A new era for EU defense cooperation?

Written by Richard Maher on . Posted in Current opinions, Opinions

When 23 EU member states signed a defense cooperation agreement in Brussels earlier this month, national and EU leaders were quick to hail its historic significance. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the pact represented a ‘historic moment in European defense.’ French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called it ‘a very important step,’ and his German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel claimed it was ‘a milestone in European development.’


Richard Maher is a research fellow at the Global Governance Programme.

The initiative, known as Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), suggests that most EU member states today recognize the need and potential value of pursuing closer defense cooperation. But what will this cooperation look like, how significant is it likely to be, and what are the next steps in achieving this goal?

The initiative aims to integrate and streamline the EU’s various national defense industries, and to encourage member states to pursue multinational approaches toward weapons development, force planning, and conducting joint operations. Common investments in military equipment and in research and development could help make the EU a more capable defense actor. Following the Brexit vote in June 2016 and a series of crises over the past few years that threatened the EU’s undoing, the agreement is also a sign that member states are committed to moving ahead with European integration.

While the EU collectively devotes a lot of money to defense, spending remains highly fragmented. Wasteful duplications of weapons systems across member states reduce efficiency and fail to take advantage of economies of scale. While EU member states spent about € 200 billion on defense last year — more than China or Russia — it continues to suffer from shortfalls in its capabilities. As Gabriel noted, the EU spends about 50 percent of what the United States spends on defense annually, but it only gets about 15 percent of the efficiency.

PESCO is intended to change that. It will encourage closer defense collaboration among EU member states, reduce the number of overlapping weapons systems within the EU, and fund the development of military hardware such as air transport, armored vehicles, and drones. It will also make military capabilities available for EU operations—either independently or in coordination with NATO. As a press release that accompanied the signing of this month’s accord stated, more (and more efficient) defense spending would ‘help reinforce the EU’s strategic autonomy to act alone when necessary, and with partners whenever possible’

The UK long blocked closer defense integration in the EU, fearing the creation of an EU army and a decoupling of the EU from NATO. Pushed by France and Germany, the plan for closer EU defense cooperation has received renewed momentum since the Brexit vote last year. And events such as Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and the 2015 migration crisis prompted by the civil war in Syria revealed the EU’s current security and defense limitations.

Under PESCO, member states will pledge to increase defense spending and to fund joint projects. Assets would remain under national control, but member states would submit an action plan that details their defense goals and objectives. These action plans are subject to a review system, and each member state’s progress will be monitored. A country that fails to meet its defense goals could be forced out of the group.

The European Commission has also launched a new European Defense Fund to encourage cooperation on defense procurement. The fund will distribute some € 5.5 billion per year to member states to buy weapons, finance operations, and conduct defense research and development.

PESCO could represent a big leap in the EU’s long ambition to build a credible and effective defense policy, and help Europe become a bigger global player on security and defense issues. If the initiative works as planned, it could ease capabilities shortfalls like those revealed during the 2011 Libya intervention. EU countries depended on the United States for crucial assets and interventions, such as suppressing Libya’s air defense systems, aerial refueling, and smart munitions.

The new EU defense initiative is expected to be formally approved at an EU summit in mid-December. At the signing ceremony earlier this month, 23 countries said that they will participate. By the time of the next month’s summit, it is likely that the UK, Denmark, and neutral Malta will be the lone holdouts.

Still, the initiative will have to overcome various political, bureaucratic, and economic hurdles to reach its full potential. France, for example, preferred a smaller group of countries that would commit to ambitious goals and objectives, whereas Germany favoured a more inclusive approach. While symbolically and politically desirable, more members may make efforts at closer defense cooperation more unwieldy and less effective.

Richard Maher is a research fellow in the ‘Europe in the World’ research area of the Global Governance Programme at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.

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