Questions remain for EU defense pact

Global Times
Li Jiayao
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

By George N. Tzogopoulos

Despite crises - the economic and the refugee one - and cohesion problems on several fronts, the EU seems determined to continue the path of integration. Closer cooperation in the field of security and defense has been a theoretical objective for years. The so-called Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) had been outlined in the Treaty of the EU but was lacking materialization.

But a few days ago, the European Council adopted the decision to establish an EU defense pact indeed. In particular, 25 participating countries confirmed their will to work on a series of projects of common interest within the framework of PESCO. The three countries which have chosen not to take part are Denmark, Malta and obviously the UK. Ireland and Portugal finally decided to join despite their initial skepticism.

PESCO is part of an overall package for strengthening common security and defense policy in Europe. President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini applaud the new development. PESCO is the outcome of good teamwork as well as high ambition on the common defense commitments among member states and goes in line with the launch of the EU Global Strategy last year.

According to its legal basis, PESCO can establish cooperation in the fields of budgetary, equipment, operational and industry. By becoming operational, it will facilitate the implementation of projects such as the establishment of a pan-European military training center. The European Defense Fund will also be activated and money will be assigned for the acquisition of defense equipment and technology.

So, is there a reason for optimism at the EU level? The answer is rather negative.

PESCO is an intergovernmental project. This means that member states themselves will be responsible for decisions and will not give authorization to a supranational committee to proceed accordingly. Lessons from the recent history of European integration demonstrate that this lack of will to transfer powers to a European body to act has been the reason for failure or at least for limited progress. Unity can hardly be cemented when important differences among member states are not bridged. And although PESCO is a good step, its scope is limited. The deployment of combat forces by the EU, which will be instructed to take part in conflicts representing Europe, remains distant.

In addition, the future withdrawal of Britain from the EU is certainly leaving the latter weakened in defense affairs. Although London never belonged to the core of the EU, its gravitas in that regard was remarkable.

In 2011, for instance, Britain cooperated with the US and France in bombarding the forces of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Germany is interested in undertaking more defense initiatives under PESCO - such as the creation of a pan-European medical unit and the building of faster crisis response forces - but its stigmatized past will overshadow a more active role.

Moreover, defense cooperation between the EU and NATO remains an issue to be negotiated. Concerns in Europe about repercussions of a Trump presidency led countries such as Germany and France to issue a joint paper, in which they encouraged the EU to move forward with PESCO. PESCO will respect the obligations of NATO member states but limits are not always clear. And the North Atlantic Alliance is still powerful because the US president is supporting it despite his contradictory statements during the pre-election campaign.

So, Europe's effort to boost common defense without first clarifying priorities with NATO and having already lost Britain is too ambitious.

From another perspective, European countries are expected to spend more on defense. But this increase will not happen because of fear of being suspended from PESCO but as a response to relevant demands by Trump. Also, several questions are raised on how the expected sharing of some defense costs by EU member states will impact on future acquisitions of defense equipment. If specific national industries are to be preferred, internal disagreements will return to the forefront and criticism on protectionism will be harsh.

All in all, it is premature to consider Europe able and competent to practically boost defense integration. PESCO does not solve already known-problems and might even create new ones. It's not time for the EU to celebrate.

The author is a lecturer at the European Institute in Nice, France.


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