EU seals accord to let third countries into future joint military projects

PESCO has been at the centre of the EU's push for "strategic autonomy". [EPA-EFE/FILIP SINGER]

EU member states agreed on late Wednesday (28 October) on conditions to allow countries outside the bloc to participate in joint defence projects, according to a draft agreement document obtained by EURACTIV.

Third countries will only be able to take part in joint projects if they provide “substantial added value” to the military project and share “the values on which the EU is founded”, the agreement, brokered by the German EU presidency, states.

The deal comes after US officials have been lobbying for months for an inclusive policy providing the greatest possible access of third countries to the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) covering defence contractors, which besides the US would also include post-Brexit Britain and Norway.

Formally established in December 2017, the PESCO framework is intended to deepen defence cooperation among the 25 participating EU member states, help fund, develop and deploy armed forces together and make the EU’s defence sector more flexible and independent of the US.

Since then, PESCO has been at the centre of the EU’s push for “strategic autonomy” in the aftermath of Brexit and amid an escalating geopolitical standoff between the US and China.

The agreement presents a breakthrough following an impasse dating back to June 2018, and aims to revive EU defence integration efforts launched three years ago, which ran into major bureaucratic hurdles.

EU officials are on the defensive in the face of accusations that Europe is creating an industrial ‘Fortress Europe’, while France and Germany have outright rejected those arguments.

So far, EU member states have agreed to develop 47 joint military projects, including a new patrol vessel, an unmanned anti-submarine system, an electronic jamming weapon for aircraft, technology to track ballistic missiles and a system to insert drones into the Single European Sky system.

However, experts have criticised that the integration effort would only have limited impact on the EU’s ‘ability to act’ due to its lack of financial firepower.

Series of access terms

With the new agreement, third-country entities which are based in the EU but are controlled by or having management structures outside the EU will only be able to join a joint EU defence project following unanimous approval of the bloc’s member states and only after 31 December 2025.

A third state must submit to the coordinator of a PESCO project a request to participate and pass the invitation process.

The entity will need to provide “substantial added value” to the military project in question, for example by providing technical expertise or additional capabilities including operational or financial support.

Both the Council and the EU’s chief diplomat will need to be notified, with the Council formally approving the participation.

“Its participation must not lead to dependencies on that third state or to restrictions imposed by it against any member state of the Union,” the agreement states, pointing towards armament procurement, research and capability development, or the use and export of arms or capabilities and technology.

Thus, non-EU states will have no say on how the EU will use the capabilities and the systems developed, according to the agreement.

“The participation of third states in a PESCO project does not imply that third-country entities will necessarily have access to the EU Defence Industrial Development Programme (EDIDP) or other relevant Union instruments,” it states.

At the same time, the decision does not affect US defence contractors’ traditional access to bid for individual European military contracts.

Turkey likely to be excluded

In the process, several EU members states had voiced concerns that extending involvement to non-EU member states would leave the door open for China and Turkey to get involved in sensitive EU security projects.

At the same time, according to the sealed agreement, only countries that share “the values on which the EU is founded” and “respect the principle of good neighbourly relations with the member states” will be able to participate in the joint defence projects.

“It [the third country] must not contravene the security and defence interests of the Union and its member states,” the draft states.

This effectively excludes NATO member and EU candidate Turkey, at least until the dispute with Cyprus over activities in Eastern Mediterranean is unresolved and tensions in the standoff with Greece and France are defused, an EU diplomat told EURACTIV.

Both the Commission and EU leaders said earlier this month Turkey was undermining its economy, eroding democracy and destroying independent courts, effectively moving further away from joining the EU.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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