No, Europe Isn’t Ambushing NATO

How to learn to stop worrying and love the EU’s new security and defense agreement.

The headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels on October 21, 2004. (Mark Renders/Getty Images)
The headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels on October 21, 2004. (Mark Renders/Getty Images)

Don’t tell the European Union it is falling apart. While doubters obsess about Brexit, Greece’s relationship with the eurozone, and nationalist parties across the 28-member union, the continent’s bold political experiment is just getting bolder.

From its beginnings as the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 and later the European Economic Community, to the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, cooperation between European states has expanded far beyond initial economic mandates. And on Nov. 13, 2017, when you probably weren’t looking, the EU took another step to expand the partnership — one that some commentators see as a challenge to NATO. Twenty-three of the states signed a joint notification on the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). The Council of the European Union then adopted a decision on Dec. 11 to establish PESCO, which creates formal security cooperation between member states.

European Council President Donald Tusk has hailed PESCO as the materialization of a more than half-a-century-old dream for European defense cooperation. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel explained, according to Politico, that the EU spends “50 percent as much as the United States on defense yet only has 15 percent of its military efficiency.”

Is it all hype? Should NATO be shaking in its boots? Maybe neither.

PESCO is not quite the EU army that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for in 2015. Rather, it is a binding treaty-based framework aimed at formalizing defense and security cooperation between EU member states through projects and commitments. Twenty-five member states have indicated support for the document, leaving Malta, Denmark, and the United Kingdom (a longtime dissenter) as the only outsiders.

PESCO serves the goals of the Common Security and Defence Policy, conceptualized as a means of enhancing military capabilities and strengthening EU defense. More pointedly, PESCO was mentioned directly in 2009’s Treaty on European Union, Article 42(6): “Member States whose military capabilities fulfill higher criteria and which have made more binding commitments to one another in this area with a ‘view to the most demanding missions’ shall establish permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) within the Union framework.” Coming on the heels of the launch of the European Commission’s European Defence Fund and the European Defence Industrial Development Programme, there has been a lot of momentum to establish PESCO (an annual 5 billion euro — $6 billion — worth of momentum in the case of the European Defence Fund).

What does PESCO mean for NATO? Some commentators have characterized PESCO as a European alternative at a time when a lot of Europeans are appalled at the political direction of the United States and don’t trust American leadership on security matters, particularly with respect to Russia. Other sources, including the principal director for European and NATO Policy at the U.S. Department of Defense and the PESCO notification document itself, describe it as a complement to NATO (“Enhanced defence capabilities of EU Member States will also benefit NATO. They will strengthen the European pillar within the Alliance and respond to repeated demands for stronger transatlantic burden sharing”). PESCO also comes amid consistent pressure from the United States for European NATO member states to meet their financial obligations to NATO.

The commander of the Estonian Defense Forces, Gen. Riho Terras, has attributed the launch of PESCO to the European migration crisis and the annexation of Crimea. “After the migration crisis, many countries realized that the European Union would really have to think about their citizens’ security. The migration crisis, events in Ukraine — it all added to it, so the citizens in different countries demanded for us to think about that in the European Union.” The year 2017 also brought with it numerous state-sponsored cyber and kinetic attacks to which PESCO may be seen as a response. At least one commentator points at the failure of the EU to act as a whole without reliance on the United States in the historical cases of the Balkan wars and in the 2011 Libyan air raids. Still other assessments attribute this recent consolidation of defense and security resources to Brexit and international uncertainty created by the Trump administration’s foreign policy.

But the idea of PESCO as a NATO competitor persists. In his hypothesized depiction of the 2020 “death” of NATO in Foreign Policy, Jeremy Shapiro writes in PESCO as the means through which Poland, France, and Germany find a “mechanism of defense … more fit” than NATO to respond to the Russian escalation of aggression in Ukraine. The editorial board at Bloomberg wrote on Nov. 30 that “it’s hard to imagine Pesco would be anything but duplicative of NATO’s existing command structure. If allowed to go forward, Pesco would simply put needless pressure on the trans-Atlantic alliance. You know who would love that? Vladimir Putin.”

So what would PESCO actually do? The key commitments are enumerated in the “Notification on Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) to the Council and to the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.” Like a lot of European Union documents, this one involves a lot of words that can be hard to bring down to earth. But the “ambitious and more binding common commitments” include the following:

  • an incremental increase in member state defense investment and defense research and technology expenditure;
  • increased efforts in cyber defense cooperation;
  • making strategically deployable formations available for use in addition to the deployment of an EU battle group;
  • developing a database of rapidly deployable capabilities to share with member states;
  • standardizing and simplifying European cross-border military transport in the EU;
  • developing interoperability with member state forces and NATO;
  • and enabling member states to take part in at least one project under PESCO and within the European Defence Agency framework.

Specific projects include:

  • standing up a “European Medical Command” to provide collective EU medical capabilities to support military operations;
  • establishing a “Deployable Military Disaster Relief Capability Package” to deliver a multinational emergency service dealing with civil emergencies, natural disasters, and pandemics;
  • creating the “Harbour & Maritime Surveillance and Protection” capability to provide EU states with an integrated ability to conduct surveillance of and protect maritime areas (including a command and control function for the system);
  • developing a prototype of a “European Armoured Infantry Fighting Vehicle” and other armored vehicles working off of a common platform;
  • creating a command and control system for Common Security and Defense Policy missions that will deliver “information systems and decision-making support tools that will assist strategic commanders [to] carry out their missions”;
  • and creating “Cyber Rapid Response Teams” and mutual cybersecurity assistance, including a shared information platform.

