“After visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, Scrooge most fears the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. When he sees what this spirit has to show him, Scrooge begs to know whether the course of events can be changed: "Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Scrooge. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!"
Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”
Alphen, Netherlands. 18 December. It must be Christmas! The Brexit Twitter Fairies are about. This week I have been assailed for daring to suggest that last week’s European Council decision to proceed with PESCO doth not a European Army make. One Twitter assailant went as far as to suggest that ALL of Europe’s armed forces will soon be under the command of the President of the European Commission. This is a Dickens of a vision; Jean-Claude Cognac’s addled finger on the ‘European’ nuclear button after a particularly bibulous Christmas breakfast. It is enough to invoke the Ghost of Apocalypses Past, Present, and feared for future. The problem with PESCO is that it is now hopelessly entangled in Britain with Brexit (as is everything else these days). Or, to put it another way, the EU’s not-really Army is now tied up with Britain’s not-quite Brexit. You see, Brexit at its extremes (which is all we tend to get) is now a quintessential struggle between Hard Remoaners and their vision of an EU that would afford perpetual prosperity but only if citizens willingly sacrifice liberty and sovereignty, against Hard Brexiteers who promise unfettered British sovereignty and liberty but only at the profound risk of national prosperity. This explains the building sense of betrayal amongst those who dreamed of HMS Britannia setting sail again into distant geopolitics unfettered by Holy Brussels bulls and bureaucrats. So, after two weeks of divorce and defence where is Britain and ‘Europe’? Let me try and disentangle Brexit from PESCO in an attempt to make some sense of both.
Hard Remoaners and Hard Brexiteers are wrong. Britain is not really going to ‘leave’ the EU as currently constituted, and will always to some extent orbit around the EU, if for no other reason than that is how power works. This not-quite Brexit was admitted to this week by none other than Chancellor Philip Hammond, the City of London’s Anointed Representative on Earth, who suggested that a not-quite post-Brexit ‘transition period’ would last ‘at least’ two years. In other words, for ‘at least’ two years Britain, as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson suggested, would be little more than a vassal state or colony of the EU, subject to its rules but with no say over them. Thereafter? There is no such thing as complete sovereignty in this world for any state that deems itself part of the Western institutional system, even the mighty United States.
So, is a not-quite Brexit even worth a McCawber (read your Dickens!)? Well, yes. Remember the 1992 Maastricht Treaty (what eventually became the 1993 Treaty of European Union)? Britain, after another particularly rancorous domestic debate over ‘Europe’, eventually engineered an opt-out from the so-called Social Chapter, and in so doing established a political and legal precedent for British political and legal exceptionalism. It is happening again as so-called ‘convergers’ battle within Theresa May’s wonky Cabinet with so-called ‘divergers’.
In other words, it is becoming increasingly clear that the aim of May’s Brexit is not some political divorce decree absolute, but rather as a super opt out from a possible future, more politically, economically and security-integrated EU. In other words, the Brexit May is offering is deeply unappealing to Hard Brexiteers when they look at today’s EU, but inevitably Britain will diverge politically from an EU that could well go to a political place Britain was never going to go. Indeed, it is the EU that in future will and probably must diverge politically from the UK if its institutions are to be made to work.
Last week’s defeat of the British Government over the supremacy of Parliament hinted at this future divergence and where the law of the land must ultimately reside. Enshrined at the heart of the EU is a Richelieu-esque principle against which the English once fought a civil war and the Americans fought a revolution; that distant, bureaucratic executive power over which citizens have no direct say and which enshrined in hybrid treaties that straddle domestic and international law are supreme over national democratic institutions. Parliament has dimmed over the years as it rubber-stamped itself out of supremacy by passing sovereignty to Brussels. If sovereignty is to be repatriated it is Parliament, not the Executive which must be supreme.
PESCO, or permanent structured co-operation, is some great leap forward on the road to a United States of Europe, whatever Martin Schulz the deluded leader of Germany’s SPD might claim. However, if properly funded it could become an important step towards more effective and efficient European armed forces, to which Britain’s still powerful armed forces will choose its relationship. I say ‘powerful’, Britain’s armed forces will soon cease to be so if Spreadsheet Philip ‘City’ Hammond and his mates at the Treasury continue to destroy Britain’s armed forces in their hard-line ideological pursuit of sound money. Vladimir Hammond? The weaker militarily Britain chooses to become the stronger militarily Britain makes a weak Russia.
Yes, the language of PESCO, with its hints of a sometime European Defence Union does indeed smack at time of the federalist ambitions beloved of the Brussels Euro-Aristocracy. Then again every single EU document since the 1950 European Coal and Steel Community has included such Monnet-esque verbiage. In fact, in defence terms PESCO’s provisions are surprisingly and dangerously modest. The real problem with PESCO is that it simply the Ghost of European Defence Past re-packaged by people not very serious about defence. Yes, seventeen projects across a sweep of mainly combat support services will help alleviate some desperately dangerous lacunae in Europe’s military capabilities and capabilities. Yes, the idea of national implementation plans are useful, although as with NATO’s Defence Planning Process there is no enforcer to ensure compliance. Yes, the European Defence Fund, the European Defence Industrial Development Programme and the Athena Mechanism for financing common costs of EU military missions and operations are to be welcomed.
