EU: a phoenix able to revive from its own ashes?

March 8, 2018

PESCO and Brexit in the limbo between missed and potential opportunities



On June 23rd, 2016 the dream of the “United States of Europe” came to a turning point. In fact, the majority of British people decided to quit the EU. The European Union certainly lost a substantive opportunity to show its political and institutional strength against the existing internal divisive forces. Nevertheless, just one year before the official exit, Brexit could in a certain sense be viewed as a unique occasion for Europe. Actually, the Union could show an unexpected level of cohesion and strong bargaining power around the table of negotiations with London. Still, demonstrating to be able to speak up by a single voice and to overcome the different national interests seems to be extremely difficult. This is due not only to the divergent approaches of Member States toward the UK (the hard line of France, Germany and Belgium, indeed incompatible with the more “opportunistic” one of Italy, Spain, Ireland, Poland and Baltic countries) but also to the institutional complexity for the ratification of the agreement. In fact, the negotiating power of the Commission, potentially clashing with the final veto of the Parliament and the crucial role of the European Court of Justice, is giving Premier Theresa May plenty of reasons to express her concern.  

Shifting the attention on the possibility of realisation of the “US of Europe”, it is undoubtful that the process of political integration - which many advocate as the only possible perspective for the future of the Union - could be fostered starting from deeper cooperation in the defence and security sector. Indeed, the USA experience demonstrates how unified means of legitimate use of force made it much easier to push in a second moment for further integration on the fiscal and economic side as well. Still, even in this perspective, the EU seems to have been unable to exploit a series of opportunities. This has grown particularly evident during the last decades. In fact, there were great expectations on the ability of the EU to finally develop a common defence action. The first step in this direction was the launch of the European Political Cooperation project in 1970. This was followed by the development of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) within the 1993 Treaty of Maastricht. Finally, the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) within the 1999 Treaty of Amsterdam and 32 civilian and military EU missions, though mainly disappointed from the operative point of view. December 11th, 2017 represents thus a second turning point for the European integration process because of the creation of PESCO – the Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defence. The main aim of this Council initiative is to increase the effectiveness of Member States in addressing security challenges. Moreover, the agreement envisages to enhance defence cooperation within the EU framework, i.e. to jointly develop defence capabilities and make them available for EU military operations through a treaty-based framework. This will thus strengthen the EU’s capacity as an international security partner. It will make the Union a credible security provider globally and it will maximise the effectiveness of defence spending, capability of development and operational readiness. Enhanced cooperation in these domains will then allow for a harmonisation of the different weapons' systems in Europe. This would result into more interoperability and industrial competitiveness as well as into a reinforcement of the EU’s strategic autonomy to act alone when necessary. “We did it. In the most ambitious and inclusive manner, with 25 Member States, we launched PESCO together. The 25 have taken binding commitments to improving their cooperation, and we will start with a first set of very concrete 17 projects spanning from common military training, to providing medical support to our operations. The possibilities of the PESCO are immense", stated the High Representative Mogherini about PESCO, a project already outlined within the Treaty of Lisbon of 2009.

Even if participation remains voluntary and decision-making in the hands of the twenty-five participant Member States, PESCO differs from previous forms of cooperation for the binding nature of its commitments. Participating Member States are indeed presumed to provide plans for the national contributions and efforts they have agreed to make, which are subject to regular assessment. However, even if PESCO is underpinned by the idea that sovereignty can be better exercised when working together, national sovereignty remains effectively untouched and military capacities developed in its context remain in the hands of Member States. Actually, they could decide to make them available in other contexts such as NATO or the UN. 

It is thus easy to see how PESCO could be perceived as a real potential driver of integration that should not be analysed separately from the Brexit issue. Having a defence expenditure of $45.8 billion, the highest one in the EU, the UK has certainly represented one of the main pillar of the external action of the Union. Its voluntary withdrawal must not by the way be viewed just in the light of a breakdown in the block’s military ambitions. It could also represent the reopening of a quite considerable possibility set for initiatives. For instance, the UK repeatedly vetoed in the past the creation of a permanent EU military HQs and the increase of the defence budget. Together, Brexit and PESCO could thus bring renewed momentum to European common defence. After having lost one of its main armies, Europe is maybe trying to revive from its own ashes as a phoenix, but it should be clearly kept in mind that without the cooperative action of all its national actors the necessary fire is going to be missing.

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