European defence: Old wine in new bottles?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A general view of the family picture of 24 heads of state members of Defense Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), on the side of the European Council meeting in Brussels in Brussels, Belgium on 14 December 2017. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

Deeper defence cooperation within the EU via PESCO (permanent structured cooperation) was launched with great fanfare at the end of 2017. But only time will tell whether anything of substance will be achieved by PESCO, writes Nick Witney.

Nick Witney is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank and served as the first chief executive of the European Defence Agency. This piece was first published on The Progressive Post’s website.

So that’s alright then. Job done, problem sorted. The European defence ‘project’ has now come of age and, with the culminating launch of PESCO in December, may now fairly be termed a European Defence Union.

Or so, at least, you will gather if you listen to folk in Brussels or indeed Berlin. According to this narrative, the groundwork was laid with the 2016 EGS (European Global Strategy). On this foundation were erected the EDF (European Defence Fund), and other new processes including CARD (Coordinated Annual Review of Defence).

These constructions were buttressed by the FMC (Framework Nation Concept), before being topped off with PESCO. The architecture is now complete, the Defence Union achieved. No wonder the word ‘historic’ was much in currency as 2017 ended.

Results yet to emerge

Elsewhere (in Paris for example), attitudes are more reserved. Joy remains confined until any real-world results emerge from these splendid new arrangements. Cynics (I confess, I have been amongst them) have questioned whether a PESCO involving 25 member states is really the band of pioneers envisaged by the Treaties – and whether the Treaty specification of “member states whose military capabilities fulfil higher criteria” can really be construed as “any member state with more of a military than Malta”.

The new commitments undertaken by the 25 have been characterised as feeble, and the new projects as too vague to be meaningful, or old friends rebadged – the cooperation on software-defined radio, for example, is over a decade old.

Some doom-mongers take an even gloomier view. All these new acronyms, they argue, merely paper over the yawning cracks in the edifice – the lack of a shared strategic culture, or deep-seated differences of view on the priority of the various threats that Europe faces, or a fundamental lack of trust.

PESCO – reinventing the wheel?

Time, of course, will tell who is right. I side with those who think that nothing of substance has yet been achieved and that PESCO, in particular, has largely been a laborious exercise in reinventing the wheel.

Given that PESCO’s eventual membership is virtually identical with that of the European Defence Agency, might it not have been better for those 25 EU member states just to get on with doing what they have long promised to do within the Agency instead of devising a whole new duplicative governance structure to do a diluted version of the same thing?

But perhaps the truth is that wheels sometimes need reinventing. Defence ministries have little or no corporate memory. Defence ministers are usually birds of passage, staging through en route to more exciting portfolios, or gracefully declining towards retirement. Military ‘tours’ in staff jobs seldom exceed two or three years.

So there is constant generational change – and perhaps even long-established truths need to be regularly relearned. Europe will not sustain its technological and industrial defence base, nor get a decent output from the vast sums it spends on defence, nor even assure the security of its citizens, unless its constituent member states increasingly integrate their defence efforts.

Nor will this work prosper unless real political will is mobilised to overcome the triple-headed monster of ‘Inertia, Resistance and Vested Interest’ which blocks progress.

So maybe one should not be too critical of a bit of redundant bureaucratic process-building and a dash of premature political self-congratulation. If the upshot is a renewed understanding of the need for Europeans to pool their defence efforts and resources and a renewed determination to make it happen, then it ultimately equates to progress.

As noted above, only time will tell.

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