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Making Sense of PESCO

A decade after the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, the European Union (more precisely 23 of its member states) has formally endorsed the idea of intensifying voluntary cooperation in defence matters. Despite alarmist voices coming from the fringes of the European political system, the guiding principles behind Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) do not represent a single step toward the utopistic (and largely useless) idea of a unified European military force. PESCO instead represents a clear and present political opportunity for enhanced structural cooperation between like-minded (and ambitious) EU members within the realm of defence policy.

Alongside the European Defence Fund (EDF), Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) and Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) PESCO forms part of the EU’s ongoing efforts to establish itself as a bona fide global actor by developing – what the EU Global Strategy identifies as – strategic autonomy.

Admittedly, some perceive any form of European strategic autonomy to be an unnecessary challenge to NATO’s role as the primary anchor of security and stability on the ‘Old Continent.’ However, it is absurd to automatically assume that European ambitions for strategic autonomy (possibly in the form of an autonomous intervention capability) are an attempt to usurp NATO. For those seeking justification for this claim, here are four points to consider.

First, Europe lacks (and will continue to lack for the foreseeable future) the financial resources required to replace NATO as the main provider of the continent’s territorial defence. Put simply, the role that the Alliance plays in fulfilling this crucial existential task cannot be downplayed.

Second, the European public not only respects the continued existence of NATO but also its contribution to post-Cold War security. Moreover, there has never been a credible and well-supported public campaign for the abolishment of the Alliance and the consideration of viable alternatives.

Third, NATO itself has advocated and endorsed the idea of a more robust, self-confident, devoted and pro-active European defence posture that balances burden-sharing within the Alliance. It’s an idea that’s also been endorsed by the high-profile GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Initiative. Led by Gen. (Ret.) John Allen, this renowned group of former NATO civilian and military leaders and strategic thinkers advocates an ever-closer NATO-EU partnership underpinned by fairness, balance and coherency.

And fourth, in terms of potential PESCO missions, defence planning (MPCC) and defence industrial support (EDF), there has never been the identification of any form of meaningful contradiction between the priorities of the Alliance and the EU.

Beyond the NATO-weakening criticism and contrary to the malign speculations, the nature of the political (and democratic) control of the EU’s armed forces remain completely unchanged by PESCO. Each and every military force on the continent is – and will continue to be – by nature, a national one. There is simply no such thing in the making as a European army in the offing. There will be no attempt by the EU to replace national armed forces, command structures and civilian (political) control.

Yes, European nations will most likely cooperate more closely in securing an ever-higher level of force interoperability and, hopefully, a synergies-driven European defence industry (as envisioned by the European Defence Fund). Doing so will increase the overall competitive edge of the European defence sector. However, that is nowhere near the level of integration that would justify any anti-democratic fearmongering throughout the ranks of Europe’s public. Accordingly, PESCO is clearly not the embodiment of an ideological shift in European integration – as some would argue – as it is by no means a justifiable, measurable and perceivable step towards the creation of the United States of Europe or any other avenue for European federalization.

At the end of the day, this is one of the reasons why EU members from Central and Eastern Europe are (without a single exception) endorsing PESCO despite their generally cautious approach vis-à-vis fast-track European integration in other relevant areas – be it fiscal, monetary, migration or asylum policy. How much the CEE nations will further shape European defence policy, aside from French and German ambitions, remains to be seen. For now, their engagement is clearly (and rightly) helpful in justifying its initial emboldenment. Taking all the above-mentioned points into consideration, PESCO deserves to be given a chance – possibly without unsubstantiated hysteria and unconstructive bias.