To cite this article: Marianne Riddervold (2014) New threats – different response: EU and NATO and Somali piracy, European Security, 23:4, 546-564, DOI: 10.1080/09662839.2014.937337

When the  (EU) launched its first military naval mission, EU NAVFOR Somalia, Atalanta, the states who are members of both the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) made a political choice: to prioritize the EU over NATO in their multilateral military efforts to fight piracy and its consequences. Thereby, Atalanta challenges the conventional assumption that EU security cooperation will remain limited. It also challenges the widely held belief that the European states will chose to act through NATO if dealing multilaterally with international security issues. How can we explain this decision? This analysis suggests that it can be explained in two phases where different mechanisms were at work. In the first phase, which can be accounted for from a neo-realist perspective, France, who held the Presidency, used particular favorable geopolitical conditions to put an autonomous EU operation on the agenda. However, agreement on the EU option cannot be explained as a result of strategic bargaining. Instead, in a second phase and in line with an alternative hypothesis building on the theory of communicative action, the EU member states came to support the French suggestion due to legitimacy considerations regarding the legal framework of the two operations.

1. Introduction

When maritime piracy exploded in the Bay of Aden in 2007/2008, it became an international economic and security problem. Taking whole ships and their crew hostage, Somali pirates threatened the free passage of ships going through the Suez Canal, strongly affecting the commercially and geopolitically important shipping lanes that link Asia and the Middle East with Europe. An increasing problem was moreover that pirates also attacked ships going with food aid to Somalia for the World Food Programme (WFP) – aid that more than a million people relied on in their daily life.1

Against this background, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) called for states and international organizations to take action against piracy outside Somalia in a number of resolutions (UNSCR). Responding to the situation, the USA established a “coalition of the willing” maritime task force2 (CTF-151) designated to fight piracy as part of “enduring freedom”. And following a direct request from the UN Secretary-General, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) launched the humanitarian operation “Allied Provider” to protect WFP shipments in October 2008.

Why then did the EU just 1 month later, in November 2008, decide to launch an additional, and compared to the NATO mission, more long-term and clearly bigger naval military mission in the same theater? With EU NAVFOR Somalia, operation Atalanta (Atalanta), today there are three ongoing multilateral mission in the area as well as several different unilateral, including Russian and Chinese, naval operations. However, the EU is a more important actor in this geopolitically and economically important region than NATO. The EU force has been bigger militarily, and it is the EU, and not NATO, who together with the USA has taken the lead in the international political and diplomatic efforts to solve the situation both at sea and at land (Behr et al. 2013). Why is this so? In light of the already ongoing NATO operation – why also launch and so clearly prioritize an autonomous EU mission?

Previous research has shown that the preparatory work done by the European Union Military Committee is important for understanding the launch of Atalanta (Cross 2010). Furthermore, the initial main aim behind the mission was to protect humanitarian seaborne aid going to Somalia (Riddervold 2011a). Why the EU member states agreed to conduct a distinct operation under EU command when there already was a newly established ongoing humanitarian NATO operation in theater that instead could have been strengthened and extended remains unaccounted for. After all, there is only a limited amount of military resources that can be deployed by the European states at any time. The choice of prioritizing the EU over NATO is a particular puzzle not only given the fact that NATO was already conducting a humanitarian operation in support of WFP chartered vessels and that the EU had no previous history of conducting naval missions. What is more, in 2008 it was far from evident that an EU mission was the preferred option. To the contrary, from the position of many of the EU member states who are both members of NATO and the EU one would rather expect them to go for an extension of the NATO mission and deploy their resources under NATO command instead of under EU command. The UK has in particular been skeptical toward EU military defense cooperation, preferring NATO as Europe’s main security provider. Still, the UK did not only support but also took operational lead of an autonomous EU mission. Also, governments in traditionally more integration-friendly member states, such as the Netherlands and Germany, initially planned to send troops to the first NATO operation, “Allied Provider”, but later changed and sent troops to the Atalanta mission instead. How can this be accounted for? How can we explain that the member states so clearly prioritized the EU in their multilateral fight against Somali piracy?

Answering this question is important as EU operation Atalanta challenges the conventional assumption that EU security cooperation will remain limited, in particular when involving military means. It also challenges the widely held belief that the European states will chose to act through NATO if dealing multilaterally with international security issues.

In order to contribute to an answer, the article is organized as follows. First, I present the case with a focus on when and what type of international operations that have been established to protect commercial and humanitarian shipments off the Somali coast. Building on existing theory on security cooperation, I proceed to develop alternative explanations of why the member states established an autonomous EU operation despite the already ongoing NATO operation. I then shortly outline the methodological approach, followed by the analysis. I first examine whether there is evidence to support two alternative neo-realist hypotheses. One suggests that Atalanta was launched in agreement with the USA and NATO as part of a geopolitical balancing game on the Horn of Africa. The other that particular geopolitical factors changed the internal EU bargaining game, allowing member states with ambitions of stronger EU security integration to push through a mission that would otherwise not have been agreed upon. I then examine the extent to which an alternative hypothesis building on communicative action theory linking the EU choice to normative considerations can be substantiated. Lastly, I sum up the main findings and discuss some of their empirical and theoretical implications. The focus here is thus on why the EU member states decided in favor of the EU instead of the NATO option at the time, and not on the member states positions when dealing with other security issues or on how the EU has performed.

