PESCO was designed to help plug the gaps in Europe’s military capabilities. In November, EU countries agreed to add 14 new initiatives, ranging from relatively mundane upgrades such as training facility improvements and cyber-security tweaks, to building a new ‘Strategic Air Transport for Outsized Cargo’.

View from Brussels: The best offence is a good defence

Image credit: Dreamstime

The European Union does not have an army, contrary to what you may have heard. But that has not stopped Brussels from piling investments into the defence sector. More radical forays into everything military might also be on the horizon.

Ever since 2017, the EU’s member countries have been able to band together under one scheme known as PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation), in a bid to upgrade and improve their respective military might.

Europe’s armed forces still march under their national banners, but they regularly go on manoeuvres together and, if crunch time were ever to arrive, would have to team up to counter attacks.

Compatibility issues have affected some of these joint missions in the past, including ammunition that does not work with all weapons, transport vehicle spare parts not fitting properly and so on.

PESCO was designed to correct those errors and help plug the gaps in Europe’s military capabilities. In November, the list of defence projects eligible for funding grew, as EU countries agreed to add 14 new initiatives.

They range from relatively mundane upgrades such as training facility improvements and cyber-security tweaks, to building a new ‘Strategic Air Transport for Outsized Cargo’, a capability that Nato armies are currently short on.

Germany, the Czech Republic, France, the Netherlands and Slovenia have teamed up to look into that particular project. The timeline aims for studies to wrap up by 2026, before actual work begins on building a new aircraft.

Interestingly, the scheme is open to non-EU countries, in what may prove to be an open invitation to close European neighbours Norway and the United Kingdom.

However, of the now-60 defence projects included on the PESCO list, just one has been finalised by the 25 EU members that take part (Malta and Sweden have so far declined to sign up). That has led critics to complain that EU defence policy has no urgency.

According to the European Council, the latest update to the defence project list comes with strings attached. Progress will be monitored, and recommendations issued if initiatives are behind schedule or not allocated sufficient resources.

“European defence is no longer an option. It must come of age. The only question is ‘when’. And we will be ready,” insists EU commissioner Thierry Breton, who is tasked with overseeing defence policy.

PESCO projects can be co-funded by the European Defence Fund (EDF), a relatively new tool embedded within the EU’s big trillion-euro-strong budget. It has about €8 billion to dish out between now and 2027.

That is just a drop in the ocean when the EU has ambitions to develop a new heavy-duty transport aircraft, autonomous warships, and next-gen armed drones, so national governments are expected to pick up the rest of the bill.

A far bigger budget could soon be coming the way of the defence sector though, as the European Commission’s fairly successful first foray into borrowing hundreds of billions of euros for pandemic-recovery policies starts to pay off.

According to an article published in Foreign Affairs by Max Bergmann – a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress – and Benjamin Haddad – senior director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council – the EU should borrow €100 billion and pump it into defence.

“Such additional stimulus funding would boost Europe’s economic recovery and supercharge European defence efforts, transforming Europe’s ability to defend itself and allowing it to partner with Nato and the United States on a more equal footing,” they write.

The article cites the recent withdrawal by US troops from Afghanistan and tensions between France, the United Kingdom and Australia over a botched submarine deal as recent examples of defence policy topping the list of priorities.

It is questionable whether the idea could ever work in practice, as not every EU country is convinced that joint debt under the umbrella of the triple-A-rated European Commission is a good plan that can be repeated more than once.

Advocates of joint borrowing insist that the €800bn-strong recovery instrument can be used again and even converted into a financial instrument that could pay from the EU’s transition to green energy.

Bolting on another fund to pay for defence policy would be a hard sell and probably rely on the blessing of France – most likely a given, due to its vested interests in the sector – and Germany, which now has a new government.

Next year will be a defining period for the EU’s defence ambitions. The Commission is hosting a big summit in the first half of 2022 entirely dedicated to the issue and France will chair the six-month-long presidency of the Council.

External events such as Russia’s unpredictable behaviour towards Ukraine and the continuing crisis on the Polish-Belarus border might also force the EU’s hand.

More cash is not the full extent of ambitions in Brussels either. Defence chief Thierry Breton says “we must go even further in order to establish a genuine European capability plan in order to jointly define needs, establish joint procurement strategies and ensure consistency between the various national plans.”

Breton is pushing for a “security and defence doctrine”, which would emphatically spell out where the EU should intervene and where it should complement Nato missions. A renewal of ties with the military alliance is now on the cards.

The plan would also involve setting up what Breton calls “a military projection force,” which would be “operational, flexible and can be mobilised quickly”. There has never been enough appetite to set up what has been dubbed an “EU army”, but perceptions may have shifted.

Brussels is slowly but surely following up its rhetoric on improving European defence capabilities with tangible actions, reflecting the uncertain and unstable times we are living through.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles