Historic. The unthinkable made possible. A landmark.

Against a backdrop of rising and diversifying security threats, as well as a spectrum of international political uncertainty that have placed security and defence at the forefront of the European policy agenda, the recent announcements surrounding the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) have been met with much praise (and a sense of relief).
For the most part, this has been rightfully so.

 

The creation of PESCO, which has been often equated to the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ of the Lisbon Treaty (an important idea included in the Treaty but so far not utilised), has defied expectations. As with the rest of the impressive constellation of EU security and defence initiatives announced or undertaken in the past year or so,[1] this long-elusive outcome is now an actionable reality, when so many previous attempts at launching it had failed, and despite some pretty unfavourable odds against it.

The European capacity at acting swiftly with a unified voice and stance is still hampered by internal divisions and institutional incoherence.

Indeed, over the last two decades, there have just been too many examples where European defence proved painfully inadequate to respond to conflicts and crises, be it in the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa or in response to recent Russian aggressiveness. The European capacity at acting swiftly with a unified voice and stance is still hampered by internal divisions and institutional incoherence. The military capacity of European states still suffers from being designed, developed and implemented in an uneven, underfunded and nationally myopic way. Above all, defence cooperation has, up until now, remained one of the most taboo-like policy domains for European integration; initiatives such as the 2009 ‘EU Defence Package’ on defence procurement and defence transfers (Directives 2009/43/EC and 2009/81/EC) were needles in an otherwise profoundly intergovernmental haystack.

And yet, the fact that 25 of the EU’s 28 member states[2] agreed on joint military investment in equipment, research and development through the enhanced-cooperation mechanism that PESCO provides is both surprising (in that it could not have been foreseen until recently) and highly welcome. The additional fact that the signatories to the PESCO pact have pledged to a number of significant commitments, ranging from very specific joint defence projects to concretely increasing defence spending, within an ‘inclusive’, ‘ambitious’ and ‘binding’ framework, further adds to the gravitas of the decision.

Above all, PESCO appears to represent the deep-seated realisation amongst (most) Europeans that they need to take security more seriously in their own hands, and -crucially- to do so, better, faster, more cost-effectively, and more efficiently.

American retreat under the Trump administration and the hard blow of Brexit might have offered a crucial slipstream of political momentum behind this process, but the primary root cause behind this tectonic shift lies elsewhere. Above all, PESCO appears to represent the deep-seated realisation amongst (most) Europeans that they need to take security more seriously in their own hands, and -crucially- to do so, better, faster, more cost-effectively, and more efficiently. PESCO does this by acting as the vehicle through which EU member states can develop military capabilities together and improve their ability to deploy them. This permanent framework for defence cooperation will allow ‘willing and able member states’ to jointly develop defence capabilities, invest in shared projects, and enhance the operational readiness and contribution of their armed forces.

Of course, the road ahead will be neither easy nor linear.

PESCO’s meteoric rise in the EU defence universe shows ambition but it will undoubtedly also reveal tensions. What is more, as much as its potential value is recognised, so should the limitations in its structure and substance: The hitherto exhibited inclusiveness might soon become a real inhibiting factor for the initiative’s ambitions; The divergence in defence cultures and threat perceptions amongst EU Member States is still staggering; Issues of governance or adherence also remain wide open in a way that will by and large decide the destiny of the whole undertaking; and so on.

Nonetheless, for a Europe that is still in the throes of a deep identity crisis, PESCO cannot but be seen as a positive shot in the arm. Even putting the (self-) congratulatory tone aside, its significance cannot be underlined enough, both in what it can mean for European defence and in what it does mean for European integration. This, even despite the real risk that the former aspect will not amount to much (if PESCO serves simply as a repackaging of business-as-usual) and that the latter will be short-lived (if PESCO proves dysfunctional in its infancy).

Ultimately, only time will tell if PESCO does indeed demonstrate a genuine realisation on the part of the EU that the time has come to shoulder greater responsibility for its own security and defence. With so much at stake and against a ticking clock, the historic decisions taken this past week and this past month should be seen precisely in this way: not as the end result but simply as a beginning. Or otherwise put, as a very positive moment in a challenging yet potentially rewarding, long temporal process.

 

[1] Consider for example the steps announced during three of the last European Councils: https://progressivepost.eu/feps-post-summit-briefing-european-council-15-december-2016/, https://progressivepost.eu/feps-post-summit-briefing-european-council-22-23-june-2017/, and http://www.feps-europe.eu/assets/b0f28f36-23d4-4b5f-8c7f-410f8fd12211/feps-post-summit-briefing-oct-2017outputpdf.pdf

[2] 23 member states signed a joint notification letter and handed it over to the High Representative and the Council agreeing to PESCO on November 13th. These member states were: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. Since then, two more Member States have joined – Portugal and Ireland – bringing the total to 25.

photograph: European Union External Action