The background was a historic and overarching Anglo-French bilateral defense agreement, the Lancaster House Treaties, which the leaders of the two European military powers had signed a year earlier. The launch of the European Union’s European Security and Defense Policy in 1999 also dates back to a 1998 British-French bilateral agreement at St Malo.

strengthening the network

Improving NATO-EU defense cooperation requires a behind-the-scenes look to appreciate the role of this effort. Academics have already pointed out that Europeans must recognize the minilateral foundations of the European security architecture. This matches my experience as a former defense official. European defense ministries do not always think in terms of institutions like the European Union and NATO. They have their own reasoning and use the framework that best suits their goals, which can be NATO, the European Union or smaller formats. Starting an initiative at this level is often more effective and can deliver results faster.

As I argue in my newly published book, while these forms of collaboration are not new, their recent spread is unprecedented in European history. They also provide the substance of practical military cooperation in Europe on which NATO and the European Union can build. Therefore, understanding the dynamics behind it is crucial to drive effective defense cooperation. The research in my book shows that five structural and situational factors are important to being successful when European nations embark on new defense cooperation.

First, NATO and the European Union continue to provide the crucial structural context in which bilateral and minilateral cooperation can take place. The countries that are members of these two institutions are part of the European security community. The members of these alliances have a similar understanding of the concept of security, their core interests generally coincide and, above all, they no longer intend to use military force to resolve their misunderstandings. This deep-rooted trust between EU and NATO members is a crucial prerequisite for the spread of multinational defense cooperation. This means that if Sweden and Finland join NATO, there will undoubtedly be an impact on cooperation, particularly in northern Europe and the Baltics.

Second, cooperation is driven by the fact that European armed forces believe they do not have the financial resources to achieve their goals on their own. So they turn to each other in hopes of mitigating their deficits. (Not that it always works. If budgets are cut, cooperation can still fail.) The third structural factor is existing defense cooperation. New collaborations usually build on previous ones. When countries pursue ongoing military projects together, there is a higher chance that they will launch new ones together rather than with an entirely new partner. For this reason, those NATO members who had a relevant bilateral relationship with certain Eastern Flank Allies led international efforts there.

Structural factors create the conditions for collaboration, but situational factors trigger collaboration. The first situational factor is personal relationships. Collaboration usually begins when at least two leaders — politicians, civil servants, or military officers — make extra efforts to make things work. Such leaders tend to have good chemistry, a necessary ingredient when creating something new that requires a lot of extra dedication. For example, David Cameron, the former British Prime Minister, and Nicolas Sarkozy, then French President, had good chemistry and were able to agree the Lancaster House accords in 2010. Even if all other factors agree, something similar is unimaginable with Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron because of their different personalities and strained relationship.

Ultimately, the situation also requires a supportive political environment. This can come either from public or national actors or from international developments. Without them, the leaders who are the engines of collaboration would be working in a vacuum and would not be able to achieve their ambitions. At the moment, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has clearly created a political climate in Europe that is quite conducive to defense cooperation.


If policymakers want to strengthen European defense through more bilateral and minilateral cooperation, they should build on these five factors. This starts with appreciating how Finland’s and Sweden’s potential NATO memberships would create new opportunities for small-scale cooperation. Policymakers should also look at their current minilateral efforts with awareness that they represent the best source of potential partners for new efforts, and when selecting new partners also keep in mind the potential for future cooperation they bring. In addition, they should assess the economics of new commitments and defense cooperation not only from their own perspective, but also from that of their partners.

Policy makers should also be aware of situational factors when initiating new collaborative efforts. For example, if the personalities in key positions are not compatible, cooperation should not be forced and policymakers should wait for more favorable circumstances. However, if there is strong chemistry between leaders, they should seize this opportunity quickly. Finally, the war in Ukraine has created an extremely supportive political environment. This situation is extraordinarily rare and can serve as a starting point for minilateral and bilateral initiatives that will pay off for decades.

dr Bence Nemeth is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in the Department of Defense Studies at King’s College London, where he mainly teaches military officers at the UK Defense Academy. Before joining King’s, he worked in various defense policy and planning positions in the Hungarian Ministry of Defense for eight years. His book, How to achieve defense cooperation in Europe? – The sub-regional approachwas published by Bristol University Press in 2022.

Image: Estonian Ministry of Defence Bilateralism and Minilateralism Are Europe’s Secret Strengths

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