2. The puzzle: piracy and the attempts to stop it

In 2008, Somali pirates were behind more than half of all reported piracy incidents in the world, attacking both merchant ships and ships going with aid for the WFP. Threatening to close the economically and strategically important shipping lines going through the Suez Canal and hindering aid to a million Somalis, from 2007 piracy increasingly became a severe economic, geopolitical, and humanitarian problem. As a first response, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Canada unilaterally started escorting aid shipments in 2007. Then, in October 2008 and following a request from the UN Secretary General to help secure WFP aid shipments, NATO who had a Standing Maritime Group passing through the area, launched the humanitarian operation “Allied Provider”. “Allied Provider” ended in December 2008. However, 3 months later, in March 2009, NATO launched anti-piracy operation “Allied protector” composed of so-called Rotating Standing Maritime Groups.3 In August 2009, “Allied Protector” was replaced by the still ongoing mission “Ocean Shield”. The USA, who has been military present in the area since 2002 as part of “Enduring Freedom”, established a “coalition of the willing” special force designated to fight maritime piracy, CTF-151. In addition, different countries, including China and Russia, have since 2008 launched missions of their own.

Within this geopolitical environment, characterized by an already unprecedented level of different actors and coalitions, also the EU decided to launch a naval mission in the same theater. The operation, called EU NAVFOR Somalia – Operation Atalanta, was launched in November 2008, only 1 month after NATO launched its first operation (Council of the European Union 2008). The EU decided not to draw on the Berlin Plus agreement and use NATO’s capabilities but rather to use one of the EU national operational headquarters, in Northwood, UK. Gradually extended, its mandate is to provide protection for vessels chartered by the WFP; to provide protection of African Union Mission on Somalia shipping; to contribute to “the deterrence, prevention and repression of acts of piracy and armed robbery off the Somali coast”, to the “the protection of vulnerable shipping off the Somali coast”; and “to the monitoring of fishing activities off the coast of Somalia” (Council of the European Union 2012). Atalanta is the EU’s first naval military operation. It was initially scheduled for a year, but has been extended several times, most recently until December 2014. Conducted in the framework of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), Atalanta is an intergovernmental ad-hoc operation, and operational contributions are voluntary. However, most EU member states have contributed militarily and/or with personnel to the operational headquarters (Council of the European Union 2012).

But why did the EU member states come to this decision? Why not instead focus on extending and strengthening the NATO mission who was already there? As argued by Cross: NAVFOR Atalanta was somewhat controversial in the beginning because ESDP had never executed a naval operation before. Not all the Member States were on-board. Moreover, NATO ships were already in the region, as were those of non-EU nations. At the same time, some believed that action against piracy could be taken without a formal ESDP operation. (Cross 2010, p. 19)

3. Possible explanations

In order to contribute to an answer, I study the relevance of three hypotheses that may help explain EU security operation. The first two builds on neo-realist approaches. The first (“the bandwagoning/division of labor hypothesis”) builds on the neo-realist concept of bandwagoning, and suggests that a junior partner (i.e., the EU) joins forces with the hegemon (the USA) as wswzxQAeerdfgpart of a geopolitical balancing game (Walt 1985; see also Mearsheimer 1994/1995, Grieco 1997, Hyde-Price 2006). More precisely, this hypothesis suggests that Atalanta was part of a strategic division of labor between the USA/NATO on the one hand and the EU on the other. NATO and the US-led coalition would be conducting the “hard” military task of fighting piracy and protecting merchant shipping, while the EU mission when launched would take over the “softer” responsibility of securing WFP shipments. A main aim of this bandwagoning would moreover be to regionally balance the other great powers, China and Russia, who also have shown strong strategic and economic interests in the area (Helly 2009). The very fact that China now has naval forces outside Africa for the first time in modern times is, for instance, a clear indicator of the importance it attaches to the area. This hypothesis would be in line with studies suggesting that rather than seeking to balance the USA (Posen 2006), EU defense policies have developed in partnership with the USA (Howorth 2007, pp. 50–51). “To promote the sharing of risks, capabilities and tasks, and to facilitate the interoperability of armed forces” (Mérand and Angers 2013, pp. 4–5). “(p)artnership, not rivalry, is increasingly the name of the game on both sides” (Howorth and Menon 2009, p. 738). According to some studies, a division of labor between the USA and the EU is moreover developing when dealing with international conflict. While the USA responds military to crisis, “postconflict reconstruction is the real trademark of the EU and the ESDP” (Howorth and Menon 2009, p. 741). It would also be in line with the argument that there is a “brewing geostrategic competition between the US and China over the Indian Ocean” (Behr et al. 2013, p. 41) and that the EU and the USA share an interest in cooperation to protect “US leadership against rising powers” (Youngs 2010, p. 32).

A second neo-realist hypothesis instead focuses on the internal strategic EU bargaining game, in particular between the most powerful member states, and how this is affected and conditioned by geopolitical factors (Carlsnaes 2006, p. 36, Hyde-Price 2006, Howorth and Menon 2009). It suggests that a change in particular geopolitical factors strengthened the position of member states with an interest in a stronger EU foreign policy, allowing them to act as political mobilizers and push through a decision on a military EU mission that would otherwise not have been agreed upon. There is one member state that might have had a particular interest in strengthening the EU’s global role by establishing an autonomous EU mission – France. Based on the ambition of establishing the EU as a global force, France has traditionally shown a strong interest in increased EU integration within the field of security and defense (Marsh and Rees 2012, p. 53). France moreover held the EU Presidency when Atalanta was launched. It might thus have used the upsurge in piracy and the Security Council’s call for multilateral military action as a window of opportunity to ally with other pro-integration member states, and, through the use of threats and promises, make the more reluctant member states support an EU mission. This hypothesis would be in line with studies suggesting that EU foreign policy initiatives have been taken by states acting as “political mobilizers” (Hynek 2011). Moreover, such initiatives have been particularly successful when “linked to a country which held the rotating presidency and chaired the Political and Security Committee (PSC)” (Hynek 2011, pp. 96–97). It would also be in line with studies suggesting that EU policies are made through aggregative strategic bargaining, where outcomes reflect the member states” interests and relative strengths (Moravcsik 1998, Carlsnaes 2006, Hyde-Price 2006, 2008).

