EU ‘Strategic Autonomy’ and the Ambition of PESCO

Main Image Credit Soldiers from EU countries outside the European Parliament. Courtesy of European Parliament Multimedia Centre

The EU is trying to transition from its perceived status as a ‘soft power’ actor in defence, focussing on civilian crisis management and regulation of the European defence market, to a mix of soft and hard power to enable its ‘strategic autonomy’. However, the inability of the EU to clearly define its criteria for strategic autonomy has the potential to affect not only this ambition, but also the interplay between the EU and NATO.

Momentum for Change

The desire for closer European defence cooperation has gained momentum in response to a challenging geo-political climate, including an assertive Russia, ambiguity concerning US President Donald Trump’s commitment to the enduring American security pledge to Europe, the pressures of immigration, and the UK’s forthcoming exit from the EU. This momentum has translated into tangible institutional initiatives after a long period of political apathy.

The 2016 EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy sought to address some of these challenges by providing an overarching strategic vision for the EU’s global role, as well as the means to achieve it. It emphasised the EU’s need to steer towards ‘strategic autonomy’ in decisions and actions, looking to its members rather than external actors to guarantee Europe’s safety and interests. However, the EU’s definition of strategic autonomy is vague, with references to assisting partners, responding to external crises, protecting Europe and protecting its members upon their request, yet little detail concerning the number or scale of operations. The EU also recognises the primacy of NATO as the pillar of security for its members, suggesting that territorial defence will not be a core component of the EU’s notion of strategic autonomy. Conceptualising strategic autonomy as falling short of territorial defence seems peculiar, as filling capability gaps through improved defence cooperation in Europe and the generation of a European Battlegroup is at the heart of the initiatives. This lack of detail in determining the appropriate level of ambition will inevitably filter down to EU initiatives where the end goals will be ill-defined along a potential scale of activity existing below collective territorial defence.

The Ambition of PESCO

Clarity on this point should serve as guidance for ‘Permanent Structured Cooperation’ (PESCO) a treaty-based framework where EU member states voluntarily enter into more binding commitments to ‘jointly develop defence capabilities, invest in shared projects, or create multinational formations’. PESCO is a crucial mechanism for the fulfilment of strategic autonomy through deeper EU member cooperation and joint capability development. It addresses some of the weaknesses of the Common Security and Defence Policy by providing a legally binding framework to hold members to their commitments, mechanisms to assess compliance, and top down coordination.

One way to judge the direction of the EU’s strategic ambition is to look at the first round of chosen PESCO projects. The seventeen projects selected from a list of 50 reveal a preference for developing capabilities that can be utilised in crisis management, with a high proportion of southern EU states either leading or participating in the projects. Clear gaps in mission-critical areas such as strategic airlift and air-to-air refuelling have not been prioritised; in fact, many of the agreed projects would have been pursued with or without PESCO, suggesting that compensating for national shortfalls has been the primary aim. A glimpse of the next batch of projects, due to be announced in November of this year, will permit a further assessment of PESCO’s future level of ambition.

The French-led European Intervention Initiative (EII), envisaging the creation of a European military force for rapid deployment, was initially touted as part of the PESCO arrangements. However, PESCO’s inclusion of 28 member states (a reflection of Germany’s inclusive vision, as opposed to France’s preference for a core group of states) was seen as a challenge that would obstruct timely decision making. EII instead exists as a mechanism outside of PESCO and the EU structures, and consists of nine states including the UK. These developments have led some analysts to perceive a watering down of the initial aspirations of PESCO and wider EU initiatives.

Strategic Autonomy?

PESCO, along with the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence and the European Defence Fundare seen as the comprehensive defence package, offering complementary and mutually reinforcing tools to aid member states in civilian missions and military operations, the joint development of defence capabilities and deeper EU defence industrial cooperation. However, they have not demonstrated the ambition to enable strategic autonomy in the political, operational and industrial sphere in response to the range of threats facing Europe today. More importantly, the ambiguity around the purpose and goals of PESCO risks the future of EU–NATO relations, a subject that will be one of the priorities at the NATO summit this month.

Although improvements in defence cooperation have been achieved in a relatively short span of time, the mismatch between the political rhetoric of strategic autonomy and the reality of what the EU can achieve now and in the immediate future is unhelpful.

The reality is that the EU must harmonise its own initiatives and capability plans with those of NATO, especially the NATO Defence Planning Process, to avoid duplication and the potential undermining of NATO’s defence and security role. It is a difficult balancing act, and one that the EU has yet to master.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution. 


Dr Lauren Twort

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