PESCO: Pragmatic and virtually apolitical

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German soldiers on exercise. [US Army Europe/Flickr]

Europe has no common defence strategy. Twenty-three member states now nevertheless want to work closer together in military terms. A good interim solution, argues Anna Sauerbrey from EURACTIV Germany’s media partner Der Tagesspiegel reports.

On Monday (13 November), European foreign and defence ministers from 23 member states agreed to deepen cooperation in military matters. The programme is called PESCO. It is a big deal. Some even speak about a defence union. But the approach also shows the new pragmatism of European integration policy.

Demand for closer defence cooperation

The pressure for closer cooperation in security policy is enormous. Geopolitically (Russia) and politically (Donald Trump), but also in practical terms. The budgets of the nation states have to save money and billions can be saved with more military cooperation, as shown repeatedly by studies, including by the European Parliamentary Research Service.

Because the EU member states have to save up, the investment rate is low, and because the investment rate is low, none of the smaller member states can develop an own armament industry.

And yet, because procurement is so inefficient, defence spending of all EU member states together is the second-highest worldwide, without having even close to the second strongest forces.

EU takes step towards closer defence cooperation

The EU took a major step towards building closer defence ties on Monday (13 November), with 23 member states signing a landmark agreement, promoted by France and Germany, to fund and boost cooperation following Britain’s decision to leave the bloc.

The political and practical pressure is confronted with very different strategic ideas on what a common European security policy would have to be able to achieve. While the Baltic States first and foremost fear the threat of Russia, Southern Europeans prioritize the stability of North Africa, not least to control migration.

Although there is the “Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy”, drafted by EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, adopted in June 2016, it is legally non-binding and defines rather general objectives, such as the prevention of cyber-driving.

PESCO stands for a pragmatic, but apolitical approach

PESCO is a clever way out of the practical needs and strategic disagreement dilemma. The cooperation is dually “modular”: not all EU member states have to participate. And not all PESCO states have to participate in all projects. Strictly speaking, one project of strategic importance is enough to be in the club. This gives member states the opportunity, to negotiate the political priorities in small groups, from project to project.

The whole document breathes an attempt not to be political and thus continues the existing stance on security policy. Although a central planning and strategy unit (the „Military Planning and Conduct Capability“) was set up in Brussels in June, which no one should call ‘headquarters’ and which is also not in command of ongoing operations, but rather is said to provide strategic background work.

EU is moving closer together on defence

After the Brexit vote and Trumps election in 2016, the defence union came to the fore of the EU integration plans. The past EU summit showed that progress has obviously been made, writes Steffen Stiehle of EURACTIV Germany.

Also, the recently signed document in almost every line tries to avoid the impression that it is a European declaration of independence from the US. The commitment to NATO is repeated several times.

That is smart. With Brexit, more cooperation in security policy has become possible. However, under the pressure of populist movements, the abandonment of sovereign tasks by nation states seems less opportune. PESCO is, so to speak, a timely solution for the moment, but must be flanked in the long term by a common political strategy.