In response to neo-realist and other rational choice-based accounts, students of EU foreign policy have however argued that EU foreign policy in many cases is based more on norms of how to behave than on the member states’ aggregated strategic and/or economic interests (for discussions and overviews, see Sjursen 2006a). On this basis, an alternative explanation of the EU option suggests that the member states may have prioritized to act through the EU due to particular normative standards. This explanation of the EU choice would be in line with empirical studies, including of Atalanta, suggesting that norms are important for understanding EU foreign policies (Lucarelli and Manners 2006, Sjursen 2006a, Cross 2010, Riddervold 2011a). It would also be in line with the fact that the EU almost consistently presents itself as a humanitarian foreign policy actor, emphasizing that its foreign policies are based on human rights and an attempt to consolidate “a rule-based international order for the future” (Ferrero-Waldner 2006). Building on Habermas’ theory of communicative action, this article however takes this argument a step further by specifying the mechanisms by which norms may influence state preferences and thus common EU security and defense policies (Habermas 1998/ 1996, Risse 2004, Sjursen 2004, Eriksen 2005, Risse and Ulbert 2005, Deitelhoff 2009). More precisely, it suggests that the member states’ preferences on a particular policy may change during the policy-making process due to what can be called argument-based learning – because they are convinced to change positions due to arguments referring to non-material standards such as norms or facts (Riddervold 2011b). On this basis, what might be called “the legitimacy hypothesis” suggests that the EU member states agreed to establish an autonomous EU operation despite the ongoing NATO mission because at least some of them became convinced that this option, due to certain characteristics, was more legitimate than the NATO option. This hypothesis builds on a different understanding of actor rationality than the one underlying the different versions of the neo-realist hypothesis. Instead of assuming strategically rational actors, the legitimacy hypothesis rests on the assumption that policy-making actors are communicatively rational and that they operate in a given social context where they coordinate behavior through language. By communicative rationality, I understand that the actors have the ability to not only justify and explain their preferences and actions but also to consider and evaluate arguments presented by others (Risse 2004, Sjursen 2004, Eriksen 2005, Risse and Ulbert 2005, Deitelhoff 2009). The expectation is thus that they have the ability to learn from presented arguments and on this basis change their initial positions and behavior accordingly. If enough actors change positions due to the arguments presented, agreement on a common policy may thus be reached (Sjursen 2004, Deitelhoff and Müller 2005, Eriksen 2005, Deitelhoff 2009, Riddervold 2011b). By this, one allows for the possibility that the member states” decision to establish an autonomous EU mission may have been based on aggregated interests and relative strengths, as suggested by the two versions of the neo-realist hypothesis developed above. However, in addition, one allows for the possibility that policy-making actors may change positions because they are convinced by arguments referring to other non-material standards, to facts or norms (Riddervold 2011b). Being communicatively rational, they can also “reflect on the validity of different norms, and why they should be complied with”, thus allowing for the possibility that preferred the EU option due to legitimacy considerations (Sjursen 2006b, p. 88).

    3.1. Empirical expectations

What would we expect to find if any of the explanations developed above can explain the EU option?

If the EU with Atalanta is bandwagoning with the USA and Atalanta thus was part of a division of labor between NATO, the USA and the EU, then one would expect to find references to the strategic importance of establishing a strong western force to balance against China and Russia. One would further expect to find evidence of a clear division of labor in theater: the EU focusing mainly on humanitarian tasks and the NATO and CTF-151 forces mainly conducting anti-piracy missions, such as escorts, surveillance, deterrence, and the capturing of suspected pirates. The EU and the USA would cooperate closely, but would not cooperate with China or Russia, neither politically nor in the field. If the internal strategic bargaining hypothesis helps explain the EU choice, then one would expect to find evidence of successful bargaining tactics within the EU leading to the decision to launch Atalanta. If so, one would expect, first, that there were certain policy entrepreneurs in favor of the EU option. Second, there would be evidence to suggest that the(se) policy entrepreneur(s) allied with other member states and formed a coalition in favor of an autonomous EU mission. Third, they used bargaining tactics to enforce reluctant member states to change positions in favor of an EU operation. There would thus be evidence to suggest that at least some of the member states changed their positions in favor of acting through the EU due to suggested package deals or as a response to concrete threats.

Lastly, if the legitimacy hypothesis helps explain that the EU member states prioritized to act through the EU, then one would expect evidence to suggest that the EU alternative was seen as more legitimate than the NATO alternative. If this hypothesis can explain the member states’ agreement, one would expect that the EU actors refer to differences between the EU and NATO when justifying an autonomous EU operation. In particular, they would refer to the higher legitimacy of the EU operation due to particular characteristics of the two operations. Second, if this can explain agreement to go for an EU mission among the EU member states, one would expect evidence to suggest that at least some of the member states came to support the EU option because they were convinced of the higher legitimacy of this option when dealing with piracy.

