Talk of an “EU army” is seriously premature, but there is much of interest in the historic “PESCO” declarationby Leopold Traugott / November 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
On Monday, representatives from 23 European Union member states agreed to take EU defence integration one step further. As ministers signed up to the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) declaration, speeches were filled with mentions of an “historic day” and “milestone” for the bloc’s integration.
The pact will make some rejoice and others shiver, as it brings the notorious “EU army” idea to mind. But this declaration is, so far, not much more than an interesting proposal. It will not provide the EU with its own armed forces—a proposal brought up and struck down time and again over the last decades—but that is not its aim. Instead, it should be judged on whether it manages to improve European defence cooperation and render investments in research and development more efficient.
During negotiations, PESCO ran into the same problem that most ambitious EU reforms face: everyone agrees that something ought to be done, but they all disagree on what exactly it is and how it can best be achieved. A glance at the main dividing lines behind this new agreement is enough to understand the difficulties of predicting its future trajectory. While France fervently pushed to keep EU defence integration limited to a small group of member states with strong operational commitments, Germany sought a solution as inclusive as possible (Germany seems to have won). Where the French political class holds an historic infatuation with increasing European autonomy from NATO, Eastern member states such as Poland are painstakingly wary of allowing anything that could jeopardise their relationship with the alliance. In the end, everyone had to compromise.
So what exactly did states agree on with PESCO? The founding document sets out 20 binding commitments. On the hard numbers, it stipulates a regular increase of national defence budgets in real terms, and the mid-term goal of spending two per cent of total defence expenditure on research and technology, and 20 per cent on defence investment to fill strategic capability gaps. On soft pledges, it obliges members to act through joint platforms and initiatives, and to help improve the European defence industry’s competitiveness. An important problem quickly becomes apparent: there is no convincing mode of ensuring compliance. Enforcing adherence to soft pledges is always difficult, but having concrete goalposts does not make things a self-runner either. In its attempt to re-channel European defence expenditures, PESCO runs the risk of reliving NATO’s trouble of trying to make member states live up to the 2 per cent rule. They just can’t force them.
“It remains unclear how the UK’s current role as the main security provider in Europe is to be squared with such an exclusive defence operation”
There are some sensible proposals. Its emphasis on joint research, development and purchases may help its members to get more bang for their buck (literally) by alleviating current inefficiencies. While EU member states together already spend around half of what the US does on defence, they only reap 15 per cent of US efficiency, according to a study by the European Commission. This is partly due to the vast number of different arms systems EU member states develop, purchase and use—an issue that could be more easily tackled under PESCO. Moreover, PESCO allows member states to propose additional, voluntary projects, enabling them to integrate defence efforts where concrete needs arise. So far, 15 states already have proposed 47 additional projects, including calls for regional battlegroups and easier movements of soldiers and heavy military material across EU territory.
While the agreement provides for greater integration of EU defence capabilities, decision-making powers and ownership will ultimately remain in the hands of national governments. Arms purchased and capabilities gained under PESCO will be able to be employed in European missions, national efforts or under NATO and UN umbrellas. Political leaders have gone to great lengths to explain the operation’s complementary nature particularly with regards to NATO, and the EU’s eastern member states are likely to enforce this. Still, this does not mean that PESCO will not increase the likelihood of more independent missions happening.
Where does this leave Brexit Britain? The PESCO framework allows for third country participation, yet only if they provide “substantial added value”and contribute to strengthen both PESCO and the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. For the UK, which still amounts to around 25 per cent of European defence capability, this should be easy.
The more difficult nut to crack may be a provision that prevents third states from joining decision-making processes under PESCO. An exception for the UK seems unlikely, and would antagonise Turkey. A strong military power and NATO member seeking closer ties with the EU for decades, Turkey may feel snubbed at a post-Brexit UK simply jumping the queue. The ultimate importance of this exclusion from decision-making will to a large degree depend on the amount of missions and exercises that are moved from the NATO to the PESCO umbrella. Still, it remains remarkably unclear how the UK’s current role as the main security provider in Europe—a role Theresa May assured the EU it would continue to play after Brexit—is to be squared with such an exclusive defence operation.
The EU did not decide to create a European army on Monday, far from it. Such a process is opposed by numerous member states, and should not be the measuring stick for PESCO. The announced pact may fill an existing demand for more efficient defence spending and cooperation on small-scale missions, an aim well within reach.