An American perspective on Pesco: The dangers of de-linking EU defence from NATO

January 7, 2018

Will moves towards further EU defence integration help or hinder the broader cause of European security? At the European Council summit last month, the heads of state of the European Union welcomed the launch of a new defense initiative called Permanent Structured Cooperation, or Pesco. Pesco is an effort by twenty-three EU member states to enhance military cooperation, using a heretofore-dormant mechanism of the Lisbon Treaty. Its ultimate objective is to give Europe “the autonomy to act alone” with military forces to respond to humanitarian crises and failed states. It remains to be seen whether this will help broader efforts to preserve European security and improve the strategic coherence of the Western alliance.

Many have already written Pesco off as another doomed EU defense initiative, which will sputter out as have its many predecessors. Unlike the “EU Army” of some Eurosceptic nightmares, Pesco will create multi-national armed forces at the disposal of the EU, but not permanently of the EU. The more significant immediate change be the coordination and limited pooling of defense resources, and the establishment of a binding, EU-wide military capability planning process, notably outside of NATO. Some of the European NATO allies America is pledged to defend lack the resources to defend themselves, and so efforts to reduce redundancy and enhance the impact of defense spending are welcome. Nonetheless, they will not be a panacea. Despite claims that Europe’s defense spending problem is redundancy rather than underspending, the fundamental problem is that most European states have little ambition to deploy largescale combat power. There is no reason to suspect that the savings from Pesco will be spent on significantly more tanks, planes, ships or personnel—all of which Europe desperately needs to be a true “burden sharer”.

After the EU made a similar, stillborn attempt at forming armed forces at the St. Mâlo summit in 1998, Secretary of State Madeline Albright declared the American test for support of all European defense efforts was “3Ds:” EU defense initiatives must avoid ­de-linking the EU from the US and NATO, avoid duplicating existing efforts, and not discriminate against non-EU members. Pesco fails at least two of these tests. The EU itself has announced Pesco will be discriminatory, and it will further see the de-linking of American and European defense.

The proof that Pesco fails the discrimination test came at the Berlin Security Forum on November 29th, when lead EU Brexit negotiator Michael Barnier announced the United Kingdom would not be able to participate in European Defense Agency initiatives after Brexit. Forming defense initiatives that are open to anyone is easy in theory and challenging in practice. In the late 1990s, the problem was Turkey, a non-EU NATO member which wanted in but many in the EU wanted to keep out. Today’s discrimination against Britain, and apparently against all other non-EU NATO members, is far more problematic. Britain could clearly add value to many of the EDA’s efforts, as a NATO member which engages in extensive defense cooperation with other EU states, particularly France. While Britain is rightly suspicious of the EDA, it can and should be free to participate in EDA initiatives on a case-by-case basis. The EU’s promise to cut Britain out is self-wounding and short-termist. It will only benefit EU defense protectionists who hope to keep British armaments out of Europe, and further undercut the efficiency of defense spending

More fundamentally, Pesco is driven by deep European suspicion of America’s approach to foreign affairs and its perceptions of the threats the world faces. Pesco forces will not be able to defend Europe. Instead, they will be limited to the so-called Petersberg tasks, military actions other than war that are part of the EU Common Security and Defense Policy. Unlike NATO, the EU has five neutral member states, and no collective defense agreement. If an EU state was attacked, the rest of the EU could not fight a war to defend it. This is why the EU treaty itself recognizes NATO as the foundation of European defense.

America, through NATO, defends Europe, and today its main concern there is preventing Russia from forcefully re-asserting its control over its neighbors. Eastern Europeans, who face the greatest pressure from Russia, are focused on that looming threat, are meaningfully increasing their defense capabilities, and are more dedicated than ever to NATO. Western Europeans, meanwhile, are primarily more worried about instability in the Middle East and Africa, which has sent waves of refugees across their frontiers. The “autonomous capability to act” they seek is not about defending themselves from Russia, which America needs their assistance to do. Instead, it is about a new kind of foreign policy, focused on addressing security crises that drive migration at their roots. America’s role in that effort is uncertain. It is also the case that European federalists are deeply anti-American. It suits them fine that their new strategy will require them to reduce their commitment to NATO and their linkages to the US.

Europeans are already examining the tradeoffs. A recent survey of senior European defense leaders conducted by the think tank Friends of Europe found that more than half want Germany to prioritize EU defense cooperation over NATO participation, even if it means being unable to provide forces to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. Among the German leaders surveyed, more than two-thirds want to prioritize the EU.

Pesco is not unsalvageable. If it generates capabilities that may strengthen the European pillar within NATO, rather than creating a duplicative and alternative capability to NATO, it will represent the fulfillment of the original vision of European defense cooperation proposed at St. Mâlo in 1998. As it is being sold, however, it is becoming a sign of strategic tension between the EU and other NATO allies – chiefly the US and UK. From the US perpsective, if it hopes to maintain its position in Europe and preserve existing defensive arrangements, it must demand Europe end discriminatory defense policies despite European federalist ambitions. This may mean doing more to allay European strategic fears that could drive de-linking. Above all, it is up to the EU to pursue a more prudent course. Otherwise, Pesco may be recorded by historians as a major blow to the Transatlantic Alliance.

T.S. Allen (@TS_Allen) is an officer in the United States armed forces. The views expressed in his work are his own and do not reflect the position of any part of the United States Government.

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