     3.2. Methodology

In order to explain the EU option, I seek to trace the Atlanta policy-making process in order to identify what factors that led to agreement on this option instead of extending and strengthening the NATO operation among the EU member states (Checkel 2006). Although research has already shown that the EU member states agreed to conduct a military mission to protect WFP shipments, the fact that they did so by establishing an EU mission, instead of strengthening and extending the ongoing NATO mission, is, as argued in the introduction, not an obvious choice. To discover what led to this decision, I study the reasons behind it from the actors’ point of view (Eliaeson 2002, p. 52), controlling for actual behavior. More precisely, the methodological approach is to trace the arguments that led to the EU option among the EU member states, thus functioning as what Sjursen calls mobilizing arguments (Sjursen 2002). Applying this approach does not mean that I aim to discover the actors’ “true” motives. As rational choice-based perspectives maintain, motives as reasons for action are impossible to discover. However, as all decisions on military EU missions follow from intergovernmental procedures, I assume that common EU foreign policies are agreed upon through voluntary, verbal discussions between the member states. To explain a common policy thus means to identify the arguments that led to agreement on a decision on a particular policy, controlling for actual behavior.

In line with the three hypotheses, I conduct the analysis in three steps. I first examine whether there is evidence to support the neo-realist hypotheses. I start by looking at whether the decision was taken in cooperation with the USA and NATO as part of a regional geopolitical balancing game. I then turn to study if changes in the internal EU bargaining game is important for understand the member states endorsement of the EU choice. Having studied the relevance of geopolitical factors and internal bargaining powers, I proceed to examine the extent to which the norm-based hypothesis of the EU option can be substantiated. Although analytically distinct, I thus expect these theoretically derived hypotheses to overlap empirically. A strength of using this step- wise approach is moreover that it allows me to study how different factors together might give a fuller picture of the EU choice. By studying the relevance of one hypothesis and step-wise adding and discussing the relevance of others, I expect to be able to provide a better account of the decision to go for the EU option than if only looking at the relevance of one of the hypothesis (see e.g., Checkel 2006).

To improve the reliability of its assessments, the analysis uses a triangulation of different data and methods to conduct the analysis. First, altogether 18 interviews were conducted. In 2013, I interviewed nine policy-makers from seven different countries, of which five (from different member states, one interviewed June 18, 2013, four interviewed June 19, 2014) were directly involved in the EU decision-making process leading to the joint decision to launch Atalanta in 2008. I also interviewed two high level persons from the EUs operations center who coordinate EU missions and policies in Somalia, with two high level officers working with piracy in NATO, and with one person working as an adviser on security and defense issues in the European Parliament (EP). In 2010, I conducted interviews with two naval military specialists who had key position in the NATO mission at the time of Atalanta’s launch, and with two foreign policy specialists involved in the international anti-piracy diplomacy that took place in the International Maritime Organization from 2008. Second, written documents from the period leading up to the decision to establish Atalanta (2007 and 2008) were downloaded from the EU institutions’ webpages, including: Council legal basis documents, Presidency conclusions, and a selection of press releases and fact sheets; Commission background documents, yearly reports and a selection of speeches and press releases, an EP motions for resolutions, debates, reports, adopted texts and press releases regarding Atalanta.4 Lastly, as the UK’s decision not only to join but also to take operational lead of Atalanta as will be shown is important to understand agreement on the EU option, the UK House of Lords’ report on Atalanta (House of Lords 2010a) has been an important source. This report is also valuable as it contains hearings of leading Atalanta military personnel, UK ministers of defense and state, UK ministry officials, representatives of the shipping industry and security specialists.

4. Why an autonomous EU mission?

     4.1. A division of labor

First, we look at the relevance of the division of labor/bandwagoning hypothesis. On the one hand, and in line with a strategic division of labor hypothesis, when establishing Atalanta, the EU quickly took over the task of escorting WFP shipments. This has since been a prioritized task (Interview June 17, 2013). Cooperation with other actors and in particular the US-led CTF-151 was moreover underlined already in Atalanta’s mandate (Council of the European Union 2008; see also Helly 2009, Riddervold 2011a). In the field, “the EU force and the Combined Maritime Forces […] are working hand in glove” (House of Lords 2010b). All the interviewees moreover confirmed that the USA “very much welcomed any additional force coming into the theater, particularly a force with a focus on counter-piracy, which clearly Operation Atalanta has” (House of Lords 2010c). In general, as one of the interviewees put it, “each time we launch a military operation it is always discussed with the US” (Interview June 19, 2013).

On the other hand, however, contrary to what one would expect if Atalanta was a division of labor/bandwagoning with the USA to balance Russia and China’s rising power, there is little evidence to suggest an ongoing EU/USA–China balancing game on the Horn of Africa. Instead, NATO, EU, Chinese, and Russian forces cooperate in theater (Interview June 17, 2013; see also Helly 2009, Riddervold 2011a). Neither has the EU operation been limited to humanitarian tasks. Also the EU force from the beginning conducts anti-piracy operations, and increasingly so. Moreover, with Operation Ocean Shield, NATO has taken a wider approach to counter-piracy efforts than what is usually the case with NATO operations, including “a new element of regional-state counter-piracy capacity building”.5 This is opposed to what one would expect if Atalanta was part of a planned division of labor between the EU and the USA. To the contrary, instead of suggesting that the EU is the USA’ “junior partner” (Walt 1985), left with the “soft” humanitarian tasks, leaving the hard core military tasks to the US-led coalition and NATO: The two key forces in the area are the EU force and the American-led force, which is not NATO. NATO is now co-operating, but it is clear that it is an ESDP lead; it is a European force first, and NATO co-operates with it. (House of Lords 2010d)

This EU lead was confirmed by all but one of the interviews – including the interviewed NATO officials (Interviews 2010 and 2013). After Atalanta’s launch “NATO came […] as a follow-on” (Interview June 18, 2013).

