Whether Europe will be able to make a difference in foreign policy depends on whether member states can fulfil PESCO’s commitments.
In 2014, an ancient Chinese curse descended on Europe. Russia annexed Crimea and Sevastopol. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the caliphate from the Great Mosque al-Nuri in Mosul. Terrorists attacks in European cities added to the new feeling of insecurity. “Interesting times” indeed and a completely new environment for a Union that had pretended to transform its neighbourhood into a "ring of friends".
This happened at a time when key political leaders were desperately looking for ideas to entice citizens back to the “European project”. The euro and the refugee crisis had brought the EU closer to collapse than many people seem to think. Foreign, security and defence policy had always topped the polls, in citizen preferences, to be given a European flavour, but capitals preferred to keep it as a national prerogative.
Late in 2016, leaders changed their minds and put security and defence co-operation in the Bratislava roadmap and the Rome declaration. This was a radical move. Will it pay off?
On Monday we saw a drive in that direction with the notification by 23 countries of their intention to form a “Permanent Structured Cooperation” (PESCO) in security and defence. To grasp the significance of that move, consider that, except for some minor, very technical fields, there have been just two examples of reinforced cooperation in the history of the EU: Schengen and the euro. Both have been controversial. But it is now difficult, if not impossible, to imagine Europe without them. Whether PESCO will have such a consequential character is still uncertain.
In the emerging EU, flexibility is both a philosophy and a working method. PESCO was in the “Constitutional Treaty” and stayed in the Lisbon version. It may sound strange now, but PESCO was conceived as the midwife of European defence as foreseen in article 42 of the Lisbon Treaty.
Yet, in an environment of growing distrust towards the “European project”, it became inconceivable to push forward on that front. PESCO then became a “Sleeping Beauty” as President Juncker put it.
It is now time for the awakening kiss. The problem is that she awakes to a completely different world than she was designed for. But, paradoxically, defence co-operation is more badly needed than ever before.
PESCO is about capabilities and operations. On the first front, inefficiencies in defence spending is simply getting out of control. Last year Europe spent 1.4% of its GDP on defence. This amounts to roughly €200 billion, far more than China or Russia, and second only to the US.
Yet despite such huge sums, Europe is still considered militarily irrelevant. Should every single European country meet the 2% GDP defence expenditure target, without better coordination, the waste of taxpayer’s money will reach cosmic proportions.
PESCO aims to address that. The first visible result will be several capability projects, which could profit from synergies with the Commission plans on defence industry. In particular, as a first step, the 20% ceiling on research financing will be 30% for projects in the PESCO framework.
On operations, a high level of ambition has been set, namely, “to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible”. Syria should be our benchmark. Assad’s ruthless repression, along with terrorism and a divided opposition forced millions to leave the country. They made their way to Europe, in a legitimate attempt to improve their lives, putting the EU on the brink of collapse.
That cannot happen again. Nobody knows whether, next time, there will be enough political will to send a European military force into such a complex conflict. But we must ensure that the capacity is there, in terms of deployable forces.
Most members states have token representation in EU military operations – a handful of soldiers or a couple of staff officers in the HQ. Funding the operations has always been a big obstacle with an inefficient Athena mechanism at the centre of the financing scheme. Some of PESCO’s twenty commitments address those gaps. Whether Europe will be able to make a difference in foreign policy depends on whether member states can fulfil them.
The reinforced cooperation proposal to be adopted on December 11 is the result of a long debate between two competing interests: Germany’s desire for greater inclusiveness vs France’s desire for greater ambition.
The result is clearly a victory of the first, though the second has not been totally trounced. Practical, legal and political arguments justify a focus on inclusivity at this stage.
On the practical side, demanding substantial up-front commitments would have restricted participation to a small handful of states. On the legal side, PESCO has to be approved by a qualified majority of members. Moreover, as a member state initiative (rather than one proposed by the Commission), the threshold is even higher: to be adopted it must be approved by 72% of votes representing 65% of EU citizens. This is not an easy hurdle to clear, so it is imperative that the proposal did not place excessive demands on participating countries.
But the political argument has been even more compelling. After the euro crisis, the scars of the EU’s North-South divide are mending, but not yet healed. And with the refugee crisis and debates about authoritarianism in Hungary and Poland, the union’s East-West cleavage is wider than ever.
In this environment, it would have been a serious mistake to introduce another bone of contention, making inclusiveness critically important. EU countries wishing to be part of PESCO will therefore be allowed to meet the binding commitments in a phased approach, rather than up front from the very beginning. There will be no ‘violation of Stability Pact rules’ scenario here, as happened during the first years of the single currency, when France and Germany violated the binding stability rules they themselves had designed.
The result of this inclusive approach is both impressive and a huge challenge for the future: 25 EU countries will participate in PESCO, everyone possible with the exception of Malta (Denmark opted out of CSDP and the United Kingdom is leaving the Union).
But that broad approach will work only if capitals recognise the need to take serious steps in the next few years to meet the commitments. And there is indeed a need to do so. Failure will freeze European security and defence policy for decades. There will be no “Europe qui protège”. The implications of such a failure will be huge because “interesting times” will be with us for years to come. Let’s try to regain some control over them.