If all goes well, PESCO will be implemented in two tranches: between 2018 and 2021 and from 2021 to 2025. There will be an evaluation of PESCO after each stage in order to modify commitments based on the progress of the project.

The project has already seen its share of controversy. Central Europeans are concerned that the PESCO is part of Germany and the West’s domination of the EU. Of PESCO’s current 17-project roster, Germany and Italy are in charge of four projects each and France is in charge of two. That said, other countries have been allocated some project work: Greece is in charge of two projects, one concerning maritime surveillance and the other setting up an information-sharing platform for cyber threats and incident intelligence. The Netherlands, meanwhile, is working on military mobility and radio interoperability. And Lithuania is working on the cyber rapid response team initiative. Only time will tell if the anticipated French and German policy dominance will overcome formal project responsibilities.

Moreover, there’s reason to worry that PESCO won’t be quite as agile as needed in a military cooperation agreement. While the initial vision was that PESCO would streamline some military decisions such that they would only have to be made by PESCO members and not the EU on the whole, almost the whole EU has now signed up. There is good reason to believe that this will perpetuate bureaucratic delay and grandfather in internal disputes that plague other collective EU mechanisms instead of facilitating a faster-moving NATO equivalent.

In addition, the speed with which PESCO actually makes change depends not only on the agility of its decision-making mechanism, but also on the resources at its disposal. Considering the uncertainty of Brexit negotiations, even currently earmarked funds may not be fully available, thus stymying the progress of planned projects.

Finally, there is some worry that PESCO and NATO will run into each other as both regimes develop. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has cautioned the EU against political and military conflicts with existing commitments: “There has to be coherence between the capability developments of NATO and the European Union. We cannot risk ending up with conflicting requirements from the EU and from NATO to the same nations.” While some deconfliction may be necessary, PESCO can’t fully supplant NATO as a collective defense force. The capabilities that are developed under PESCO don’t become collective EU assets. They remain the property of each member state and must be deployed through another supranational mechanism such as NATO. Estonian Defense Minister Juri Luik underscored that “collective defense will always remain in NATO.”

All of this means that there’s no reason to believe that PESCO will significantly undercut the structure or mission of NATO. The real question is whether it will do anything at all.

This is not to say that no dissonance between the two regimes will arise. How might NATO’s and PESCO’s agendas differ? First, there are the potential divergent approaches to Russia advocated for by NATO’s most dominant member, the United States, and equivalently dominant players in PESCO. Specifically, Germany is pushing for increased dialogue between NATO and Russia, whereas, according to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s New York Times op-ed in December 2017, the United States will not resume “business as usual with Russia” until “a peaceful resolution of the Ukraine situation.” At an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe event that month, Tillerson said, “Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns full control of the peninsula to Ukraine.” In 2014, when Russia annexed the part of Ukraine known as Crimea, NATO responded quickly: It deployed troops to the Russian border and suspended diplomatic dialogue with Moscow. In 2016, NATO reinitiated NATO-Russian Council meetings. These meetings, however, do not constitute “normal dialogue” according to Russia’s Ambassador to NATO Alexander Grushko, but NATO officials do not want to return to the pre-2014 “level of engagement,” seeing it as inappropriate considering the continued war in Ukraine. Adding to the complication, the United States unilaterally decided in December to provide “enhanced defensive capabilities” to the Ukrainian army, suggesting a position significantly opposed to Germany’s diplomatic proposals. However, the United States appears to be approaching Russia’s actions in Ukraine with both carrots and sticks: Tillerson has also disclosed that the U.S. is actively engaged in talks with Russia about Ukraine, including discussing the deployment of peacekeeping forces. Given the all-inclusive U.S. approach to Ukraine, and the needs of PESCO countries that are more closely reliant on the U.S. for defense support, such as Poland, this potential divergence between NATO and PESCO strategic objectives will undoubtedly be tempered.

Second, PESCO may not function forever to support the EU’s role within NATO (as many officials have asserted). It is hard to ignore the possibility that PESCO is not only a mechanism for military cooperation, but also a mechanism for bolstering EU integration. What happens if and when PESCO, now a baby, grows up?

At the cusp of its first “exit,” experiencing the resurgence of domestic nationalist parties with meaningful electoral support, facing threats of domestic terrorism, fearing Russian incursion, and handling unprecedented immigration, the EU is not in fine form. From a historical perspective, the development of a national defense apparatus suggests a collective that requires defense. The American Continental Army was created before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Shortly after Israel declared independence, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion created the Israel Defense Forces and disbanded remaining militias. U.S. Gen. George Patton said, “In fact, the highest obligation and privilege of citizenship is that of bearing arms for one’s country.” I am not suggesting that these examples are analogous to the situation faced by the EU and PESCO; for one thing, the EU isn’t a conventional nation by any sense of the word. But collective defense has a history of being both rooted in, and flowering into, sovereignty — a quality to which the EU has always aspired in some sense and has perceived in recent years to be slipping through its fingers. To the extent that PESCO evolves into a manifestation of the need to protect collective identity, real and troubling policy divergences between the United States and PESCO, the U.K. and PESCO, or Turkey and PESCO could result in NATO discord.

But, at least as it stands now, PESCO is far from a NATO-slayer. There is a good chance that, with proper implementation and the discovery of greater efficiencies between EU nations, it has a modest role to play. And the reason for its modesty is simple. There is one thing that PESCO and the EU lack that is central to NATO’s success: the United States.



Shannon Togawa Mercer is the managing editor of Lawfare and the national security and law associate at the Hoover Institution. She is originally from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

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