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 Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) could formally be launched during the next meeting of EU leaders in December and the bloc’s foreign and security policy chief Federica Mogherini said after the signing that “the notification letter is open to other member states that might wish to join at a later stage”.
“This is the beginning of our common work, 23 member states engaging is something big, a historic moment in European defence,” the Italian EU official said after signing the letter of intent.
— Maja Kocijančič (@MajaEUspox) November 13, 2017
After years of spending cuts, a lack of a common EU defence strategy and reliance on NATO for all military issues, PESCO could be the bloc’s biggest leap forward in defence policy in decades.
Similar efforts to build up military links have been unsuccessful in the past. Britain, the bloc’s biggest military power, has long sought to thwart EU defence cooperation, opposing anything that might lead to a European army.
But Brexit and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 have once again shone the spotlight on the need for a strong European security stance.
PESCO is part of Franco-German efforts to reboot the EU after Britain’s decision to leave.
It follows the announcement in June of a European Defence Fund and comes on the heels of a roadmap presented on 10 November, which aims to remove barriers for the smooth transport of military troops and gear inside the bloc, putting in place another piece of the common defence puzzle.
The pact’s supporters say it will complement NATO, which will keep its primary role in defending Europe while PESCO should ensure a quicker and more efficient EU response to events like the 2014 Ebola crisis in Africa. Mogherini also said EU and NATO must continue cooperating.
“There are competences and tools that the EU has and NATO doesn’t have. Think of Africa, the security of Africa, EU is more present there than NATO, when it comes to training, when it comes to the delicate link between development and security.”
“We are more equipped to act in areas where it is not a purely military action but we can also develop more our military capabilities,” Mogherini stressed, adding that the problem of Europe’s defence spending was not “how much we spend, it’s that we spend in a fragmented manner”.
“If member states want to spend in a coordinated manner, invest together, this can be done through the EU, through PESCO, supported by the European Defence Fund that we’ve put in place,” she concluded.
PESCO also commits countries to “regularly increasing defence budgets in real terms” as well as devoting 20% of defence spending to procurement and 2% on research and technology.
French diplomats said the pact would have several areas where EU governments would agree to work together and pledge funds, including EU military operations, investment and acquiring defence capabilities together as a group.
A German official said the initiative won momentum from French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for a European intervention force in September and US President Donald Trump’s insistence that Europe do more for its security.
PESCO will first focus on projects to develop new military equipment such as tanks or drones, with the aim of harmonising weapons systems, eliminating gaps in capabilities and preventing duplication.
Countries that are not in the EU can also take part in specific missions – which means nuclear power Britain could play a role after it leaves the bloc in 2019 – but they will have no part in decision-making.
The European Commission strongly welcomes the move by Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden towards launching Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) on defence, by signing today a joint notification and handing it over to High Representative Federica Mogherini.
President Juncker has been calling for a stronger Europe on security and defence since his election campaign, saying in April 2014: "I believe that we need to take more seriously the provisions of the existing Treaty that allow those European countries who want to do this to progressively build up a common European defence. I know this is not for everybody. But those countries that would like to go ahead should be encouraged to do so. Pooling defence capacities in Europe makes perfect economic sense." This same ambition was set out in his three-point plan for foreign policy, which was incorporated in the Political Guidelines – the Juncker Commission's political contract with the European Parliament and the European Council.
PESCO is a Treaty-based framework and process to deepen defence cooperation amongst EU Member States who are capable and willing to do so. It will enable Member States to jointly develop defence capabilities, invest in shared projects and enhance the operational readiness and contribution of their armed forces. Following today's notification the Council should adopt a formal decision establishing PESCO by the end of the year, with the first projects to be identified in parallel.