The EU on Nov.13 officially launched a new era in defense cooperation with a program of joint military investment in equipment, research and development, known as permanent structured cooperation, or PESCO. Foreign and defense ministers gathered at a signing ceremony in Brussels to represent 23 EU governments joining the pact, which is to become legally binding when signed by heads of state at EU summit in mid-December. With so many ministers signing, approval seems a given. From now on, the EU will have a more coherent role in tackling international crises while reducing the reliance on the United States.
The UK, which is scheduled to leave the EU in 2019, is not part of PESCO. Until Brexit, London had opposed the idea of European Defense Union or European Army, saying it would undermine NATO and the UK alliance with the US. Denmark, which has a special opt-out status, is not expected to participate. Ireland, Portugal and Malta are still undecided about whether or not to join.
This is the first time ever EU member states have legally bound themselves to joint defense projects, as well as pledging to increase defense spending and contribute to rapid deployment. Member countries will submit an action plan outlining their defense aims. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, EU military chiefs and the European Defence Agency will evaluate whether the plans agreed on are being respected. Those not living up to their commitments could be kicked out of the group.
PESCO is intended to reduce the number of different weapons systems in Europe and to promote regional military integration. It is also intended to establish joint training of military officers. The jointly developed European military capabilities will enable the EU to conduct operations separately or in coordination with NATO. Formally, the North Atlantic Alliance backs the project, aiming to benefit from stronger militaries.
Federica Mogherini (pictured) called the deal a “historic moment in European defense.” According to her, PESCO is complimentary to NATO, in which 22 of the EU’s 28 countries are members. The EU, she said, has tools to fight hybrid warfare — the use of conventional weapons mixed with things like propaganda and cyber-attacks — that the military alliance does not have at its disposal. German Foreign Minister Gabriel praised the agreement as “a great step toward self-sufficiency and strengthening the European Union’s security and defense policy — really a milestone in European development.”
Under PESCO, EU countries will commit to increased military spending. The pact is to be backed by a 5 billion euro defense fund for buying weapons, a special fund to finance operations and money from the EU’s common budget for defense research. Joint efforts will reduce duplication and waste. More than 50 joint projects in the fields of defense capabilities and military operations have already been submitted. The UK and other states, which have not become parties to PESCO, can take part in some if they are of benefit to the entire EU.
The European Commission also proposed on Nov.10 a series of measures often called a “military Schengen” to facilitate the movement of forces and defense equipment between member states. The moves dovetail with the goals set by the EU strategy document titled European Union Global Strategy that the bloc should look to creating greater military autonomy from NATO. «As Europeans we must take greater responsibility for our security. We must be ready and able to deter, respond to and protect ourselves against external threats», the paper reads.
An independent EU military capability will weaken NATO and put an end to Europe’s dependence on the United States. Sweden and Finland, EU members outside NATO, might find an EU alliance preferable to the North Atlantic alliance. After all, European states got entangled in the military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan due to solidarity with the United States, not because European interests were involved. These two examples alone are enough to give precedence to European rather than transatlantic security interests. Quite often these interests do not coincide. Today, a joint border force to keep away refugee flows, not forces deployed to counter Russia, is the real priority for Europeans.
The US views Europe’s migrant crisis as a far-flung problem that doesn’t affect its direct interests. It has other priorities, such as containing China and opposing Iran, the country where European businesses have great economic interest. Many common Americans question the need to pay for European «free riders». They strongly believe that the Europeans should do much more to enhance their own security. It’s only natural that the EU, a powerful international entity with 28 members accounting for more than 20% of global GDP, strives to acquire the capability to conduct independent military operations.
The idea of creating an independent European defense potential has its pros and cons, but one thing is indisputable: only a truly European force – not an assortment of national armies operating under the auspices of US-led NATO – can really protect European interests. Europe has just made a big stride towards moving away from the reliance on the United States to its greater independence and ability to set its own priorities.
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About the author
Andrei Akulov is a retired colonel and a Moscow-based expert on international security issues
Featured image courtesy of European Union External Action site