PESCO: Essential step for the resurrection of European defence

The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) on defence between EU member states is not a European army and will not solve problems like terrorism or the migration crisis. However, it is still an important step. Despite concerns about harming NATO, the PESCO initiative will rather help NATO’s collective defence capabilities.

Since it was established on 11 December, the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) has earned several nicknames, ranging from the ‘sleeping beauty’ to ‘European army’. While PESCO, which is defined by the Lisbon Treaty, has been waking up recently with the announcement of its 17 planned projects, it is still miles away from anything even resembling beginnings of a European army.

Within the EU’s comprehensive defence package, PESCO can be seen as a political project aiming to strengthen the EU’s relevance in the time of Brexit, the rise of Euroscepticism and worsening security environment. Security became one of the most important topics for Europeans in recent years due to Russia’s aggression, terrorism and migration. However, PESCO does not address any of these problems.


For NATO, European defence integration in the form of PESCO will not be an obstacle but rather an improvement.


It is no news that NATO’s European members are not able to fulfil their commitments to the Alliance and that Europe largely depends on the US in defence. After several years of continued calls on Europe to increase its defence spending, it was Donald Trump who has provoked the old continent into a change. For NATO, European defence integration in the form of PESCO will not be an obstacle but rather an improvement.


NATO’s European pillar

The initial 17 planned projects show that PESCO merely focuses on strengthening capabilities, merging development initiatives or sharing costs, not on building ambitious military structures. The project closest to an increase of joint European combat capacity is the European Union Force Crisis Response Operation Core (EUFOR CROC) led by Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Portugal and Cyprus. Its modest objective is only to improve and extend EUFOR’s crisis operation capabilities.

The fact that PESCO will help NATO, not challenge it, is further confirmed by Poland that joined the initiative after long deliberation over its rivalry with the Alliance. Warsaw, along with the rest of PESCO’s signatories, will participate in the Dutch project (Simplifying and standardising cross-border military transport procedures) to make the cross-border movement of military units within the Union effective. The EU has been coordinating military mobility with NATO for a while and it was NATO in particular who has been calling for the establishment of the so-called military Schengen zone. For that purpose, NATO is currently setting up new EU headquarters to improve logistics. While the project will help lower the deployment time of follow-on forces on an active theatre in the East after the initial NATO Response Force, they would be mainly constituted by US troops.

Germany, which insisted on a more inclusive format of the project in contrast with the more ambitious French vision, pushed PESCO mainly for its foreign policy rationale to showcase the EU’s relevance and ability to adapt to new challenges or popular demand. Despite this, collective defence and NATO membership are still the core basis for Germany’s defence policy, whose direction is largely determined by the NATO’s Defence Planning Process (NDPP).

Sharing costs and efforts within PESCO with the additional financial support from the European Defence Fund will ensure an increase in defence spending and investments across Europe. If we consider the state of defence spending across Europe, any improvement of defence capabilities or growth of defence budgets will greatly benefit NATO. The PESCO agreement, just like NATO, demands that signatories increase their defence investments to 20 %.

While the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) and the Capabilities Development Plan (CDP) will help to identify lacking capabilities and new areas of cooperation, a European army remains out of sight. Reaching a consensus and synchronisation on security cultures, defence doctrines or main threats, with wide differences between the Southern and Eastern agendas, seems unimaginable. Member states cannot even agree on what the ‘strategic autonomy’, the main goal of the EU Global Strategy, means. Moreover, there is nothing to build a European army from at this point anyway. PESCO will remain on the member states’ own initiative and it fits to say they have been rather lukewarm.


Poles, Hungarians and Czechs stays behind

Only two projects from Eastern Europe succeeded in PESCO, Slovakia's Indirect Fire Support and Lithuania's Cyber Assistance. All signatories are participating in the Dutch military mobility development project. The Czech Republic plans to participate in Germany’s projects for military medicine and an EU training mission centre. Prague failed to find support for its hastily drafted proposals in areas such as chemical defence or aviation training. Other Visegrad countries, Poland and Hungary also wish to get involved in the same medical project and the French European Security Software Defined Radio initiative. Hungary with the Czech Republic and Slovakia signalled their interest in Italy's armoured vehicle development.

Despite the repetitive talk about defence and security cooperation between the V4 countries, the group failed to coordinate any meaningful activities. Slovakia, however, remains the most active county out of the Visegrad Group, not only thanks to its successful EuroArtillery project, but also because it already authorised a national strategy for fulfilling PESCO commitments. Slovakia’s defence spending is increasing, aiming to reach 1,6% by 2020. After Polish solid 2% defence spending, the Czech Republic can hope its defence spending reaches at least 1,3% by 2020 and Hungary aims to reach the two-percent mark by 2026 following a 40% fall in defence budgets in the last ten years.


PESCO is a symbolic step that leaves all the initiative on its member states' shoulders. Without any enforceability of the fulfilment of the structured cooperation, the programme can end on broken promises.


The inability to ensure the involvement of arms companies across the V4 either directly or in supply chains in both PESCO and the European Defence Fund’s two-billion-euro research support could be fatal for the post-Communist industries. PESCO is a symbolic step leaving all the initiative on its member states' shoulders. Without any enforceability for its fulfilment, the cooperation can end on broken promises. This would be yet another strategic mistake for the standing and reliability of Visegrad and other Eastern European countries in the eyes of its allies and the EU and could push them further away from Europe’s core

The article was published on the Association for International Affairs blog with the support of NATO's Public Diplomacy Division.

About author: Petr Boháček


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