Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) – a new beginning for increased cooperation in EU defence?

There have been multiple times when various people have called for more cooperation in the EU defence and security sector. Last year, a step ahead was achieved when the Member States agreed upon a creation of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) as a way forward. It has been almost a year since PESCO was born. Questions that have arisen are: what has been achieved? Have we achieved anything? And most importantly, where is the EU heading?

The creation of an EU defence sector has been a complex issue throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. One obvious reason has always been the existence of NATO, of which twenty-two of the EU28 are members. NATO renders the idea of a common European or EU army, proposed by the Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in 2015, fruitless, for the two would overlap in their functions.
There have, however, been various other attempts besides the EU army to establish something on the EU level. One of the first ones was the Western European Union (WEU). The WEU was in fact created already in 1948 before the birth of NATO or the European Community but later it was meant to be infused into the EU and become its main defence component and NATO’s European Pillar. In 2010 it was, however, decided that the WEU would be dissolved. The world now looked up to the Lisbon Treaty to provide more on the EU defence.
The Lisbon Treaty, entering into force in 2009, did indeed provide some additions to the EU defence policy. It established the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and created the post of High Representative, currently held by Italian Federica Mogherini. One significant part of the Treaty was the Article 42(7), the mutual defence clause, which was first invoked in November 2015 after the Paris terrorist attack. One could argue that the mutual defence clause is actually more encompassing than NATO’s Article 5 as it states that the Member States have an obligation to assist and that the clause is binding upon all Member States.
The Lisbon Treaty furthermore set up the possibility of the PESCO in Article 42(6). It was, however, only last year, nearly ten years after the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, that the step was taken and PESCO was officially born.

PESCO in a Nutshell

In December 2017 the EU’s new defence package (formed of PESCO, the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence, European Defence Fund and the Military Planning and Conduct Capability) thus came into being. Out of the EU28, twenty-five states decided to participate in PESCO. Denmark has opted-out from the CSDP on the whole so it made sense for them to stay out of PESCO. In addition, Malta decided to opt-out as well as the United Kingdom due to Brexit. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU has raised concerns about the future of the European defence and this question still needs to be discussed further.
The Member States were free to decide whether to join or not in light of the enhanced cooperation where integration can occur without all Member States. Luckily most of the EU28 opted to get on board, for the enhanced cooperation bears the risk of uneven development across the Union. Although the multispeed Europe can be seen as a good thing as it creates a possibility for the willing states to go forward, it can create further tensions. It was thus extremely welcome that most Member States wanted to join PESCO and move forward with the EU defence as a unified front.
One of the main purposes of PESCO is to harmonize and pool resources in order to create more cooperation. PESCO also seeks to help with enhancing the capacity to act faster. There are currently 17 PESCO operations that have been agreed upon. Despite the fact that Finland seemed to be quite keen in participating in PESCO, we have a surprisingly small role in the current projects. Out of the seventeen projects, we are participants only in three, an observer in one, and non-participants in the remaining thirteen. Finland has not taken a lead in any of the projects whereas, for example, Italy is the leader in six of them. Finland participates in the projects concerning European Secure Software-defined Radio, Military Mobility, and Cyber Rapid Response Teams and Mutual Assistance in Cyber Security. These highlight the importance of cyber security and technology for Finland and the rise of the importance of cyber security in general.

What about NATO and the Non-Aligned Member States?

The EU Member States agree that NATO is and will be the main defender of Europe. PESCO does not seek to replace NATO, nor are there any plans of creating an EU army any time in the near future. It, however, cannot be denied that one of the reasons for going ahead with PESCO at this point in the history, was the US President Donald Trump. Trump stated back in 2016 that ‘NATO is obsolete’ and raised enormous concerns across the Europe. European countries and NATO are largely depended on the USA. Due to these concerns over the US commitment among other things, the EU states decided to move ahead and finally form PESCO. The officials, however, stress that PESCO is complementary to NATO and there is no competition between the two, as PESCO’s main focus will be on crisis deployments.
There are five non-aligned states in the EU: Austria, Finland, Ireland, Malta, and Sweden. Out of these five, four are now participants in PESCO. These states are often misleadingly called neutral in their foreign policy. However, as members of the EU they are part of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Hence, they are not neutral as they have opted to be part of the EU and its foreign policy. PESCO does still, however, provide for these states the possibility to opt out of the projects should their foreign policies not allow them to participate.

A new beginning or not?

PESCO was hailed as a significant step forward in the EU defence sector. One year on, not much has happened and the general public remains largely unaware of PESCO. As PESCO is new, it is obvious that setting it up will take time and results might take a while. The projects were formally adopted by the Council in March 2018. In June 2018 the Council implemented the governance rules for these projects. These rules obligate that progress reports are send to the Council once a year. The goal is that new projects are launched yearly.
The media coverage on PESCO, at least in Finland, has been regrettably little. As often with the more positive EU developments, the public does not really discuss these things and hence, the general public’s knowledge on these issues remains rather non-existent. Public discussion on PESCO could help it to become even more significant. PESCO has all the tools to become one of the most noteworthy EU defence policy developments in a while. However, as the process is new, only time will tells us whether this is indeed a new beginning for a more substantial EU policy or whether PESCO will be rendered to something that just exists there but does not attract any significant discussion outside of the EU institutions and the Europhiles.
What is certain though, is that a step has been taken in the defence sector and it has been followed by several more steps. The French President Emmanuel Macron set forward the European Intervention Initiative, which seeks to counter threats near to the European borders without the aid from the US or NATO. This initiative would significantly step up the European defence and at the moment ten states have joined this coalition of the willing (Finland, France, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Estonia, Spain, Portugal and the UK). Participation of Denmark, which has opted out from the CSDP, is significant as well as that of the UK, as this addresses to some extent the concerns over the future of the European defence once Brexit occurs.  
The EU defence is thus slowly, and hopefully steadily and successfully, moving forwards. Now it remains to be seen whether this trend will survive and whether we will indeed have a stronger and more cooperated EU defence policy in the future.
TEXT Peppi Heinikainen
PHOTO EC Audiovisual Service

The author has a BA degree in European Studies from the Maastricht University and a MA degree in International Peace and Security from King’s College London. The author has specialised in the EU defence and security policies, peace processes and negotiations, and Russian politics.