Time and time again, the European Union (EU) has been challenged by competing pressures. Originally a purely economic pact made in 1951 by just six countries, the EU evolved into a much larger and more influential political union which now has twenty-eight member states.
Throughout its existence, the EU has reinvented itself more times than Madonna, giving several members of this private club some increasingly complex commitment issues. This points, of course, to the issue of Brexit and its impact on the EU’s image and strength as a union. It is amid such a climate that the EU revealed its plan to forge an EU army, making strides towards a more federalist structure. The 23 EU-member states gathered on November 13th last year and signed a declaration officially calling for a ‘joint army’, in the hope of increasing the efficiency with which the EU will be able to create a quick reaction force and to develop tanks and drones. A month later, these plans were formalised and launched as PESCO, short for the Permanent Structured Cooperation.
One of the EU Army’s most fervent champions has been French President Emmanuel Macron, who stated in his September speech that, “in the area of defence, our aim needs to be ensuring Europe’s autonomous operating capabilities, in complement to NATO”. Within this context, President Macron has called for the establishment of “a common intervention force, a common defence budget and a common doctrine for action”, which would give the bloc “autonomous capacity for action” by 2030.
A long-seated initiative, the European Commission (EC) had already begun preparing the project’s financial support earlier in 2017. In an attempt to incentivise EU-member countries to cooperate in terms of defence procurement, the EC launched a European Defence fund amounting to €5.5 billion per year. As such, spending for this initiative aims to be pooled, so that those involved will develop their forces in tandem, both in time and military equipment.
Praised by the EU’s foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, the announcement of an EU defence agreement sparked some internal concerns too. Initially, Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Malta and Portugal all stated they would not join the pact, presumably deterred by the financial obligations PESCO members will need to adhere to. But last month the Cooperation was nevertheless launched, with only Denmark, Malta and ‘Brexit Britain’ opting out.
US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, met with his EU counterparts in Brussels in early December, where further cooperation between NATO and any EU armed force was discussed. A key part of this meeting tackled the issue of Russian aggression: the country’s 2014 annexation of Crimea left European countries anxious about wider regional security and their capacity to ensure it collectively. US support for an EU army amidst Donald Trump’s criticisms of Europe not pulling its weight with defense spending – as well as a willingness to reduce Europe’s military reliance on the US – may also have accelerated the signing of the pact.
And so NATO and EU forces are looking to deepen their alliance and coordination to better deal with possible regional threats. The inability for NATO troops to move around Europe freely has been a central cause for concern for this institution. But with PESCO in place as its ally, NATO could rely on the EU troops to more efficiently mobilise against a mutual foe. As NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg explained ahead of this meeting, “Our aim is to make military mobility a new flagship for our cooperation”. But what could this mean for regional stability?
A freshly militarised and deeply coordinated EU defence force certainly holds the potential to unsettle neighbouring powers, like Russia which according to RT has been “watching developments closely”. Yet some reservations are in order surrounding PESCO’s administrative and logistical progress, which has so far been gradual. A project this momentous will require a considerable amount of time to implement and several additional years to accurately measure its effectiveness.
Perhaps the richest significance of PESCO is to do with EU identity – while Brexit has already marked a deep scar on the EU project, it also paved the way for the EU to go ahead with its blueprint for further cooperation and integration. When the pact was launched on December 14, European Council President Donald Tusk was defiant, describing it as a “bad day for our enemies” and a dream which has become reality.
A poignant illustration of the EU’s newly founded identity post-Brexit, the project’s sharply French undertones are indicative of a shift in power dynamics in the region, with Macron fashioning himself as the main architect of this momentous plan, especially amid Merkel’s domestic battle for power. Whatever teething problems the project may encounter along the way, the PESCO agreement undoubtedly marks a renewed drive in the EU project’s history – for a stronger and more united entity seeking to rebuild its strength in yet another wave of acute euroscepticism.