PESCO and The Militarisation of the EU


The idea that the European Union is an undemocratic entity has become unremarkable, yet its latest authoritarian move shouldn’t be overlooked since the negative consequences will be felt both in Europe and abroad.

On the 11th of December 2017 the European council decided to establish a European military command structure under the acronym of PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation). This happened only a month after EU member states issued a statement about their intention to participate in this European defence cooperation. The speed of the process and the signing up of countries with neutrality policies such as Ireland, Sweden, and Austria raises a red flag. In Ireland, the decision to be part of PESCO happened after a rushed debate and was in direct violation of Ireland’s neutrality stance. On top of this, one interpretation of the 6th article of the Irish constitution implies that any delegation of power to the EU should be put to a referendum.

So why has PESCO suddenly become a priority? What is the geopolitical meaning of this move and what exactly does PESCO entail?

Official communication on the matter from the EU diplomatic service (EEAS) predictably tried to paint PESCO in a humanitarian light, pointing back to the myth of a European Union founded on a world peace agenda. While EU and NATO officials haven’t shied away from speaking of PESCO as a complement to NATO and as a major step for European defence, European state officials have tried to deny that the recent agreement qualified as the creation of an embryonic EU army. Yet looking back at the history of the EU, it is clear that the concept of a European Army was present from the start. A more interesting question would be to ask what geopolitical factors have prevented a European defence cooperation from happening in the past.


The Historical Origins of PESCO

After the second world war European states were in a vulnerable position and the USSR was gaining power. The United states believed that without the manpower of Germany, Europe would not be able to face a Soviet invasion. The Korean war which broke out in 1950 only reinforced this concern. At this point, the intergovernmental political alliance which had been created in 1949 under the acronym NATO took a new shape. Under the impulse of its members (United states, Britain, France, and a number of other European states) it became an integrated military structure giving the United states a leading role. That same year, an American plan suggesting the creation of 12 West German army divisions was formulated, but after the damage Germany had caused during the war, France was reluctant to allow Germany to rebuild its army. As a counter-proposition, France came up with the Pleven Plan which called for the creation of a supranational European Army undermining NATO and giving France a dominant role. Acting as an ally of US imperialism, Britain rejected the agreement, pushing instead for an integration of NATO and European military forces. A modified Pleven Plan was formulated but eventually got rejected by the French parliament (Gaullists feared a loss of national sovereignty and Communists refused a deal placing them in opposition to the Soviet Union). By that time the Korean war had ended and Stalin’s death in 1953 had contributed to a relative de-escalation of tensions.

From then on and throughout the Cold War, the United states, France and Britain continuously encouraged other EU states who were part of NATO to increase their military spending in proportion to their GDP. But realising that they were standing between 2 superpowers who were keeping each other in check, EU states gave priority to the expansion of trade by setting up a common market in the name of the European Coal and Steel Community. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, most European countries reduced their military spending even further. But the Balkan Wars of the 1990’s led Britain to realize that without the threat of an expansionist USSR, the United states might not be endlessly willing to back up EU countries. In private, American policy makers were even suggesting that NATO’s days were numbered. In response to this change of circumstances, Britain started encouraging greater military cooperation within the European Union with the hope of consolidating NATO.

In 1999, at the European Council summit, the creation of European Battlegroups was suggested for the first time. In 2003, the Artemis operation which took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo served as a proof of concept and just few months later, Britain, France and Germany officially released a paper pushing for the creation of EU Battlegroups. These battalions, which have become a key component of PESCO, are intended to be ready for deployment at all times, to engage in rapid response missions, assist existing troops and prepare the ground for larger forces. They are more often described as peacekeeping troops entrusted with humanitarian tasks such as aid deliverance and evacuation.

In the meantime, France and Britain continued to encourage military spending in the EU and in 2006, all NATO members agreed on an increase with a target set at 2% of GDP. This had very little effect and spending continued to decrease steadily in most EU countries. It appeared as though this situation could only be remedied by a binding agreement forcing EU members to ramp up their military budget - which brings us to PESCO, a binding agreement implying the close cooperation of EU states over military matters (research, purchase of equipment, interventions) increased military budgets, and the supervision of EU state’s military spending by an EU body.    

Possible Causes of PESCO’s Sudden Implementation

As this short historical overview indicates, the idea of an EU army has been in the air for a while. Yet disagreement about how autonomous it should be from NATO, and how closely it should be tied to the United state’s imperialist agenda had so far thwarted its growth. China’s rapid power buildup may have provided a new motivation to push the project through. Yet according to a common media narrative, the reason PESCO didn’t happen before Brexit has everything to do with Britain’s opposition to a project that would have competed with NATO.

