Almost as if to take the minds of EU member states away from worrying about Brexit negotiations, led seemingly by France and Germany around 20 members of the EU will gather in Brussels today to sign up to tighter defence collaboration covering troops and weapons – an accord that apparently goes under the title of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).
PESCO is, in theory at least, the EU’s response to placing less reliance on the US for the defence of Europe and to that end, as far as I am aware the US has, in the wake of calls by President Trump that Europe must pay more of the cost of its own defence, welcomed it. The reality of PESCO however is more likely that this is another back-door Brussels attempt to bind the EU politically by using defence as a pawn.
It is worth noting that European members of the NATO alliance including the UK spent a combined total of $253 billion on defence in 2015. That compares with $618 billion spent by the USA. Put another way, 26 out of the 28 non North American members of NATO spent just 30% of what the US spends on defence. And by the way, if all NATO member states that are not doing so now were to spend 2% of their GDP on defence an extra $100 billion would be available to spend on defence by European members alone.
Meanwhile, the UK which has long sort to block EU defence cooperation on fears that it could eventually lead to the formation of a EU army and in the process, damage NATO, will not be amongst those signing up to what can, at this stage, best be described as merely an unfunded aspiration.
My use of the word aspiration is not in jest because while some EU member states could be persuaded to believe that the formation of a defence alliance shows that the EU remains progressive and that this is perhaps the largest leap forward since the block signed up to economic cooperation in Lisbon, the reality is that at this stage they have little clue what they will be signing up to.
The problem of PESCO as I see it, apart from the arrangement making little sense other than perhaps from an EU political perspective, is that not only will the process add significant cost to an EU budget which coincidently, will soon be losing one of its biggest financial contributors in the form of Britain, but also that France and Germany have not yet agreed what those who will sign up to EU defence cooperation will be legally bound to provide and pay let alone what additional security they might get.
My understanding is that France has wanted a core group of member governments that were prepared to sign up to the pact to bring both money and military assets into PESCO as well as agreeing a willingness to intervene and deploy troops and assets abroad. That may be fine for France and one or two others but surely, given the restraint of its political system in what it is allowed to do in respect of military deployment, this could be a big problem for Germany. While not a problem in respect of Germany deploying troops abroad, apart from policing there are huge limits as to what the German military are actually allowed to do when deployed in theatre. To that end, Germany has apparently sought to broaden the pact in order to make it inclusive- an issue that in itself will presumably make it far more costly to operate.
The reality is that if PESCO is to make any difference there will need to be a far higher level of commitment than is envisaged by many of those who will sign up to it in Brussels later today. That by the way will apart from France and Germany include Italy and Spain, both of whose economies can hardly be deemed as being anything other than weak.
PESCO is no panacea to what Europe needs in terms of defence cooperation. NATO has done that job very well for the past 68 years and it certainly does not need and unnecessary obstacle to progress being put in the way now. To my mind, PESCO appears as an additional and costly layer of process that has been formulated by those that have little idea how defence works or of how this will be perceived by our would-be enemies.
As yet, no decisions have been taken on funding. Neither has there been any suggestion of how the organisation will be led and directed other than an assumption that this will be by Germany and France. Neither is there any suggestion yet of how PESCO will be funded. Moreover, as another obstacle to progress and one in which whatever decision making process emerges is almost bound to require a process of negotiation with individual members, I fear that this can only but cause damage to NATO.
Initial proposals for PESCO have included ideas that this could include work on a European medical command plus a network of logistics hubs in Europe, the creation of a European Crisis Response centre and joint training of military officers. One of the goals of setting PESCO up is apparently to reduce the number of weapons systems and prevent duplication of development investment in order to supposedly save money and improve joint operations. I am not so sure about this and fear that this might be an attempt to bolster the French defence industry.
I have also heard it said that PESCO might also be used as the umbrella organisation for projects such as a Franco-German plan to design a new fighter jet together perhaps with taking in some existing bilateral military cooperation agreements such as those between Germany and the Netherlands.
We are told that whatever PESCO does will be closely coordinated with the NATO alliance in order to ensure transparency and avoid duplication of effort. Tell that one to the Marines! Another area where the EU see that there might be common ground with NATO is in the creation of a military zone for free movement of troops and equipment.
Germany has been at pains to emphasise that PESCO will not compete with NATO and which will remain responsible for collective defence, while PESCO would ensure a quicker and more efficient EU response to events like the 2014 Ebola crisis in Africa.
Maybe so initially but as I note that NATO has itself been pretty sceptical about the formation of PESCO, I prefer to see this as the thin end of the wedge.
Of course, we all understand that by working together EU might, if it survives long term, be able to play its part in better responding to humanitarian crises and other disasters in which NATO can have no specific or direct responsibilities but the bottom line is that it doesn’t need the formation of an organisation that at some future point in my view is almost bound to clash with the NATO alliance.
(Note: I am abroad for the next week on defence related business – Commentary will return a week today)
CHW (London 13th November 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785