Most importantly and in contrast to a planned division of labor hypothesis, both member state interviews and data on parliamentary debates (European Parliament 2008, House of Lords 2010a, Peters et al. 2011) indicate that the decision to prioritize EU was politically controversial, both in the EU and in NATO. In many countries who are members of both organizations, it was controversial not least because “there was a lot of NATO-minded maritime people were like oh, what is EU going to do? […] no, this should be a NATO thing. And so there was this sort of tension” (interview June 18, 2013)

The discussion on whether not NATO was the organization to use was also evident in the UK, where among other things members of the House of Lords questioned the EU choice. In the UK, as in many other countries:

There is […] a tension that the Royal Navy faces […] in terms of where it should place its assets, because there are political reasons why some say it should go with the CMF forces, or with the NAVFOR, or with the NATO group. So there is a complex political challenge for the UK when deciding with whom to place the one asset that it may have every now and again. (House of Lords 2010e)

Thus, while “over time we have managed to work around the majority of those issues” (House of Lords 2010c), in 2008 “there was this NATO issue as a factor” (Interview June 19, 2013). “It was not certain how this [an EU mission] would affect relations to NATO” (Interview June 24, 2010). As argued by an interviewee, “there is competition between NATO and the EU, they fight about the resources. So this is a choice the countries made” (Interview June 17, 2010).

     4.2. Strategic bargaining

So far, there is thus little data to support the bandwagoning/division of labor hypothesis. However, there is still the possibility that the geopolitical situation in 2008 was used as a window of opportunity by particular EU member states with an interest in stronger EU foreign policy integration to affect the EU bargaining game, in line with the second neo- realist hypothesis. Is there evidence to suggest that some of the EU actors acted as political mobilizers and used this situation to put a maritime EU military option on the table and push through such an operation? If so, one would as argued above expect first, that there were certain policy entrepreneurs in favor of the EU option. Second, there would be evidence to suggest that they formed a coalition in favor of an autonomous EU mission and third, that they used bargaining tactics to enforce reluctant member states to change positions in favor of an EU operation.

        4.2.1. France as a political mobilizer

With Atalanta, France stands out as a possible political mobilizer. It held the Presidency when Atalanta was launched, it was already in theater, unilaterally providing military assistance to WFP shipments, and it has a strong tradition of favoring European foreign policy cooperation outside the NATO framework. According to all, the interviewed member state officials who were directly involved in the process it moreover acted as one (one interviewed June 18, 2013, four interviewed June 19, 2013). When asked who suggested a naval EU mission in the first place, all five referred to France. For example, “[t]he French […] raise(d) it within the EU. Because it was the French presidency, which was a big thing, and they wanted to move forward the CSDP” (Interview June 19, 2013). The French “were the more active, because […] it was the French presidency of the European Union” (Interview June 19, 2013).

Holding the presidency, France, together with Spain, quickly started working on establishing an EU military mission, “of doing it at a wider scale” (Interview June 19, 2013). “It started with a whole lot of lobbying from the French, together also with the Spanish who had strong fishing interest” (Interview June 18, 2013). “Also Spain was engaged in pushing it forward, and they had the lead in coordination mechanism” (Interview June 19, 2013). “The Spaniards and the French pushed it” (Interview June 18, 2013). For the member states in favor of enhanced EU security and defense cooperation, it was moreover “easy to choose this particular thing … because there are few risks involved for the military personnel” compared to, for instance, a land-based operation (Interview June 17, 2010). Thus, for the member states in favor of increased EU military cooperation, this was a situation in which “something had to be done, and this was something that the EU could do” (Interview June 24, 2010). This was a chance to “show that we can. Here the EU had the opportunity to start something” outside the NATO framework (Interview June 24, 2010). “[T]his was an opportunity to launch a maritime operation under the ESDP” (House of Lords 2010c).

        4.2.2. Striking a deal through strategic bargaining

France, together with Spain, in other words seems to have used the window of opportunity created by the rise of piracy, the UNSC’s call for action and the USA’ support to suggest and put the EU option on the table. However, if the strategic bargaining hypothesis can explain the agreement on an autonomous EU mission instead of strengthening the NATO mission, there must also be evidence to suggest that a pro-EU coalition used bargaining tactics to get other member states on board. And most importantly, they did so successfully. Was this so? Is there evidence to suggest that a French-led coalition got support for the suggestion to launch an EU operation through strategic bargaining – that is, other member states submitted to this proposal due to presented threats and/or suggested package deals?

There is no evidence in the collected data to suggest that the member states’ decision to launch Atalanta instead of trying to strengthening and extending the ongoing NATO operation resulted from submissions given by reluctant countries due to threats and/or suggested package deals. Instead, when asked why their own country supported the EU mission instead of promoting a strengthened, longer term NATO mission, all the interviewees referred to normative differences between the EU and NATO operations. In particular, they all referred to the importance of the EU’s early focus and success in establishing a legal framework for legitimately dealing with pirates by negotiating transfer agreements with countries in the region (Interviews 2010 and 2013). “It was because NATO did not have arrangements to transfer pirates, and the EU did. So that was in the end the big advantage of doing it through the EU. If you caught pirates you could hand them over” to third countries in the region (Interview June 19, 2013). The member states were concerned that “if one captures pirates, they should not be able to apply for asylum” (Interview June 18, 2013), but they also wanted to make sure that “their basic human rights are going to be well looked after” (House of Lords 2010c). Having negotiated transfer agreements with Kenya, and later Tanzania and the Seychelles, this could be provided by the EU. “The legal aspects were clearly the added value of the EU to the NATO one” (Interview June 19, 2013).

These quotes thereby point toward the third hypothesis of the EU option, namely that the agreement on launching an EU operation at the expense the ongoing NATO operation was based on normative considerations regarding the two operations’ legitimacy, in particular linked to their legal frameworks for the dealing of suspected pirates. If this hypothesis can explain the member states’ agreement to go for the EU option, one would as already indicated by the data expect the EU actors to refer to particular normative differences between the EU and NATO when justifying an autonomous EU operation.

