By PATRICK STEPHENSON, with BROOKS TIGNER
BRUSSELS – The EU’s 2009 Lisbon Treaty has always contained the promise of far greater cooperation between its member states than the latter have cared to pursue. Its Article 42(6) allows for so-called permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) among self-selected countries in any field, including defence.
That prospect is moving toward reality as EU policymakers and those from key member states Germany and France prepare to unveil a PESCO proposal by the end of 2017 or early 2018.
Defence policy adherents in Brussels are pouring over the possibilities for pushing Europe’s weak and fragemented military landscape toward a more coherent and stronger one. But how realistic are these expectations?
Some indication of PESCO’s potential – but also its shortcomings – for the future emerged during a 19 September conference here sponsored by Carnegie Europe where one senior EU insider sounded giddy about PESCO’s prospects.
“I am an optimist now. We have a commitment from the member states that didn’t exist previously. We have 500 million euros a year for the capability window [and] the Commission has proposed one billion euros a year,” said the insider, referring to the Commission’s European Defence Fund, unveiled in June 2017.
In the not-too-distant future the Commission’s spending levels could rise to 5 billion euros a year, said the insider, declaring thast “the plane is on the tarmac. And with PESCO, we are going to take off.”
Others in the room tempered that optimism. “Five billion is not much in terms of fighter jets,” observed one Carnegie official.
“But that’s not the idea,” the EU insider responded. “The idea is to be a catalyst for many other projects.”
Other think-tanks’ take on the issue are just as mixed. A recent policy brief by the German Marshall Fund terms PESCO the ‘cornerstone’ of a triangle that includes itself, the European Defence Fund and the European Defence Agency’s forthcoming common annual review on defence (CARD) across its member states.
The CARD – similar in intent to NATO’s defence planning process – will identify capability gaps among European militaries, with the EDF providing funds to fill them. As the German Marshall Fund puts it, PESCO is intended to provide “political guidance” to ease the wheels between the complementary cogs of the CARD and EDF.
Germany’s goals for itself within any PESCO will be revelatory, as there is a critical need for the country to modernise its military. A recent Friends of Europe report on German military readiness [see related story in this issue] describes the extraordinary shortfalls in the Bundewehr’s readiness – but also the country’s reluctance to do anything about it.
Indeed, after Britain withdraws from the EU in 2019, only France will have Europe’s full-spectrum military capability for operations – and there are divergent French and German visions of what PESCO should achieve. French officials want effective and efficient forces, with high barriers for member-state participation in PESCO. Germany prefers a more inclusive process that doesn’t exacerbate the EU’s existing East-West and North-South divisions.
One possible compromise: allow relatively weak EU militaries without high-end capabilities to join in, provided they commit financially to PESCO’s objectives.
Regardless of who participates in any structured defence arrangement, it is a near-certainty the Commission will use the EDF’s support for PESCO to fund the lowest hanging fruit first – the easiest military capability projects – such as logistics or a European medical corps.
Hardline military kit would not be political digestible for Berlin at this point. That will have to wait until the German public’s attitude changes toward their military responsibilities – or if France finds other big countries such as Spain or Italy to fill the gaps in Europe’s miltiary capabilities.