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EU Defence Faces Significant Challenges Despite Welcome PESCO Additions

In seven decades of existence, the need for the EU to support NATO capabilities through a Union-wide network of defence-related systems and initiatives has never been more pressing

The creation of Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO, was designed in 2017. The structure sees 25 of the 28 (soon to be 27) member states pursue structural military and defence integration through shared initiatives and the pooling of resources.

Since its inception, PESCO has greenlighted 47 different ventures, with the next step being the implementation stage. This will prove critical for the scheme’s credibility in terms of establishing tangible outputs to boost European defence, which has long been criticised – particularly by the US – for being too light in terms of both spend and commitment.

Five of these new projects focus on training, and cover areas such as cyber capabilities, diving, special operations, tactical and medical, as well as chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) elements. Additional initiatives are aimed at enhancing collaborative actions between PESCO member states on capability development at sea, air, and space.

“In two years’ time, member states will come back to – possibly – new decisions on projects, but these next two years will be dedicated to work full speed on implementation, exactly because we know the test will be on delivery and implementation”, said Federica Mogherini, the outgoing High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

A spokesperson for the European Defence Agency has said that “This third wave of PESCO projects saw Member States bring forward solid defence capability projects. However, if PESCO is to have a lasting, even structural impact on the European defence capability landscape, it is important to start embedding the EU perspective of the twenty PESCO commitments in national defence planning processes”.

NATO and the World

NATO has received significant criticism from US President Donald Trump, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron. In well-publicised remarks taken from an interview given late last year, Macron criticised both European defence spending and NATO’s “brain death”. He also stated that Europe stands on “the edge of a precipice” and needs to begin thinking of itself as a strategic, geopolitical power; otherwise the continent would “no longer be in control of our destiny”.

PESCO is not just a NATO project, and non-aligned nations such as Finland, Sweden, Austria and Ireland also participate. The programme is part of a trident of EU defence initiatives, all launched in 2017, including the European Defence Industrial Development Programme (EDIDP) and the European Defence Fund (EDF), which both underpin the financing of PESCO projects under the oversight of the European Defence Agency.

Though the announcement of this structure did have critics accusing PESCO of being the thin end of a wedge that would eventually create an EU army, the project is not aimed at creating a new force. Instead, PESCO is designed to tackle capability gaps in areas such as cyber and joint training capabilities.

Jamie Shea, former NATO spokesman and Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe, a leading think tank, told the EU Parliament magazine that “…extra PESCO projects are good news at a time when President Macron is calling for the EU to step up its defence efforts and stand on its own feet. PESCO is gaining traction in EU capitals and nations are buying in to the long-overdue need to pool and share. I particularly welcome the focus on CBRN defence in the new package”.


NATO has been in existence for 70 years, and its importance appears to be ever-growing as it serves as the EU’s backbone of defence. PESCO is a welcome project by NATO, and its projects are designed to help countries in areas such as special operations, cyber, and training. Copyright: Rokas Tenys / Shuttershock.com

PESCO Challenges

The difficulty involved in creating an autonomous EU military capability lies in scale and money. Defence spending remains a hard sell for many EU governments, and despite commitments to raise it as a percentage of GDP, the available budget will remain dwarfed by the capabilities of nations such as China and the US. The US budget is approximately 622 billion dollars, while the European Defence Fund has just 500 million to co-finance EU projects for 2019 and 2020.

Of course, individual European nations have significant military capabilities, such as the UK and France. Despite pledges to remain connected in terms of security, the departure of the UK from the EU will also remove its largest and most capable military force. France has been increasingly strident in terms of EU foreign policy, as well as common defence policy. The country remains the de facto leader in this regard, due to the lame duck administration of outgoing Angela Merkel in Germany, and the continuing political uncertainty which regularly engulfs Italy and Spain.

Objectives of PESCO will undoubtedly make a difference, particularly for smaller nations and in areas such as special operations, cyber, and training. For the foreseeable future, a well-resourced NATO seeks to provide the backbone of European defence.

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Ruairi Kavanagh

Ruairi is an Irish writer, editor and author with 25 years of experience across national and specialist media. He specialises in reporting on matters relating to education, development,emergency services, international affairs, defence and security with particular interest in European affairs, the Balkan region, the Middle East and Africa.

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