To explain agreement on the French-led suggestion to launch an autonomous EU operation despite the ongoing NATO operation, one would moreover expect evidence to suggest that at least some of the traditionally more reluctant member states supported the EU option because they were convinced of the higher legitimacy of this option when dealing with piracy. Is there evidence to suggest that other member states, including the actor that one would expect would most clearly opt for NATO and oppose an EU operation, the UK, supported the French suggestion because the EU operation was perceived as more legitimate than the NATO operation?

     4.3. A more legitimate operation

First, we look at the UK’s decision to not only support but also to take operational lead of Atalanta. On the one hand, a NATO official and two of the member state officials suggested that “the British took responsibility for leading the operation because it saw that it would be adapted anyway” (Interview June 24, 2010). Similarly, one member state official claimed: I think in the end their assessment was quite pragmatic, that there would be an EU mission, whether they would like it or not. They made the assessment (…) that it was better to not rob this mission, but to get on board and to get the OHQ. (Interview June 19, 2013)

According to NAVFOR Rear Admiral Jones, by taking the lead, the UK moreover: had an opportunity to influence the shaping of the political direction that was given to the EU operation (…) to work alongside the EU military staff in crafting the initiating directive within which we did our planning, and then, indeed, we effectively wrote the Operation Plan. (House of Lords 2010c)

At the same time, France and the other pro-EU mission countries wanted the UK fleet and military experience in order to establish a strong maritime operation. As argued by an interviewee, “the member states had already agreed on it and when the UK took the lead it could work in practice” (Interview June 17, 2010).

However, although there may also have been some pragmatic concerns behind the UK decision to take operational lead of EU Atalanta, the key reason behind the UK’s endorsement was normative. Rather than submitting to threats or accepting Atalanta as part of a strategic package deal, the UK supported an EU operation from the very beginning due to its legal aspects regarding the treatment of captured and suspected pirates (House of Lords 2010a, 2010b, 2010c, 2010d, Interviews 2013). Faced with an increasing piracy problem, UK policy-makers both in the government and in the Parliament were concerned with finding a way of dealing with captured pirates in accordance with the UN Convention of the law on the sea (UNCLOS) and the human rights conventions before Atalanta was suggested and before NATO’s “Allied Provider” was launched. As the then UK Minister for Africa, Asia, and the UN Malloch-Brown explained in a hearing in the House of Lords “at the beginning […] we were extremely reluctant to bring pirates back to the United Kingdom for trial for fear that they would then try to claim refugee status” (House of Lords 2010d). However, at the same time: we are very clear; our policy is that we will not allow transfer to third states for prosecution unless we are satisfied that they will not be subject to cruel treatment, death penalty or face a trial which is grossly unfair. (House of Lords 2010d)

Due to such concerns, the UK had signed an agreement with Kenya on the transfer and treatment of captured pirates already before Atalanta was launched. Thus, when international discussions on taking multilateral action against piracy started in 2008, finding a way in which a multilateral operation could deal with pirates in a legitimate way – avoiding the asylum problem while securing that pirates were treated in accordance with UNCLOS and the human rights conventions – was of key importance to the UK (House of Lords 2010a, 2010b, 2010c, 2010d, interviews 2013).

This concern is key to understand the UK’s support of Atalanta. The French-led coalition put the option on the table, but when presented with this possibility, the UK endorsed it because it understood that it was the EU that could provide the necessary legal framework and thus the type of multilateral operation it wanted (House of Lords 2010a, 2010b, 2010c, 2010d, interviews 2013). “The legal aspect was clearly the added value of the EU to the NATO” (Interview June 19, 2013). And “once on board, the UK became the main driving force” behind Atalanta (Interview June 17, 2010).

Other EU member states, who shared the UK’s concerns, also learned that the type of law-enforcement multilateral operation they wanted could best be provided by the EU. A key policy-maker from another country that is a member of both NATO and the EU, for example, said the French suggestion on an EU mission led to internal discussions on where to place his country’s forces. In the end, an EU mission was the preferred option due to its legal aspects: Internally there was […] discussion with people who were more attached to the NATO side. But […] as I said, one of the arguments was, that the rules of engagement were more robust, so actually they could do more under the EU flag than under the NATO flag. (Interview June 19, 2013)

Further underlining the importance attached to establishing a multilateral operation with a legitimate legal framework for dealing with pirates, a key decision-maker from a third member state referred to his government’s (closed) discussions on Atalanta as: quite challenging. We had to have debates on all these legal provisions, it was very complicated, I mean, legally, to apprehend pirates. (…). So I remember that there was a lot of discussions, we even had extra working sessions’ before agreement was reached on supporting and deploying forces to Atalanta. (Interview June 19, 2013)

As a last example, both interview data and other studies indicate that legitimacy concerns were important for understanding the German Bundestag’s support of Atalanta (Interviews 2010 and 2013, Peters et al. 2011). Following German law, German troops can only be deployed if the Bundestag gives its prior consent, and “the members of the Bundestag are usually very sensitive concerning the deployment of troops” (Peters et al. 2011, p. 7). The German government wanted to take action against piracy also before Atalanta was suggested, but the Bundesdag did not support German troop deployment to NATO (Interview June 17, 2010). However, it supported German contributions to Atalanta after having “posed questions to the government, mostly asking for detailed information about the number of participating soldiers and of escorted WFP ships and about the procedure of detaining suspected pirates” in a possible EU mission (Peters et al. 2011, p. 6). Being assured that the EU mission would be conducted according to certain global legal standards, where pirates’ rights would be secured, it was endorsed by the Bundestag and Germany could deploy forces in December 2008.

