Sleeping Beauty Awakens – a Kiss for European Common Defense

Sleeping Beauty Awakens – a Kiss for European Common Defense
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European countries tried to unify their defense policy before. 1954 to be precise. In the four years prior, then-French prime minister Rene Pleven suggested creating a European army, including the Federal Republic of Germany, which would have resulted in the country’s rearmament. It was dubbed the Pleven-Plan. After intense debate, the treaty for a European Defence Community was signed in 1952. However, the plan failed when in 1954—after a change of government—a majority was missed in the French Parliament. Consequently, Germany’s rearmament and return to military politics via European integration was unsuccessful but shortly after enabled through its membership in NATO, which Germany joined on May 9, 1955. Meanwhile, common European defence plans were laid to rest in a bottom drawer.

Until now that is. The Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force in 2009, laid out the steps towards a common European defense architecture but it took until December 2017 to kiss awake the part that has been dubbed by European officials as its “sleeping beauty”: the Permanent structured cooperation, in short ‘PESCO.’   

PESCO mainly aims to have willing European member states invest together into their capability enhancement, e.g., through shared projects that one nation alone would struggle to stem the costs for or that would duplicate efforts (and costs) taken by another state already. PESCO will allow the participating states to take on major plans to develop overall European defense capabilities and on a long-term outlook create EU-wide units and capacities accessible to every state participating. Participation is voluntary—and still, 25 of the currently 28 member states have signed up. Malta, Denmark and the United Kingdom (U.K.) aren’t participating (yet). Malta wants to “wait and see” how PESCO develops, Denmark is prevented from participating in European defense collaboration due to its defense opt-out clause, and following the Brexit-referendum the U.K. is set to leave the EU in 2019. However, EU and non-EU countries can join at a later state provided they fulfill certain requirements and commit funding to the structured cooperation—hence not all hope is lost for the U.K., provided it was interested in joining.

Despite PESCO being a tool based on European law, the collaboration remains intergovernmental. The European Commission, however, announced already that it would allocate significant funding to PESCO through its European Defence Agency and its European Defence Fund, the latter launched in June this year. The EU money is mainly supposed to boost defense research while its agencies will be overseeing implementation and reviewing action plans.

After participating states had submitted more than 40 ideas for potential projects before the official adoption of PESCO in December 2017, 17 propositions have now received a green light to become joint projects of the future. Among them are for example a European medical task force, a logistical hub and a common officer training initiative.

Particularly the election of President Trump was a wake-up call to the Europeans that reliability on the U.S. to rush to their defense, if need be, wasn’t 100% given, and that it was about time anyway to ensure Europe’s security through European means. Additionally, EU military spending is half of the U.S.’s spending—and still ‘not even half as efficient’. To improve efficiency, however, many steps are necessary. To start with, there are currently 180 different weapon systems in use across the continent—reducing and aligning those would increase effectiveness and facilitate interoperability not only among PESCO nations but beyond Europe.  

And still, some careful examinations have been voiced: PESCO—alongside a vision of a proper European Defence Union in the distance—shouldn’t aim to replace NATO and should refrain from duplicating NATO efforts. Both EU and PESCO participants underlined that the aim wasn’t to replicate the Alliance but rather seek complementary existence. Which is one reason why it currently focusses on defense industry products and creating Europe-wide initiatives that could benefit NATO rather than making it obsolete. To have a stronger, more flexible and more capable European contingent within the Alliance indeed sounds like a rather positive outcome for the organization. After all, if capabilities are shared, access and movement facilitated, and interoperability enhanced, all NATO members will benefit from this step forward.

And the ghost from the past, a possible EU army? Sceptics of increasing defense cooperation don’t need to worry. An EU army still isn’t anywhere near realization as it is unwanted in Europe’s capitals. Increasing cooperation does not automatically mean that European countries are interested in ceding national control over their forces. Defence remains a national competency, and it is unlikely that a proper lone-standing European defense force is within reach—and political will—anytime soon.


Jacqueline Westermann is a researcher in the International Program at ASPI. 



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