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PESCO Goes Live: June 2018 European Council Decisions on Defence Collaboration

Amelia Hadfield, Director of European Studies at Canterbury Christ Church University and Christopher Logie, research analyst at the Centre for European Studies (CEFEUS), Canterbury Christ Church University.

Summits are tricky. Last week’s EU summit (28-29 June) was predicted to be a tough one, with division between Europe’s leaders over migration, and anxiety about the Brexit timetable. In one area however, European harmony shone more brightly. While migration talks dragged on with somewhat opaque results, EU Member State heads were able to swiftly agree on proposals to strengthen inter-EU defence cooperation, and most notably on project PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation).

A Brief History of (it’s about) Time

PESCO rests on the concept of certain states wanting to work in a smaller group, on a key area, in this case, defence. While the group-work mandate has been around some time, PESCO as a tool was made more coherent in the Lisbon Treaty, and activated to promote long-term defence collaboration in December 2017. At this point, PESCO represents no fewer than 25 EU Member States, who despite their differences, are identified as the “more willing, politically ready and militarily capable EU members” who are ready to take the next step of forging closer cooperation on defence.

The December 2017 agreement by the European Council to formally establish PESCO is a real watershed in this respect, allowing all but Denmark, Malta, and Britain to pool defence hardware, software, budgets and research, promoting a more collaborative approach to procurement, training, maintenance, logistical support, and ultimately deployment. PESCO encourages national projects to identify complementarities and reduce duplications between national defence strategies, by identifying what is common to Europe’s strategic interests as a whole.

PESCO sounds like a good idea. So what’s taken so long? To put it most simply, political will. Since it was first floated as a possible way to promote defence collaboration, the world has changed. From 2009 onwards, Europe and its neighbourhood have suffered an entire array of external and internal shocks. From the war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, to the Syrian Civil War to Brexit to American skepticism over the need for NATO, from the rise of Islamic terrorism both beyond and within Europe, to cyber security attacks, the world has become a harsher, more uncertain place. Threats, remote and proximate, have made clear one message: European countries feel that more needs to be done to guarantee their overall safety, and the wider security of the continent.

PESCO Clarified

To make PESCO work, European leaders need to bear three things in mind. First, PESCO needs to be kept flexible. While the media has thus far characterized PESCO as a “joint defence pact in show of post-Brexit unity”, pushed largely by France and Germany, designed to boost domestic collaboration, its overall goal is surely the broader security of Europe. Coordinating on troops and weapons in the short term suggests a long-term goal of “matching the bloc’s economic and trade prowess with a more powerful military”. Despite Brexit, it is difficult to see how this objective could be done effectively without a method of incorporating key third states like Britain. Like the recently announced European Intervention Initiative (incorporating a smaller circle of 9 Member States) which involves “joint planning work on crisis scenarios” and is premised clearly on “allow[ing] the association of some non-EU states,” PESCO too ought to facilitate bilateral cooperation between Europe and key security providers.

Second, and to ensure that its group-work philosophy actually works in practice, PESCO needs to remain tough on membership obligations. Unlike other forms of voluntary intergovernmental cooperation, the commitments made by PESCO Members are designed to be legally binding, budgetarily scrutinized, politically justified, and reviewed annually checked. This is a good start, but it may need to go further.

Finally, PESCO’s location needs to be much clearer. We’ve seen a spate of defence and security collaborations, and wider foreign affairs initiatives from the EU, as well as EU-NATO deals. All well and good, but the EU does have a habit of project proliferation at the expense of efficient implementation. Quite soon, PESCO’s specific placement needs to be identified within the overarching foreign policy structures of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), as well as key strategic documents like the 2016 Global Strategy, and the anticipated creation of a new one-stop shop development and neighborhood instrument.


Currently there are seventeen projects, covering a gamut from improvements to military radio to the creation of a European armoured infantry fighting vehicle program with more to follow. The concept is driven by the idea that joined up collaborative projects can bring tangible benefits to EU states even without increasing spending, and that if spending is increased, it’ll be spent more effectively. The current problem? EU defence spending is a bit more than half of US spending ($342 billion compared to $610 billion in 2017) but with nothing near half the actual capability. As EU spending is spread across 28 countries there is naturally an enormous amount of duplication. For example, EU countries currently operate 17 different designs of main battle tanks, while the US uses just one. The same is true of destroyers and frigates, where the EU and the US operate 29 designs, and 4 respectively. If the EU can encourage greater cooperation, then the hope is that capability will increase even if costs are the same. Ideally this cost saving would work twofold; firstly, by cutting down on duplication within member states and secondly by force-boosting based on economies of scale from collaborative projects as well as dividends resulting from increased interoperability provided by the projects. A key example of this would be if the European armored infantry fighting vehicle project proves a success.