        4.3.1. A different type of organization conducting a different type of operation

The member states’ concern with conducting a military mission that could fight piracy in a way in which pirates’ rights were secured and UNCLOS was upheld while at the same time avoiding asylum-seeking pirates is in other words key for understanding that the French-led group of pro-CSDP countries got support for the suggestion to launch a distinct EU mission despite, and much at the expense of, a strengthened and extended NATO mission.

Knowing the member states’ concerns, France “started thinking of that right from the beginning” (Interview June 19, 2013). It actively used the Council secretariat and the Commission to start working on third country agreements once it took over office as President of the Council (Interviews June 18, 2013 and June 19, 2013). This was a focus area until agreements with explicit human rights clauses were reached first with Kenya, later with the Seychelles and Tanzania. As argued also by Rear admiral Jones when asked about the treatment of pirates in the House of Lords, “the EU legal services in support of the EU Council in Brussels are almost daily sending fresh teams out to negotiate with a whole range of regional states looking for where the opportunities might be to negotiate these arrangements” (House of Lords 2010c). When piracy exploded and the UN called for multilateral action: It became apparent [to the EU member states] that there was a need for robust legal arrangements for the eventualities of when you catch a pirate. What do you do with the pirate? And that started, the military operation starts to resemble a police operation. (Interview June 19, 2013)

Both according to the EU member states themselves, EU military personnel and NATO officials, in 2008 the EU member states wanted to conduct an operation that was legitimate according to particular standards regarding the treatment of suspected pirates – they wanted a law-enforcement operation, not a military operation (Council of the European Union 2008, European Parliament 2008, House of Lords 2010a, Interviews 2010 and 2013). This could best be provided by the EU: “This is a job for the EU because this is a law enforcement operation and not a military operation” (Interview June 17, 2013).

The EU’s approach of focusing on establishing a law-enforcement operation based on third country agreements that secured pirates’ rights was different from the approach taken, for instance, by the US-led coalition at the time. For instance, according to an interviewee, “the CMF’s legal advisors did not understand why the EU was so concerned with the legal issues. For them it was more like going in, destroy or fix and get out again” (Interview June 18, 2013). It was moreover very different from, for example, Russia’s approach toward captured pirates, where rights considerations seem to have been more or less non-existent (Riddervold 2011a). Most importantly, the focus on conducting a law- enforcement mission that also secured pirates” rights was different from the approach taken by NATO. Being a military alliance, NATO simply “didn’t have the means” needed to provide legal arrangements regarding captured pirates and thus to establish and conduct the type of law-enforcement operation the EU member states preferred to conduct (Interview June 19, 2013): NATO did not have the leverage to make states coordinate these transfer agreements. Through the EU we managed to make some transfer agreements, because there were some benefits for the countries who signed the transfer agreements. They got in return some financial support from the EU […] And these kinds of things NATO could not provide. (Interview June 19, 2013)

As argued by an interviewee, “the EU is much more of the comprehensive approach. Where all the different parts work together to reach the final result. While what NATO is doing quite frankly is fighting symptoms at sea” (Interview June 17, 2013). Since the EU is an established political organization, France could draw on a wide area of expertise both from the Council and the Commission when working on establishing Atalanta. By working with the Commission, the Presidency could moreover draw on different “first pillar” tools such as development aid to reach agreements with countries in the region. As explained by interviewees from different member states:

In the EU we were able to build a coherent approach against piracy. We were able to negotiate transfer agreements with the countries in the region, and to use our financial instruments in order to push for a conclusion of these agreements. So the European approach was more sophisticated. On the NATO side there was a military operation and nothing more. (Interview June 19, 2013)

“As for the EU, the benefit comes from being able to coordinate with the other efforts that are going on in the EU framework”. The EU is better “[at this] than NATO because the EU is a political organization with military ambitions while NATO is a military organization with political ambitions” (Interview June 17, 2013.).

Thus, in 2008, “we had to find a way out and the EU track was the only possibility to find a solution in a multinational context” (Interview June 19, 2013). And due to legitimacy consideration the EU – not NATO – was the preferred option:

[A]s I am constantly reminded by the Member States of the EU, we have to make sure that those arrangements are conducted with regional states who have a policy for handling those pirates that is in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights. (House of Lords 2010c)

5. Concluding remarks

This article asked how we can understand that Atalanta was launched despite the at the time already ongoing humanitarian NATO mission. I find that the decision to prioritize the EU option can be explained in two phases during which different mechanisms were at work. In the first phase, which may be accounted for from a neo-realist perspective, France, who held the Presidency during the autumn of 2008 used the favorable geopolitical conditions caused by the upsurge of piracy, the UNSC’s call for multilateral action and the US support to put an autonomous EU operation on the agenda. However, agreement on the EU option cannot be explained as a result of strategic bargaining. Reluctant member states were not threatened into submission. Instead, the member states, including the key actor that one would expect most clearly would opt for the NATO option, the UK, endorsed the French suggestion quite voluntarily due to legitimacy considerations. The member states wanted a law-enforcement operation that solved the asylum problem but that also was based on human rights standards. While NATO is a purely military organization, the EU is a political organization and could therefore take a more comprehensive approach, coordinate policies across different policy-areas and draw on tools linked to policy-areas outside of the CFSP framework to establish agreements with third countries in the region. Faced with an increasing problem and the UN’s call for multilateral action, the member states learned that the EU could provide the most appropriate response.

What then are the more general implications of these findings?

