The EU’s PESCO initiative and differentiated cooperation in security and defence

In a recent article, Benjamin Martill and Carmen Gebhard seek to clarify the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) initiative in security and defence. They show that PESCO has been designed, through flexible forms of differentiated cooperation, to work around some of the perennial challenges of European defence. 

European security and defence issues have dominated the headlines of late, with Russia’s war in Ukraine having re-energised talk of Europe’s position in the global order and its actorness in the security domain.

But European security collaboration suffers from some perennial challenges that have yet to be overcome, even amidst the current conflict.

Member states hold different views on how best to respond to the crisis, and whether or not to prioritise negotiation and diplomacy (like France) or more active containment (such as Poland).

The EU’s institutional structures can work to exacerbate the impact of minor differences, because the unanimity requirement allows any individual member state to veto a common EU position or operation.

And the institutional architecture is complex, with a multitude of bilateral and multilateral initiatives and actors, overlap between the EU and NATO, and significant gaps in the membership of both organisations.

How can the EU become a more active security and defence player against this backdrop of institutional complexity and member state divergence? Given the current stakes, the question is an important one.

PESCO and the principle of differentiation

One solution can be found in the recent Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) initiative, launched in 2017 as a way of allowing smaller groupings of member states to move forwards in security and defence initiatives.

Initially built into the Lisbon Treaty, PESCO remained dormant until the Brexit vote in June 2016 spurred soul searching in Brussels on Europe’s actorness and enabled further movement in the defence domain.

At the heart of PESCO is the idea of differentiation, the variegated application of Union policies across countries. While the selective membership aspect of PESCO received the most attention, differentiation in PESCO operates on multiple levels.

While previous examples of differentiation in security and defence, like the Danish opt-out, arguably rendered the policy area more complex, differentiation in PESCO – as we show in a recent study – has been shaped by the member states to adapt the initiative for the complex political and institutional environment of European defence.

Selectivity in membership

Initial designs on PESCO imagined a ‘vanguardist’ concept in which a small number of major defence players could agree on ambitious defence-industrial initiatives and establish a platform for joint operations. But this Anglo-French model was seen as problematic by some member states, especially Germany, which preferred a more inclusive design.

When PESCO launched in 2017 the agreed format was closer to Berlin’s preferences for an ‘inclusive’ design, with a far broader membership envisaged. In the end, 25 of the EU’s then 28 states signed up to PESCO, with neutral Malta, the soon-to-be departing UK and opt-out possessing Denmark the only countries not participating.

French designs on a more effective operational platform did not disappear, but were arguably resurrected in President Emmanuel Macron’s ‘European Intervention Initiative’ (EI2), which was sold as a more exclusive platform for major European defence actors.

Project-based clustering

One consequence of the move towards a more inclusive format was that PESCO was re-imagined as process rather than an end-point. Given the disparities between countries as defence actors, this motivated the adoption of a modular framework in which countries would participate in individual projects, each of which comprised clusters of member states.

The benefit of the modular approach was that it could calibrate the appropriate contributions of states and bring about (it was hoped) a productive division-of-labour based around individual specialisations, although it was acknowledged that modularity also risked a lowest common denominator outcome.

Since the first wave of projects was announced in March 2018, there have been a total of 60 projects in four rounds, covering a wide range of different defence sectors and activities, and varying in their intensity. Generally speaking, the fewer participants involved the more onerous the requirements, suggesting the modular format is providing for differentiation in the level of commitment.

Relationship with NATO

Concern existed among some Atlanticist member states, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, that PESCO would present a challenge to NATO’s defence role, since it represented an initial European incursion into the defence domain. Poland and Lithuania, both, expressed these fears in 2017 as discussions of PESCO were underway.

In response, those member states leading on the initiative – France, Germany, Italy, Spain – sought to reassure would-be participants both that PESCO projects would contribute to the Atlantic alliance through the development of member state capabilities, and that they would be put in service of the full spectrum of force.

Their ability to pledge underlying compatibility with NATO – thus ensuring a broad membership – was aided by the project-based approach, since projects like the Dutch-organised ‘Military Mobility’ promised to be of as much value to NATO as to the EU.

Third Country Participation

Whether or not non-EU countries could participate in PESCO projects was a major area of discussion in the years since its launch. With major defence actors like the US, UK and Norway outside the tent, some member states were concerned PESCO would lack credibility, or would risk becoming a protectionist measure for Franco-German defence-industrial interests.

On the other hand, external participation risked the autonomy of the EU initiative and raised the prospect of participation by Turkey and China, which some member states objected to.

The solution, agreed in October 2020, was to open PESCO for third country participation, on the basis of conformity with EU values, thus excluding countries of concern but allowing others to join projects where they could add significant value. The decision paved the way for the US, Canada and Norway to join the Military Mobility project in 2021, with UK accession agreed the following year.

The value of differentiation

As the PESCO example shows, differentiation in its multiple guises can be an effective means of navigating the institutional and political complexities of the European security landscape.

By allowing for non-participation by member states, providing a modular platform, contributing to EU and NATO goals, and allowing access to select third countries, PESCO has been designed to work around some of the perennial challenges of European defence.

In this respect, it offers a helpful example of how differentiation can be productively applied to security and defence issues, and the multiple forms such differentiation may take.

Benjamin Martill and Carmen Gebhard are the authors of “Combined differentiation in European defense: tailoring Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) to strategic and political complexity”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

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