“The difference between a republic and an empire is the loyalty of one’s army”.
Gauis Julius Caesar
Alphen, Netherlands. 17 November. Here we go again! Another EU defence initiative that promises a roaring lion, but delivers a squeaking mouse. PESCO, or permanent structured co-operation, was launched amidst the usual political fanfare, as have so many such initiatives over the years. With its ‘voluntary’ projects across the operational and defence-industrial landscape for those EU member-states willing to co-operate PESCO is meant to pave the way to an eventual European Defence Union or EDU, even though the €5bn ($6.5bn) on offer to realise such a goal is by defence standards not even paltry. Rather, PESCO echoes the failed 1952-1954 European Defence Community (see my Oxford Chronology of European Security and Defence, which is brilliant and very reasonably-priced). Is PESCO any different from its failed predecessors? Europe certainly needs to address its appalling defence deficit.
Let me put PESCO in its very hard strategic context. In the forthcoming new and massive GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Report, for which I am lead writer and which will be published later this month, the facts are clear. The United States provides 75% of Alliance forces and pays some 68% of the cost. The 70:30 Alliance defence investment split between the US and its allies is simply unsustainable. If NATO is to survive sooner rather than later Europeans must shoulder at least 50% of Europe’s defence burden. That means, at the very least, all NATO Europeans (and others) meeting the solemn pledge they all made at the 2014 NATO Wales Summit to spend by 2024 2% GDP on defence, of which 20% each year would be spent on new equipment. If Europeans honoured the Defence Investment Pledge or DIP they would release an extra $100bn into the European defence effort each year. That is the order of magnitude of defence investment needed to make PESCO more than yet another political alibi for collective defence pretence.
For the record, I am not one of those Brits who is implacably opposed to a strong NATO-friendly EU defence role. And, whether more and better European defence spending is EU or NATO-focused I am pretty much beyond caring, if at last it leads to a strategically-responsible Europe. I am also an expert. My PhD in Florence was on this precise topic, and I was one of the many architects of the ‘breakthrough’ November 1998 St Malo Declaration (if you do not believe me read my piece in the June 1998 edition of New Statesman entitled Time to Bite the Eurobullet). Back in the day (I think that is the fashionable way of saying some time ago) I was also lead writer for the famous, if slightly unfortunately named Venusberg Group and its many reports on EU security and defence. To top all that I worked for the EU on this very issue.
Furthermore, if PESCO did indeed lead to an enhanced and more autonomous European pillar of a revamped post-Brexit NATO, and helped to make European defence industries more than the scam on taxpayers too many of them are, then all well and good. However, this PESCO will not realise that aim. Or, to put it another way, PESCO is yet another one of those unfunded aspirations, politics dressed up as strategy, political pretence masquerading as European defence démarches that the EU often resorts to when facing a crisis - in this case Brexit.
It is only by reading between PESCO’s lines do the real political objectives become apparent. At the risk of scrambling my acronyms, far from a decisive move towards an EDU PESCO has been created to avoid the DIP and thus offer a way out for those many NATO Europeans now reneging on the Wales pledge. PESCO does that by implying that deeper European defence integration could in time lead to the same ‘Wales’ defence outcomes albeit at lower levels of investment via better spending.
PESCO, as with all such EU initiatives, is also all things to all 23 signatories, all of which want something different from it, and none of whom are prepared to spend the money needed to close the gap between lofty language and Europe’s failing defence. Indeed, the suggestion by German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen that PESCO is somehow Europeans taking responsibility for their own defence in the face of a capricious American president is simply nonsense, defence pretence at its worst.
The main PESCO players also want different things. Berlin wants to avoid defence leadership at all costs for fear of history and the EU looking even more like a putative German Empire. Germany is also acutely aware that if Berlin honours its DIP commitment to spend 2% on defence that would mean a Bundeswehr with a budget of some $70bn per annum, dwarfing the British and French defence budgets. It would not only be the German people who would be uncomfortable with that. PESCO is for the Germans a defence alibi and, frankly, one that is understandable.
France, on the other hand, sees PESCO very differently. With echoes of its Gaullist traditions Paris wants an autonomous European military core group that would support France and its expeditionary missions. However, for all President Macron’s talk of a European Defence Union, France will never permit its armed forces to be submerged into some kind of European Army. The most important defence-strategic relationship for France is with the non-PESCO pesky Brits, Europe’s other nuclear and power projection power – Brexit or no Brexit. The rest? They are all either broke, have no strategic tradition to speak of, or suffer strategically-illiterate political leaders who would simply like nasty things like defence to go away. Only those on the front-lines of European defence, such as the Baltic States and Poland, really understand or believe that credible European military force matters any more.
PESCO will also fail. There is a fatal tension between the stated strategic objectives of PESCO and its proposed political and military structures. If a group of countries begin to move towards a more common defence by creating a more integrated military force, its timely use at a time of crisis can only be ensured by a more integration command structure. To be credible either as a deterrent or a defence such a force would also need integration to go to the very top of supreme political authority. In other words, PESCO, and by extension EDU, would need a European government. If not, 23 separate states are unlikely ever to agree to their people being sent into harm’s way unless it is for a very ‘permissive operation’, i.e. not dangerous at all, or World War Three, in which case Europeans would turn desperately to NATO and America. The same problem bedevilled the once much-heralded, but now forgotten EU Battlegroups, which one French military friend of mine calls “EU lunch groups”.
One of the perks of my job is I get to go places. On Wednesday I sat on a bench above Rome’s Circus Maximus, where once chariots raced to the death, gazing up at the mighty remains on the Colis Palatinus where in quick historical succession Caesar Augustus, Tiberius, Nero and Domitian built their enormous imperial palace. And yet it lies in ruin. Rotten from within self-obsessed Rome eventually fell because it had lost the will to defend either its interests or its values, unable to afford the means for its own defence in a world no longer in awe of Roman power. Europe? Europe is already a continent of self-willed decliners. And, as Caesar implied, for the use of force to be credible the people on whose behalf it is used must believe it to be legitimate. Like it or not, and as of yet, not enough Europeans want the EU to defend them. Consequently, like so many ghosts of EU defence past PESCO will vanish down the PLUG-OLE of history.
If PESCO would help Europeans begin to close the yawning gap between what they need to spend on their own defence, and what they are willing or able to spend then OK. It is European weakness as much as Russian ‘strength’ that is helping to de-stabilise Europe’s eastern flank. However, even a cursory analysis suggests that PESCO is simply another a bit of re-heated old EU freezer fodder bought from the defence equivalent of LIDL. You see the real problem of PESCO is that EU leaders do not mean what they say. If they did they would vote the means to realise their vision, not simply talk endlessly about the ends and the ways of it, like some scene in some ghastly arty European sequel to Bill Murray’s film Groundhog Day.
Still, at least PESCO has EUtopian fantasists excited. For them PESCO is nothing to do with the defence of Europe (it never is). It is all about who or what governs Europe. Plus ça change…