Almut Möller & Dina Pardijs
The European Council on Foreign Relations’ London 2015
The European Council on Foreign Relations’ new research project set out to understand attitudes towards different forms of flexible cooperation. This included, in particular, foreign and security policy and the potential use of PESCO in this area. This is a current focus of discussion inside the EU and across member states. ECFR’s team of researchers, based in all EU capitals, conducted more than 100 interviews with government officials and experts at universities and think-tanks across the 28 member states. They questioned respondents about member states’ attitudes towards different types of flexible cooperation, and explored whether there have been recent changes in attitude regarding the tension between “effective functioning” and “disintegration”. They then asked what specific projects in foreign and security policies member states believe are worth exploring. The research on which this publication is based reflects the discussions in European capitals by February 2017.
The potential offered by greater use of flexible cooperation has clearly recaptured the interest of member states across the EU. This shift, articulated by leaders of core EU member states, and identified by this research, is attributable to the rapid changes taking place inside and around the EU. This is true of foreign and security policy in particular, but it is also true of other high-profile areas, like economic and monetary union and migration management.
Furthermore, a critical mass of countries agree not just on the need for more flexible cooperation, but that flexibility would be most successful were it anchored in the treaties, so as to minimise the risk of placing further strain on the EU. This approach is most likely to find favour with a range of member states of differing sizes and interests: from larger, older members that wish to retain a firm rules-based approach, to smaller members worried about being dominated by one country, or being left out.
Having said that, developments since the conclusion of the research may have altered matters yet again. Countries with a traditionally cautious stance on flexibility outside of the EU framework, most notably Germany, Italy, and Spain, are now more open to exploring it.
But challenges remain across the board. France is keen to move forward with ‘what works’ for the EU as a whole, while countries like Poland and Hungary view flexible approaches less through the lens of strengthening European unity and capacity and more with a view to defending and repatriating national sovereignty.
Nervousness remains among many of the most deeply pro-European countries about the centrifugal risks associated with flexible approaches. This is certainly mirrored in the latest white paper by the European Commission, which is keen to retain the upper hand in the flexibility debate, and keep cooperation within treaty structures.
There is still no consensus about what form flexible cooperation might take. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the research shows that any proposals that are taken forward under flexible cooperation are yet to be firmed up.
Indeed, one of the most important aspects of this story only emerges when one takes a step back and considers what this tells us about the EU’s evolution and how core member states understand it. It is becoming an organisation whose watchword is increasingly one of ‘cooperation’ and ‘deliverables’ rather than ‘integration’ – despite its foundational goal of ‘ever-closer union’.
Because of this, countries like Spain, Italy, and even Germany have started to overcome their aversion to risk vis-à-vis flexibility, and have joined with France to push for a flexible EU on security and defence matters. However, while European leaders pore over criteria for making PESCO a 9 reality, what is now needed is a small number of flagship European projects that member states can set in train and deliver results through. These could rebuild trust among participating member states – and win back faith in the benefit of collective action
PESCO projects: What is on the horizon? When researchers investigated concrete projects that could be started under PESCO in the coming months, member states provided very few details. By and large, the focus of member state governments is on the precise nature and structure of PESCO activities, rather than the actual issues they could tackle. However, the area under exploration by most member states is crisis management.
Details of nascent projects and preferences for PESCO initiatives are as follows:
Austria has proposed joint procurement of dual-use capabilities (such as helicopters), the establishment of a civil-military command, and joint training activities.
Besides the treaty provision related to PESCO, Austria also favours more permanent cooperation in regional formats, such as Central European Defence Cooperation. Austria’s red line is providing troops in high-tech combat operations.
Bulgaria would, in theory, support projects in a number of areas (medical hub, logistics/sharing, satellite imagery reading, battlegroups, further development and other regional forms of cooperation). Bulgaria has been contributing medical staff and equipment for operations in Mali and other missions, with medical evacuation from other countries. Logistics and satellite imagery are other areas in which the country wants to participate in the future. The government supports modular cooperation and currently has several projects under consideration, including participating in and further developing battlegroups, i.e. the Balkan Battle Group (HELBROC) of Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and
Cyprus. Sofia has considered joining or leading another battlegroup, and has discussed this with EU partners, but no concrete steps have been taken yet.
Czechia would be open to participating in coordination of acquisitions, in joint European
Defence Agency projects, and joint planning capacities. It would also support the creation of joint headquarters for European defence operations.
Estonia considers R&D, military operations and missions, civil-military cooperation, crisis management, and terrorism, as areas of potential cooperation.
Finland has been somewhat frustrated at the slow progress on the EU’s security and defence policy and welcomes the possibility of making more rapid progress. For Finland, areas of particular interest are the coordination of defence planning cycles, security of supply, and defence market policy.
Germany is mostly concerned with crisis management, even though it considers that defence matters should remain largely with NATO. The co-authored paper by the French and German defence ministers paper examination of: strategic transport capabilities;
European logistical hubs; situational awareness; and training.
Ireland’s policy of neutrality makes it politically sensitive to push for PESCO. Having said that, the Irish government feels there should be a focus on promoting what can be delivered, and then actually delivering on it. There are certainly aspects of PESCO where Ireland would see significant technical and practical advantages
– particularly when it comes to an enhanced pooling of resources for key Irish interests such as peacekeeping and crisis management.
Latvia is interested in: pursuing joint procurements, especially in the military domain; developing informational networks for sharing information regarding cyber security and terrorism; cooperating on law enforcement authorities; strengthening the external and coast borders; and working with third countries on immigration matters.
Romania is looking at joint acquisition programmes, joint training activities and the provision of maintenance and participation at EU battle groups.