European Council Pledges

So what was agreed at the June 2018 European Council? Essentially, to push ahead with the December 2017 agreement, working to increase Europe’s overall strategic autonomy, specifically in defence cooperation, boosting spending to enable better intra-European military cooperation. As the conclusion made clear: “Europe must take greater responsibility for its own security and underpin its role as a credible and reliable actor and partner in security and defence” while at the same time “complementing and reinforcing the activities of NATO”. Equally notable was the language in the final document calling for “the fulfilment of the PESCO commitments and the further development of the initial projects and the institutional framework”. This is a fairly clear to-do list from the Council, who appear keen to establish an underlying governance framework to match the bright ideas agreed on in December 2017. The conclusions also outlined the first real PESCO project regarding military mobility, a kind of ‘military Schengen’ designed to enable easier, speedier Europe-wide deployment for EU and NATO forces alike. In a nutshell, EU leaders have at last “agreed to take steps towards increased spending on joint defence research, capability development and operational readiness to deploy troops more quickly.” Lastly, was the open-door possibility in which the Council is now invited “to decide on the conditions for third State participation in PESCO projects.”

PESCO’s Future

What does the future hold for PESCO? As suggested above, as a deliberately flexible structure, PESCO is likely to benefit from an à la carte model which enables willing states to cooperate as they choose, overcoming problems with consensus while allowing states with a history of neutrality such as Ireland to still participate in projects which benefit them (Ireland has interests in five of the first tranche of seventeen projects). However, much will rest on the choice of ‘big projects’ in PESCO’s first few years of operation. The simplest projects are a good start (e.g. improvements to military radio), but the true test is the sustained interoperability across the participants, resting on a commitment to larger projects. Interestingly of course is the role of PESCO within the EU’s overall security and defence ambitions. Will it be an enabler? A catalyst? Or an obstacle? Three things ought to be borne in mind: the upcoming NATO summit, the consequences of Brexit, and the role for key states, in this case, Ireland.


President Trump’s refusal at last year’s NATO summit “to endorse the alliance’s collective defence clause” and a somewhat brutal lesson in the art of nudging for Montenegro’s leader at the final photo op has only increased anxieties about American commitment to European defence. This year, instead of Presidential tweets, NATO members have received strongly-worded letters from the President, bemoaning their variable commitment to 2% of GDP on defence spending and asking them to undertake a “strong recommitment” in this regard. While the general sense among European allies is that some sort of increased spend will be required, the key message is that this decision ought to be taken based on European requirements, in a spirit of collaboration, and not on the basis of summitry bullying. The fear is that NATO will receive the same temper-tantrum treatment as did last month’s G7, with President Trump insisting on short-term optics rather than participating in long-term gains. With trips to the UK and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki following the NATO summit, PESCO states (and the EU in general) are hoping that policy announcements on improved defence collaboration will assuage President Trump, but at this point anything (and nothing) is possible.

Brexit: Costs vs. Credibility

Equally challenging for PESCO will be managing the concept of membership. Against a backdrop of increased European security and defence collaboration, the question is whether increased supranational cooperation in key foreign affairs areas can be balanced against group-specific projects that could include non-EU Member States. For its part, the UK of course is wary of project that - at this point in the negotiations – suggest further integration in key areas, while the EU is similarly concerned that Britain may seek to undermine EU efforts to ratchet up defence projects. Britain is, and will likely remain, a major player in defence; whether within PESCO, or other projects, fashioning a decent third-party agreement is an absolute must for both sides.

Irish Potential

For Ireland, PESCO is likely to represent a win-win scenario. PESCO introduces monitoring for projects, this is only within projects which Ireland has volunteered to participate. While Irish involvement will always require Irish consent, as currently crafted, PESCO creates no commitments for Ireland which might violate its constitutional triple lock on troop deployment. Ireland may therefore find that it could benefit directly from relevant projects and bid for funds from the €500 million European Defence Fund (possibly increasing to €1.5 billion in the 2021-2027 EU budget). As Simon Coveney, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade suggested in December 2017 as part of the government’s deliberations on joining, PESCO “provides a mechanism to meet an identified need for closer cooperation between partners to ensure the availability of the military capabilities required for these purposes and [will] ensure that Irish Defence personnel serving on future EU missions will be as well-prepared and equipped as they should be.” To this can be added Ireland’s strong history of engagement with both UN peacekeeping missions, and the EU’s own CSDP ops. Any additional capability and expertise that PESCO can provide will likely prove beneficial while not necessitating substantial increases in Irish defence spending. In sum, Ireland has much to gain and very little to lose.

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