With much fanfare, 23 EU member states have now formally announced their commitment to ‘permanent structured cooperation’ (PESCO) in the field of defence.
Together with other new initiatives such as the European Defence Fund, Coordinated Annual Review on Defence and closer EU-NATO cooperation, PESCO signals that the EU is finally taking defence seriously. However, member states lack a shared understanding of where the train of defence cooperation is heading – the destination is yet to be announced.
PESCO is a pragmatic effort that allows the EU to put aside the question about finalité politique for the time being. There is consensus on one crucial point: European defence capability needs to be strengthened. Everyone agrees that Europeans need to spend more on defence, and spend better, i.e. in a more coordinated manner. PESCO is about concrete projects of acquiring and developing shared capabilities.
So far, the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy has been more about institution-building than capacity-building. There are doubts that Germany is still more interested in strengthening the institutional structures than building up military capabilities with the intention of actually using them. The historical baggage of World War II is still making Germany reluctant to use military force.
France, by contrast, has the ambition to develop the EU’s capability to conduct autonomous military operations, most notably in Africa. Ever since the launch of the CSDP in 1999, it has aimed at ‘autonomous action,’ so far failing to deliver. Now, due to the dramatic worsening of European security environment, it has better chances to succeed.
The new spirit of EU-NATO cooperation, emphasizing complementarity of the two organisations, is also supporting the deepening of EU defence dimension. The capabilities to be created under PESCO will be available also for operations conducted under NATO, UN or other possible mandates. Decision-making remains in the hands of member states.
Disagreements among EU countries are centered around the concept of ‘strategic autonomy’, which has made its way to the European Global Strategy (2016) and other core documents without member states agreeing on what it means. For some, it means taking steps towards a defence union or even a common army. Yet, for the time being, there is a consensus that the EU’s ‘strategic autonomy’ does not cover territorial defence, which remains the task of NATO (or national defence in the case of non-NATO members). One may wonder why the EU uses the concept of strategic autonomy if it excludes such a crucial aspect as territorial defence.
The goal of capacity-building serves both those who wish the EU to move towards strategic autonomy or even independence and those who want to ensure continued commitment of the U.S. to European security. For some Europeans, the current difficulties in the transatlantic relationship are a positive opportunity; for others, they are a threat that needs to be addressed in a manner that diminishes the likelihood of U.S. disengagement. PESCO can help both camps.