Defense and security cooperation in Europe
Ever since the abortive European Defence Community of 1952 and the underperformed Western European Union of 1955, based on the Brussels Treaty of 1948, European states have tried several times to come up with a joint security and defense structure. Yet this seemingly shared desire was never transformed into a full-fledged military alliance, and only the end of the Cold War could finally pave the way for the creation of the Common Security and Defense Policy within the EU with the signing of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, replacing the earlier European Security and Defense Policy, which was created by the 1999 Helsinki Summit.
Although the Lisbon Treaty set out a plan to create a permanent structured cooperation, both internal and international developments have undermined the materialization of it. Following growing tension with Russia after its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its increased aggression near EU borders, several terrorist attacks in various European capitals, increased refugee flow in the recent years and the constant pressure from the U.S. on sharing burden of defense spending after the election of Donald Trump as president, the European Council finally decided on Dec. 11, 2017 to establish the Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defense (PESCO), as initially outlined in the Treaty of EU in 2009.
While three member states, including the U.K., Denmark and Malta, have opted out of the EU’s latest scheme on security and defense cooperation, the remaining 25 participating states have agreed on a list of “ambitious and binding common commitments” in areas ranging from the level of expenditure on defense equipment, through aligning their defense apparatus with each other, to take concrete measures to enhance their operational readiness, and to take part in the development of European equipment programs within the framework of the European Defence Agency.
The initial projects within PESCO will focus on capability development, training and operational dimensions such as establishing European medical command, setting up an information-sharing platform against cyber threats and for incident response, working on military mobility and upgrading maritime surveillance.
Although time will tell whether this time voluntary collaboration between European states on defense and security issues will finally work and increase the EU’s overall standing position in international politics along the way, as High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini has said when commenting on PESCO that there exists a “strong need for the European Union to be active as a reference [and] as a player, as others are taking different directions.”
While Trump has kept his criticism toward European free-riders, thus increasing the uncertainty over Europe’s reliance on the U.S. security umbrella, he encouraged European leaders to take the final step to set up their own program. The history of European cooperation on defense and security issues do not lend much credence to their latest attempt, more so as three members stayed out right from the beginning, and the U.K. is also on its way to move out of the EU.
It might be too early to discuss whether PESCO will challenge or complement NATO in European defense; it could give an impetus to the proponents of a more integrated but flexible union in the midst of debates over how Brexit would affect the EU, rather than the traditional one-size-fits-all integration idea. Both sides, however, hope that the EU has finally hit the right formula on cooperation in defense and security areas, despite its poor record so far.