This seemingly clean explanation is contradicted by a number of elements. While it is true that, a few months after Brexit, President of  EU commission Juncker called for a stronger European defence that would protect Europe’s “way of life” against existential threats, it should also be noted that he had already encouraged the creation of an EU army in March 2015. That same month  EU commissioner for Industry Elzbieta Bienkowska created a High Level Group of Personalities meant to lobby the European Commission and promote the military industry.

A more convincing reason why Brexit might have served as a catalyst for PESCO lies in the fact that Britain and France were the only 2 EU countries possessing nuclear weapons after the Paris and London conferences of 1945 had forbidden Germany to develop its own nuclear arsenal. After the Brexit vote and after ‘Frexit’ became a central theme of the latest French presidential election, the need to enhance EU integration as a means to avoid the loss of all nuclear deterrents became more pressing than ever. The rise of nationalist parties and the fear of an ongoing dislocation of the European bloc that would restrict the trading opportunities of European companies is arguably also a major factor in the sudden prioritization of PESCO.

Far from materialising its greatest fears, PESCO turns out to fulfill many of Britain’s long-voiced wishes. Contrary to an official EU promotional video which suggest that by pooling resources together EU countries will avoid redundant purchases and reduce their military spending, PESCO is in fact a binding agreement that will force EU states to increase their defence budget in line with the unmet target set by NATO in 2006. A coordinated annual review on defence (CARD) will serve the purpose of controlling EU member’s level of investment in military research and equipment acquisition. Finally, PESCO also involves a close cooperation and coordination with NATO in all military-related activities. Britain will remain free to join  at any time.

PESCO and the European Project

Clearly, for a country to remain neutral, the adequate amount of participation in PESCO is none. To join PESCO is to finance the military industry by allocating billions of Euros to the EU defence fund. It entails sharing information and engineering weapons in cooperation with nations that have a long record of hawkish military intervention and of selling weapons to dictatorial regimes.

The mandatory increase in military spending will further stifle investment in healthcare, social housing and education. And because the EU has seemingly unlimited supplies of cynicism, it has been suggested that European state’s contribution to the European Defence Fund might be excluded from the EU’s austerity oriented budget-balancing rules. This sets the priority on war and ‘security’ over providing basic social services.

Lastly the conflation of military and humanitarian tasks will allow governments to dissimulate the true nature of the missions performed by EU battlegroups, and at any rate would jeopardise intended humanitarian missions.

The possibility for EU states to set up a permanent structured cooperation came with the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, a repackaging of the Treaty of Rome II which France and Netherland had rejected. Only Irish voters were consulted via referendum before the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, and yet it first got rejected in part because of Ireland’s refusal to participate in a common European defense. The 28th amendment to the Irish constitution was created explicitly to get Ireland to accept the Lisbon Treaty while being exempt from participating in PESCO. In spite of this, in a move that reveals his absolute contempt for the Irish people, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar claimed that there was no use for a debate around PESCO since Ireland had signed up for it by voting for the Lisbon treaty. In other words ‘’I don’t want (or have) to talk about it, I know what you think and I don’t care’’.

On a certain level, this shouldn’t be surprising. The history of the EU is the history of a methodical power grab by the European ruling class. Before the current European institutions were set up, the European states were institutions through which the workers of Europe could contest (but never abolish) the terms of their exploitation. States had a monopoly over the use of violence and this violence was used to enforce the rules of capitalist exploitation (the police) and also to defend the economic interests of the nation abroad (the army). With the ratification of successive European treaties, EU institutions were given the power to decide the terms of capitalist exploitation without being answerable to the populations of the various EU states. These states continued to have the monopoly over the use of violence and to enforce the rules set by the EU. As a result, throughout Europe, debates during elections started to polarize over whether or not to leave a European Union built on austerity.

From this perspective, PESCO can be seen as a move to diminish the prerogatives of EU states even further, to stimulate growth with the hope that improved economic circumstances will deflate anti-EU sentiment, and to increase Europe’s capacity to intervene militarily abroad by investing massively in the military industry. 

A Familiar Pattern

Although Putin’s annexation of Crimea and international terrorism are often used as scarecrows to bolster western support in favour of PESCO, it is worth noting that France and Germany’s combined military spending already dwarf Russia’s and that the war on terror has been used time and time again to justify imperialist wars abroad as well as attacks on human rights within the EU (the latest example being French president Emmanuel Macron’s transfer of exceptional emergency policing powers into permanent law).

PESCO should therefore be seen for what it is: In the face of the EU’s legitimacy crisis, PESCO is the European ruling class’s short sighted attempt to recreate a cohesive imperialist bloc endowed with credible military power. But more than anything it is a testimony of the EU’s fragility. Yet we shouldn’t take this fragility as a reason to dismiss what is happening. Like any predator, Europe is most dangerous when it is wounded, and for this reason we should all take notice.

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