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The CSDP train leaves the station. So what?

07 Dec 2017 - 16:14
Source: Wikmedia Commons - NL Army Days

Anyone who has recently attended a security or defence conference is likely to have heard EU officials claim that more has been achieved in the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) in the last 12 months than in the previous 12 years. Following last month’s notification to the Council on Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), a development described by High Representative Federica Mogherini as “probably the most important moment for European defence in decades,” she or he is also likely to have heard variations on the EU’s favourite metaphor: the defence train has left the station.

Certainly, there has been substantial movement on defence in the EU. The launch of three internal initiatives – PESCO, the Coordinated Annual Review of Defence (CARD) under the auspices of the European Defence Agency (EDA), and the Commission’s European Defence Action Plan (EDAP), which includes through the European Defence Fund (EDF) the prospect of EU funding for defence for the first time – together with a joint agreement at NATO’s Warsaw Summit on EU-NATO relations offer opportunities for real progress.

Praise for Estonia’s Presidency

Estonia, which currently holds the Presidency of the Council of the EU, has been justifiably praised for its defence agenda. Thrust into the driving seat six months early by the UK’s withdrawal from the rota, Estonia has shrewdly cast its Presidency as one in which key decisions would be taken. And in this, assisted by a refreshed Franco-German motor to drive things forward, the Estonians can claim success. In addition to the formal PESCO decision, which should be taken by the Council this month alongside the agreement of the first list of PESCO projects, the Estonian Presidency’s achievements are also likely to include the expansion of the Athena mechanism for financing the common costs of EU operations, and a Council position on the proposed regulation establishing the European Defence Industrial Development Programme.

The road to real progress in European defence

However, real progress in European defence will not be made in the taking of decisions, but in their implementation (which Estonia can happily leave in the hands of later Presidencies). The fact remains that despite the fanfares, the EU is not measurably closer to being able to meet its military level of ambition than it was when the Global Strategy was launched 18 months ago. The key requirement is for more European military capability. This in turn calls for more and better defence spending by the member states, as well as more cooperation between them. While cooperation is the watchword of the EU’s new defence initiatives, only the coming years will reveal whether these initiatives can motivate the member states to work more closely together; in other words, whether the EU can add value in a field in which accomplishments have been limited and largely due to bi- or mini-lateral, rather than EU-wide, arrangements.

On the face of it, the EU has not made a good start. The PESCO notification text is weak and has been roundly, and rightly, criticised by influential commentators. In the run-up to the launch of PESCO, much has been made of its legally binding nature, but this is only of value if the member states agree to be bound by things that will make a difference. A legally binding lowest common denominator agreement will be little, if at all, better than the entirely voluntary one that exists today.

PESCO: a starting point that can be built upon?

On the other hand, it is fair to note that the PESCO agreement is only a framework – a starting point that can be built upon. In managing the expectations of its stakeholders, the EU has done itself few favours in claiming success when all it is delivering is process. The list of PESCO projects to be published this month will offer better indications of PESCO’s prospects. To be credible, this list will need to contain new commitments, not just the rebadging of existing projects, and projects that will deliver capability to meet the EU’s long-recognised capability shortfalls, not just projects that enhance operational cooperation. Regrettably, early indications are that the projects to be put to the December Council will only partially meet these criteria.

It should also be recalled that PESCO is part of a package. There is a great deal of sense in the idea that requirements are identified by the EDA’s Capability Development Plan, that PESCO provides a framework for delivery of these requirements, that the EDF serves as financial underpinning, and that CARD provides a forum for review and corrective action.

Another measure of success, then, will be the extent to which this package works together. The EU institutions insist that cooperation among themselves is excellent, but the tendency of organisations to advance and protect their own interests at the expense of the greater good is well-documented. As an example, while it might have been sensible for an exclusive PESCO containing just a handful of member states to conduct a dedicated review process, it is questionable that a PESCO of (probably) 25 member states should require both an annual review of national implementation plans inside PESCO and a CARD process outside it. Some attention will need to be paid to this and other points at which the institutions rub against each other.

There will be other key tests of implementation too, for example the extent to which the review processes will be able to spotlight the performance of individual member states, rather than the collective performance that less enthusiastic individual states can hide behind (note here that the only quantified commitments in the PESCO notification are annotated “collective benchmark”) and the degree to which the industrial interests of the smaller member states can be satisfied by the EDAP. Frustratingly, 19 years since the EU defence dimension was launched at St Malo, it is still too early to know if this venture can succeed.

Towards a meaningful destination

It does not matter if the defence train has left the station. What matters is that those on board find the will to ensure it reaches a meaningful destination soon, rather than endlessly circling the same tracks.

Tony Lawrence is a Research Fellow at the International Centre for Defence and Security, Tallinn, Estonia. The views expressed here are his own.

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