Transatlantic Take

An Inclusive PESCO Moves Forward Despite Remaining Concerns

Michal Baranowski
Martin Quencez
4 min read
Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Niyazz
PARIS/WARSAW — Yesterday, 23 EU member states agreed to join the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), in a move that is perceived as an important step forward to a more coherent and integrated European defense.

PARIS/WARSAW — Yesterday, 23 EU member states agreed to join the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), in a move that is perceived as an important step forward to a more coherent and integrated European defense. Other EU member states may decide to join before the Foreign Affairs Council on December 11, when PESCO is expected to be officially launched. This framework is part of a larger European momentum for defense cooperation, following the creation of other initiatives such as the Common Annual Review of Defense (CARD) and the European Defense Fund (EDF). In this wave of new acronyms, PESCO will aim to provide clearer capability goals and better political guidance for defense cooperation.

This new “ambitious, binding, and inclusive European legal framework” will have two main purposes. First, all countries that join PESCO will have to commit to increase defense spending, as well as achieve a certain level of modernization of their military, following a personalized plan for the years to come. This process, which does not constitute a benchmark to enter the framework but turns PESCO into a “pledging machine,” should help the general increase of defense budgets in Europe. Second, PESCO will be structured around a series operational and capability projects that member states can join or not, and serve as a platform of coordination for the countries that are “able and willing” to go further in terms of defense cooperation.

Its development was not particularly easy — in fact, it took ten years for PESCO, which was included in the 2007 Treaty on the European Union to emerge. France and Germany in particular had diverging views on the format and objectives of the framework. Two visions clashed: for Germany, PESCO had to be inclusive, in order to strengthen European unity and to keep as many member-states as possible engaged with European defense; for France, the emphasis was put on the ambition and efficiency of PESCO, and building an “avant-garde” of countries to quickly deliver on defense cooperation made more sense.

An agreement between Berlin and Paris, found during the summer 2017, has allowed PESCO to become reality before the end of the year. Except for the U.K. — engaged in leaving the EU — and Denmark — which does not participate in EU Common Security and Defense Policy — only Ireland, Malta, and Portugal did not join PESCO today. The inclusiveness of its format cannot be questioned, nor its legitimacy to represent the strategic diversity of the EU.

All issues have not been resolved however. The real challenge ahead will be to implement concrete projects and enforce the compliance mechanism to ensure that all countries fulfill their commitments. The lack of direct military input in the making-process of PESCO could also weaken its relevance for ground operations. France has already proposed new initiatives — such as the European Intervention Initiative — to complement PESCO and answer some of its shortcomings. 

Poland was one of the countries initially skeptical about PESCO, but in a last minute decision decided to join the initiative and influence from the inside, rather than to remain on the outside and risk losing influence over a key European policy area. Given Poland’s defense potential, political weight, as well as geography, it was clearly important for European partners that the biggest Central European member state joined the initiative. Poland’s concerns over PESCO centered around two issues: the interpretation of “strategic autonomy” and defense industry provisions.

The consensus in Poland is that PESCO should not undermine NATO or lead to weakening of security cooperation with the United States — both of which are critical for security of Poland and other countries of NATO’s Eastern Flank. In her recent speech PM Szydlo said “We want EU who can effectively act in case of a crisis in EU’s neighborhood. However, strategic autonomy should not mean weakening of the European contribution to NATO’s defense and deterrence potential.” Poland also insists that PESCO is not geographically focused only on the South, but instead has a 360 degrees approach to security — just like NATO.

The second major concern with PESCO has to do with the degree of defense industry consolidation that could over time lead to elimination of Poland’s smaller industry. Given Paris and Berlin’s ambitions to create EU-wide champions that can compete within and beyond Europe, there is a question of what might happen to smaller companies that are not yet able to compete globally, but are important for both economic and strategic reasons.

It is positive news that 23 countries, including Poland, decided to join. PESCO could be good news for NATO and for closer transatlantic security cooperation if it is built to strengthen the European pillar within NATO and not as an alternative to NATO — something that is key for Poland, but also many other European countries that deeply value security cooperation with the United States.


Further Reading: Can France and Germany Make PESCO Work as a Process Toward EU Defense?