PESCO unlikely to deliver much in the short term

Opinion piece (The Progressive Post)
Sophia Besch
13 February 2018

PESCO, or permanent structured co-operation, is a political framework that aims to help EU countries develop military capabilities together and improve their ability to deploy them. Hailed as a political success, its contribution to EU operational readiness and capability deployment is likely to be limited in the immediate future.

Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in defence matters has been shaped by conflicting visions in Germany and France. Berlin emphasised the political dimension of PESCO as an integrationist project and wanted a large number of participants; Paris wanted high entry criteria – 2 per cent of GDP spent on defence, 20 per cent of defence spending in purchases of major equipment and research – that would allow only the top European military powers to join. The compromise that was found emphasises process: a large number of participants agreed to hit the French targets – eventually. That result partly reflects a fear among some member states that EU cohesion could suffer if an avant-garde group of countries moves forward and leaves others behind. It also dilutes PESCO’s original ambitions, particularly since it is unlikely that underperforming countries will be kicked out of the club: a qualified majority is necessary to suspend a PESCO member. Thus, accountability will be difficult to achieve.

What, then, can PESCO achieve?

The framework will probably not have that much impact on the EU’s ability to deploy in missions and operations. The hope is that common commitments, increased co-operation and jointly developed capabilities – in particular joint training centres – will make it easier for EU militaries to deploy together. And PESCO members promise that they will reform the EU’s funding mechanism for joint operations, which puts the brunt of an operation’s financial bur- den on the deploying country. But well-known obstacles to joint missions and operations remain. European countries have different military cultures and lack a shared view of the threat environment. And while PESCO member states say they want to create a fast-tracked political mechanism to generate forces, it will be difficult for some countries to follow through. Germany, for example, has an extensive parliamentary approval mechanism that makes rapid deployment of forces difficult. And PESCO is not legally binding. There is no guarantee that PESCO member states will commit forces in a crisis.

Priority areas for PESCO

One key job for policy-makers is to make sure that PESCO aligns with other EU initiatives, particularly with the European Defence Fund (EUDF), through which the European Commission wants to fund co-operative European defence research and capability development. But PESCO will be meaningful only if it leads to more money spent on R&D projects that plug Europe’s most urgent capability gaps. For example, jointly developing a European tank could be one PESCO priority. Through PESCO the EU should also invest in innovative technology, such as the development of High- Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) drones. However, military hard power development projects cost money, political considerations undoubtedly influence which projects are chosen and this year’s list primarily includes those on the ‘softer’ end of the capability spectrum: a medical command centre, for example.

Given the limited ambition of PESCO members in this first iteration of the PESCO framework, the two countries that have pushed for PESCO most forcefully and are continuing to hail its promise for EU defence – France and Germany – are both working on other projects as well. France is investing in its European Intervention Initiative, in the hope of improving European operational readiness. Germany is focusing its energy on NATO’s framework nation concept.

PESCO is a political and integrationist success and a strong symbol of a new willingness to invest in European defence, and it could still develop into a more ambitious and effective frame- work. But the 2017 version of PESCO does not offer the EU the opportunity to solve its defence problems at a stroke.

Sophia Besch is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.