One important empirical implication is that the analysis shows that NATO is not necessarily the preferred European security actor even among the more transatlantic- oriented EU countries. Clearly, the preference for the EU should not be exaggerated, as many countries, including the UK, as argued above also have contributed with forces to the NATO and/or US-led forces. However, the consequence of launching Atalanta was that NATO came as an add-on to the EU and not the other way around. The EU was the prioritized choice.

At the same time, the EU choice was not linked foremost to a geopolitical balancing game or to the particular member states’ EU foreign policy ambitions, as one would expect following a conventional perspective on foreign policy. Instead, the analysis suggests that it was not the organization as such that mattered the most for the EU member states’ choices, but rather what it could deliver. And most importantly – that considerations regarding the value of this delivery are not necessarily linked to material interests but rather to normative considerations. Key member states such as France have always preferred EU cooperation within the field of security and defense. But in this case, it seems that at least some of the other member states that are members of both organizations were convinced that the type of operation wanted in this situation could best be provided by the EU – not NATO.

There are also theoretical implications to be drawn. To understand the member states’ choices when launching multilateral military missions outside Somalia, we need a theoretical framework that can help us capture not only how norms may influence state preferences but also how such preferences may change. When choosing security framework in a given geopolitical situation, the preferences of European states that are members both of the EU and NATO are not predetermined by geopolitical factors and material interests. Instead, faced with security threats such as those posed by piracy, they consider their different options and base their positions not only on instrumental but also normative considerations. To be able to capture this, we need a framework that allows decisions based on normative considerations to be considered rational. And most importantly – that allows for the possibility that the actors can learn and change their positions on the basis of such considerations. Communicative action theory proved helpful in this regard. By looking at the role of norms in EU foreign policy-making, the findings in this article thereby also contribute to the wider debate about the EU’s global ambitions and in particular whether or not EU foreign policy is oriented toward norms promotion. The importance attached to conducting a mission in a way that secures pirates’ rights confirms the claim that norms matter in EU foreign policy. However, the article takes this argument a step further by shedding light on how particular norms and legitimacy considerations may come to form the basis of common EU policies during the EU member states’ discussions on common policies.

One may however argue that maritime piracy is a special security case and that these findings therefore are not necessarily generalizable. Faced with a more traditional security threat such as a territorial conflict or a direct threat to one or more of the European states who are members both of NATO and the EU, the choice might have been in favor of the NATO option, as was the case for instance with the multilateral actions taken in Libya. However, one may also argue the opposite, namely that this case may be more, or at least as typical of today’s security challenges than these more traditional cases. Instead of being different, piracy outside Somalia and its international responses exemplifies the changing security contexts in which the European countries operate. Not only is the field of security and defense policy becoming more complex in the sense that the threats and challenges toward states’ security are different than during the cold war. Foreign policy actors with many different and often conflicting interests also operate in more complex geopolitical contexts, characterized by the involvement of a variety of different actors, including non-state actors and international organizations, and there are often unclear boundaries between defense and other policy-issues. This security complexity in terms of unclear threats, many different types of actors and often overlapping policy fields may thus trigger different and additional concerns with the European states than the purely military ones, as was the case with Atalanta. In this case, the member states did not only want a multilateral military response to piracy – they also wanted it to be conducted in a legitimate way. And for this they needed a political organization with a wider spectrum of available policy-tools that could take a more comprehensive approach to the situation and which had more tools at its disposal than what a traditional defense alliance such as NATO could provide. Thus, under similar circumstances, it might be that the EU also in future cases can best provide the type of response wanted by the member states – not NATO. This might be all the more so in a geopolitical context where China and Russia have changed their grand strategies from landward to seaward security, and the USA has adapted its strategic focus accordingly. The EU’s Maritime Security Strategy, fuelled not least by the success of Atalanta, further underlines this possibility. Increasingly, Europe’s main security challenges are all somehow linked to the sea – ranging from environmental changes in the Arctic area, territorial claims made by rising powers China and Russia in the Arctic or in the South-East China sea, the growing importance attached to secure global shipping lines and European energy security, to the fact that most of today’s immigrants to the EU come by boat. Although this warrants further studies, the focus on developing a strong maritime dimension to EU foreign policy clearly suggests that the EU member states attempt to address these challenges together within the EU context.

Thus, although it is impossible to predict the future, rather than being a special case, maybe Atalanta says rather much about the future security structure of Europe. One might at least hypothesize that in a world where European states concerned with human rights protection are faced with different types of threats in a changing security context, this is not the last time the EU is seen as the most appropriate security provider.


I want to thank the interviewees for sharing their insights and for taking the time to talk to me and to Barbro Hugaas for her invaluable help in providing contacts and setting up meetings. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer and to Guri Rosén for helpful comments and suggestions, and to Linn Hege Lauset for all her practical help. In particular, I want to thank the Norwegian Ministry of Defence for financing this research. The article is part of the ongoing EuroDiv project at ARENA – Centre for European Studies. EuroDIv is financed by the Research Council of Norway’s research initiative “Europe in Transition”.


This article was first published on 15 July 2014 on European Security Journal.






  1. See WFP “Coordinated action urged: piracy threatens UN lifeline to Somalia” at http://www.wfp.org/
  2. See more on the mission and history of the Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151) on Counter- piracy at: http://combinedmaritimeforces.com/ [Last accessed 10 Janu- ary 2014]
  3. On the NATO counter-piracy operations, see http://www.nato.int/ [Last accessed 10 January 2014].
  4. Downloaded in 2009–2010. Selection based on search-words “piracy” and “Somalia”.
  5. On the NATO counter-piracy operations, see http://www.nato.int/ [Accessed 10 January 2014].




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