PESCO family photo at the European Council in December 2017

The Future of European Defence Depends on the Commitment of Member States

This week, a new initiative was launched to integrate European defence efforts. Dahrendorf Post-Doctoral Fellow Monika Sus says it will only have the teeth it needs if member states fully commit.

Background – momentum for EU security and defence

If one believes the words of High Representative Federica Mogherini, the European Union has arrived at “the most important moment for European defence in decades”, with bold new initiatives creating unprecedented momentum for enhanced cooperation. Indeed, a combination of both internal and external pressures has created significant momentum for EU security and defence. As Mogherini rightly points out, the recent changes have been on the wish lists of many supporters of deeper integration for a decade. They include the Permanent Structured Cooperation on Security and Defence (PESCO), the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), and the establishment of a European Defence Fund (EDF) and an EU military headquarters. Mogherini concludes, therefore, that: “All the building blocks of a security and defence union are finally there”. This week marks the official adoption and launch of PESCO as the European Council meets.

Sleeping Beauty of the Lisbon Treaty

The possibility of creating such a cooperative body was outlined the Treaty of European Union and remained the “Sleeping Beauty” of the Lisbon Treaty. Perceived as a Franco-German initiative, the activation of PESCO could be a game changer. It enables the willing member states to develop and implement projects on various aspects of security and defence and thereby strengthen the overall capability of the EU as well as the interoperability the national security and defence policies and instruments. For some analysts, PESCO is “a much-needed step forward” in the face of the EU’s “extremely diverse” security landscape, in which it is “becoming increasingly difficult to reach internal consensus to launch timely and effective interventions outside EU borders”. The participating member states will be backed by a European Defence Fund that should contribute €5bn annually to weapons research and equipment purchases after 2020.

Of the more than 50 projects put forward by the participating member states, 17 have been approved by national defence policy directors and the officials from the European Defence Agency. These projects will be launched in the beginning of 2018. The leading countries are Germany, Italy, France, and Greece. The initiatives cover such areas as capability development, training, and the enhancement of operational readiness. The project that has so far received the most support is a Dutch plan to enhance the speed of movement of military forces across Europe by simplifying and standardising cross-border military transport procedures. It has already been endorsed by twenty-one member states and the European Commission has commenced preparations for making it actionable.

Rocky Road Ahead

Whether or not PESCO will succeed at spurring progress in security and defence integration at the EU level and the advancement of military capacities of the member states is yet to be seen. In the end it will depend upon the commitment of the member states and, in particular, their willingness to make significant contributions to the project. Given the discrepancies in strategic cultures between European countries and their different perceptions of the function of further military integration, a serious commitment from national governments is a crucial ingredient, without which the venture will become a paper tiger. Some member states see the primary goal of PESCO as developing additional capabilities in order to support NATO, for others it is a way of acting together without the other partners of the transatlantic alliance).

Despite the successful launch of PESCO and the readiness of twenty-five member states to participate, the real challenge lies in the implementation. Several countries’ levels of commitment leave room for some serious doubts. France, perceived to be one of the driving forces of the new initiative, is simultaneously launching another defence cooperation project outside of the EU framework. In its new “Revue stratégique”, announced in October 2017, the French government demanded the launch of a European Intervention Initiative (EII) that would provide countries with the possibility of acting militarily outside of existing EU and NATO structures. In short, France wants the possibility of joining forces with European countries that are seriously interested in deploying military operations when needed in a flexible and non-bureaucratic way. The EII could well be seen as a supplement to PESCO. Yet, at the same time, it could lead to France losing interest in cooperation within PESCO projects. It is no mystery that the final shape of the PESCO agreement will be a compromise between German and French ideas, with the former favouring a more inclusive format and the latter strongly supporting a more exclusive approach, which might push France towards favouring cooperation under the EII instead.

There are also worrying signals coming from other member states. Poland, for example, opted to join PESCO, but did so apparently only with “serious hesitation”. The country’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski , did not rule out that Poland would pull out of this cooperation if a number of Polish conditions could not be fulfilled: that PESCO does not duplicate or rival NATO structures, and that it supports sustainable development of the defence industry of all EU countries, not only  those of the major players. Voicing such hesitations before the implementation of PESCO has even started does not bode well for the instrument’s success.

The institutional momentum for the advancement of the EU´s security and defence is certainly there. It may become the impetus that Europe needs to reinvigorate the integration project, especially in light of Brexit and the resulting damage to the EU’s image and credibility abroad. Yet, the political vision for the implementation of these new instruments such as PESCO, CARD and EDF still divide the member states. We should be prepared for a turbulent implementation phase of PESCO, including some potential withdrawals and remain aware that PESCO (and other similar initiatives) will not be an automatic success story.

Surprisingly, most existing accounts are uncritically enthusiastic about the future of PESCO. Indeed, the endeavour has a unique chance in the history of the European Union to succeed, but success will require member states to roll up their sleeves and start investing in the vision of collaborative defence.


Monika Sus is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hertie School of Governance and is responsible for the umbrella project within the Dahrendorf Forum.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.