Home / Our news and views / Will PESCO prompt a return to Europe’s traditional scepticism about defence initiatives? Keep your eye on the bouncing ball

Will PESCO prompt a return to Europe’s traditional scepticism about defence initiatives? Keep your eye on the bouncing ball

Euro-View: Policy analyst Tomáš A. Nagy on PESCO

Amir Husain

In late 2017, when the efforts of Europe’s political leadership to develop new defence initiatives really went up a notch, some of us in the defence community felt the need to step in and cool the public’s heated assumption that a new European army is on the horizon.

On the one hand, optimists used these initiatives to project an inaccurate image of European defence as moving up the federalisation ladder. On the other, sceptics warned that another attempt was underway to establish a supranational institution without a clear democratic mandate.

Yet, as some of us have argued from the very start, the EU leaders’ December 2017 decision to launch permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) represents neither of these contravening assumptions. Indeed, in the two months since participating member states presented their 17 projects for development within PESCO, the general enthusiasm (and fear) of the early days seems to be undergoing a modest re-think.

There are several clear reasons why this is happening.

First, there is the reservation of certain Central European member states (and above all Poland) that the current proposed PESCO projects are too “light” when it comes to building capabilities. At the recent Munich Security Conference, for example, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki put it rather bluntly: “we need more steel tanks and less think tanks”.

It’s a statement that seemingly puts Morawiecki at odds with the spirit of the European Defence Fund (EDF) and its sub-fund known as the European Defence Industrial Development Programme (EDIDP). The latter will support multi-member state defence projects, whether outside or inside the PESCO framework.

The EDP place heavy emphasis on cross-national projects to increase European competitiveness, particularly for sophisticated and innovative military products such as x-ray technology for reconnaissance. Most Central European armies, however, are keen to first boost their classical capabilities such as radars, armored personnel carriers and helicopters. Once these requirements have been met here, they will then move on to investment in niche capabilities.

But it’s not in Central Europe’s interest either to campaign against the EDF in view of its aim to include of small-to-medium enterprises and mid-cap companies in EU-supported defence capability projects. Many of these smaller players are scattered across its region.

Second, the initial PESCO/EDF enthusiasm carried to the European political stage by French President Emmanuel Macron has since been diverted to other French-driven defence initiatives such as his idea for a “European Intervention Force”. This comes at a time when Germany has succeeded in arranging PESCO as an inclusive platform rather than a symbol of the EU’s dominant inner core.

France would presumably want as many countries to participate in its ambitious new initiative. But it is highly questionable whether a significant number of member states would be able to chip in with operationally useable capabilities or whether they would feel comfortable actively participating in an intervention force outside the framework of NATO.

Third, the US ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, recently expressed concerns that PESCO ansd other EU defence initiatives such as the EDF might constitute a precursor to greater European defence market protectionism. While some of her concerns might be overblown, it would nevertheless be unwise to casually disregard the political impact that such openly expressed caution might have on Washington’s closest European allies.

Those concerns could be heightened by the prospect that the EDF will not be open to non-PESCO countries, most notably the UK and US. We should expect a prolonged period of political uncertainty on this issue: the EDF’s orientation and scope make it ripe for further alarmist statements by some of the EU’s closest defence partners and allies.

It is way too early to pass any objective judgement on how successful PESCO is going to be. However, it is inconceivable to imagine Europe’s political elite giving up on PESCO’s potential, even though we clearly live in a world where emotional attachments to grand political projects evaporate in a flash.

One should bear in mind that within the time span of two European Council meetings there is already a presentiment that PESCO might join the ranks of past but defunct European defence initiatives – each announced with great fanfare but which slowly faded into irrelevance (think Eurocorps; think battlegroups).

Finally, when one hears that the cumulative effect of Brexit, Trump, contemporary terrorism and migration make PESCO attractive, should we really believe that these ‘shocks’ will last and spur substantial advances to EU’s defence cooperation scheme?

PESCO’s triggering impetus is, for the moment, behind us. The moment of true relevance lies before us. PESCO’s projects represent timelines involving decades rather than years. But one thing is clear: that for either capability or operational readiness, PESCO will need to produce tangible proof of achievements to keep its spirit alive within Europe’s defence policy circles.

Tomáš A. Nagy is a Research Fellow within the Defence and Security Programme at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute and can be reached at tomas.nagy@globsec.org.

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