However, the level of strategic and political ambition implicit in PESCO simply does not match the seriousness of the threat implicit and explicit in the 360 degree security environment in which Europeans reside. To put PESCO in perspective at €5bn per year until 2020, and then €500m per year thereafter, the European Defence Fund would just about pay for one and a half new British aircraft carriers. Indeed, perhaps the most important thing to come out of PESCO is the agreement to create a ‘military Schengen’ to aid enhanced military mobility in the event on an emergency. And, Dublin’s final and irrevocable, albeit backdoor abandonment of any pretence that Ireland is a neutral country.
So, if I act as a translator of EU-speak, a role for which I am particularly well-versed, what PESCO really means in plain, Yorkshire English is thus:
Although at the 2014 NATO Wales Summit most of us signed up to spending 2% GDP on defence by 2024, of which 20% must be spent each year on new equipment, we did not actually mean it. We did so because the Yanks were going through one of their every-now-and-then tantrums about low European defence spending and the unfair sharing of burdens. In any case we knew President Obama was already by then political toast and it made David Cameron look ever so slightly in power as well as in office. Many of us also no longer believe there really is a world beyond the EU and therefore need not bother with it, but still need the Yank taxpayer to defend us just in case President Putin and his mates imbibe a bit too much Yuletide Stolichnaya. So, PESCO gives us a get out of Wales free card by letting us pretend we are serious about defence by restating that old roasted defence Christmas chestnut that we will do ever more defending with ever less money, by also pretending we really are going to integrate what is left of our armed forces. We then enshrine it one of those pre-Christmas, post-champagne EU summits by giving an old lower case concept – permanent structured co-operation – a new upper case acronym – PESCO. We then all drive home for Christmas having convinced ourselves that words mean action and therefore must be true and we open some Christmas crackers to find one of those terrible European jokes. When is defence not defence? When it has gone all a-PESCO.
Brexit and PESCO
Europe’s hard defence reality will not be fixed by PESCO and must not be worsened by Brexit. That reality is a stark one given growing US global military over-stretch, the growing threats Europeans face, and the fact that the UK provides 25% of all European defence investment, 30% of all defence research technology, and 35% of all high-end deployable European combat forces (the Royal Marines Mr Hammond?). Europe’s massive defence deficit will only stand a chance of being closed if Britain continues to play a full role in the defence of Europe and Europeans finally get really serious about hard power and how to generate it.
In other words, Europe needs more PESCO not less, and it poses no threat to NATO because unless the US is going to replace the UK in the EU the Alliance will remain the supreme purveyor of defence for Europe unless and until the Americans finally become so fed up with free-riding Europeans they tell the Allies to take a strategic hike. Then and only then could something like PESCO become a precursor for some kind of European Army, and only if Brussels really is the capital of a country called ‘Europe’. Why? Because a European Army would need a European Government if it was ever to be used. Not only is ‘Europe’ a very long way from creating such a country, read PESCO properly (so few do) and it is clear that for the indefinite future Europe’s armed forces will remain under the command of the member-states and the governments and parliaments that rule them and most decidedly not the European Commission.
Europe’s ‘Army’, PESCO & Britain’s Super Opt-Out
Perhaps the most sensible commentary I read this week came from my friend Ambassador Stefano Stefanini, the former Italian Permanent Representative to NATO, and Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, head of the Munich Security Conference and former German Ambassador to the United States. In a piece last week that appeared in both La Stampa and on the website of the Munich Security Conference, entitled “There is More at Stake in Brexit than Trade”, the two ambassadors injected a note of realism into the Brexit/PESCO debate. For both sides of the Channel a simple reality check will make it obvious. Between 25 and 30% of overall EU military capabilities fly the Union Jack: it is too little for the UK to stand alone; it is too much for the EU to do without. In times of shifting geopolitics, growing and multiple threats, and budget constraints, London should not delude itself and Brussels should not be in denial. European security of course will continue relying on NATO, with the UK's full participation, but there are and there will be operations carried out by European forces only, for instance in Africa or in the Mediterranean. London is hinting at supporting a credible European defence structure and capabilities, as long as they do not amount to "vanity fair". In exchange we believe that the UK should get a comprehensive and generous offer from the EU to be associated with it, including access to the European Defence Fund and to the EU Defence Industrial Development Programme.
So, Brexiteers, calm down there will be no European Army, no Supreme Commander Cognac…and no European defence without Britain. Remoaners? Buy a bloody atlas!