This author is on the record saying that the new EU avant-garde on defence, or PESCO, will be a good thing on balance. It will make governments somewhat more likely to raise military budgets and buy weapons jointly, potentially reducing costs. But could the European Union have done better? What if the member-states were to think afresh on what they needed in case of conflict?
That was not the exam question before PESCO drafters. They had to juggle at least four different expectations. Most defence thinkers in Europe want stronger armed forces because the world has become a more dangerous place, while others are happy with any defence breakthrough as long as it advances the broader cause of EU integration. The defence companies look to Brussels to protect them from competition from the US, while yet others just want to put more distance between Europe and NATO (and, by extension, the US). These different motivations explain why all EU defence conclusions come across as disjointed. The PESCO launch document says that the EU needs more deployable forces; yet a few paragraphs later the text hints at restricting access to EU defence orders for non-EU (US, Israeli) firms – this will likely create a seller’s market, driving up the per-unit cost of defence equipment, meaning that governments will be able to afford fewer, not more, forces (assuming constant budgets).
Diplomats among the readers will point out that internal inconsistency is the price one pays for consensus. True, but only up to a point. If any of the member-states is ever attacked, the EU response must not be found wanting. Substantive outcomes do matter, in wars arguably especially so.
Were money, industrial concerns and the politics of EU integration not be an issue, what, if not PESCO, should the EU governments do to make their people more secure? Here’s my quick top three list:
- A Brexit deal with London that enables the UK to participate in future EU military missions and its companies to take part in EU defence equipment projects. Britain will want meaningful say in how EU operations are designed and commanded. While the UK’s collective defence needs will always be looked after by NATO, the EU can ill afford to lose the ability to call on one of continent’s only two true global military players, and the maker of some of Europe’s most advanced weapons.
- An agreement with NATO that allows the EU to make use of the Alliance’s commands and commonly owned weapons (such as Predator drones and C-17 transport aircraft) for operations in which NATO as a whole is not engaged. This would be insurance for situations when EU countries feel threatened and want to act, but the US demurs – a very unlikely prospect until recently, but one that Donald Trump’s arrival has made a possibility. Those assets – the command network with its defence planners in particular – could be indispensable in cases of large conflict.
- New, much stricter rules, coupled with enforcement, on protection of critical infrastructure against cyber-attacks. This seems like an outlier amidst otherwise military ambitions. But in wars, adversaries chose paths of least resistance and maximum effect. The growing dependence of banking, transportation, healthcare, energy and finance on the Internet, coupled with patchy protection of said systems against attacks, make us uniquely vulnerable. In future conflicts, expect EU countries’ civilian infrastructure to come under attack hard and fast; the goal will be to paralyze the governments’ ability to make decisions, to turn populations against the governments, and force the latter to sue for peace on enemy’s terms. The vulnerability of critical infrastructure should be treated as national security emergency.
This is a wish list, blissfully ignorant of the exigencies of aligning 28 viewpoints. It is not meant to imply that PESCO will not be useful. Some of its provisions, such as co-financing of defence procurement from common EU funds, or its call for more uniform military standards, should make anyone’s top 10 list.
My point is that that far too much has been made of PESCO. Its drafters sought to satisfy too many constituencies, and ended up pleasing very few. It will make modest contributions to EU defenses, but much more could and arguably should have been done.