The European Union is embarking on its latest and most serious drive for deeper integration in defence and security. In December 2017, 25 EU member states – including all the South EU countries except Malta – signed onto the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). The structure is designed to create shared capability projects and to coordinate joint missions. The end game is to create an independent EU defence apparatus that can quickly coordinate and mobilize in times of need, and act as a complement to NATO.
The concept of closer defence cooperation has long been discussed in European circles, but with a changing security environment (including a resurgent Russia to the east, conflict and mass migration from the Middle East and North Africa, and internal terrorist threats) and Britain’s decision to leave the EU in June 2016, the conversation received renewed attention. The United Kingdom had long opposed any kind of closer defence ties that could be seen as taking resources away from NATO and, thus, angering the United States – one of NATO’s founding members.
PESCO’s initial functions will be in the form of 17 collaboration projects. These projects range from a European medical command to a network of logistics hubs to support EU missions and operations – notably nothing that would replace the military fighting capabilities of NATO.
The projects are headed by lead nations who take responsibility for running the projects and are required to make binding commitments to other PESCO members regarding their contributions to the organisation. These commitments are outlined in National Implementation Plans that will be presented annually to the European Council to assess member state commitment.
So far, four South EU countries are leading on multiple collaboration projects out of the initial 17. Italy is heading up the most – running four different projects, including creating a European Training Certification Centre for European Armies and building an interoperable Armoured Infantry Fighting Vehicle/Amphibious Assault Vehicle/Light Armoured Vehicle.
France is heading up European Secure Software defined Radio (ESSOR) and Energy Operational Function (EOF). The former aims to develop common technologies for European military radios. The latter aims to develop new systems of energy supply for camps deployed in joint operations and to ensure that energy is taken into account when building combat structures. France, under President Emmanuel Macron, has made clean energy a top policy priority.
Greece is also heading up two projects: one to upgrade maritime surveillance and another to create a Cyber Threats and Incident Response Information Sharing Platform. Greece has a long history of substantive defence investment, spending about 2.4 percent of GDP on defence per year – above NATO’s defence spending requirement of two percent.
Finally, Spain is leading on the Strategic Command Control (C2) System for CSDP Missions and Operations, which is a project to improve the command and control systems of EU missions and operations at the strategic level. The end goal is to enhance the military decision-making process, improve the planning and conduct of missions, and better coordinate EU forces. The integration of certain information systems – like intelligence, surveillance, command and control, and logistics systems – will also be part of the project.
Portugal and Cyprus, while signing onto PESCO and agreeing to participate in projects, are not leading any of the initial 17. Currently, Portugal spends about 1.3 percent of GDP on defence, lower than the two percent NATO target, and Cyprus spends about 1.8 percent. Cyprus is not a NATO member.
Malta – the only non-PESCO member of all the South EU countries – is taking a “wait and see” approach before deciding whether to join. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said PESCO membership could potentially conflict with the country’s constitutional neutrality, but that does not mean Malta will not join at a later date. Rather, the country will first observe how the defence pact will work – i.e., if it will truly be a system to coordinate weapons purchases and development, or if it will take a more military form.
The EU has so far attempted to make clear that PESCO will not replace NATO, and that the 17 initial projects are focused on solely joint capabilities and coordination.
At the same time, the European Commission at the end of March proposed its own contribution to PESCO: an action plan for military mobility, “in line with [European Commission] President Juncker’s commitment to a fully-fledged Defence Union by 2025.” President Jean-Claude Juncker first talked about his hopes for a European Defence Union in his State of the Union address in September 2017, just three months before PESCO was launched.