A stand for true reciprocity

, by Gonçal Berastegui

A stand for true reciprocity

The participation of Finland, Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands in the next phase of PESCO – the EU’s key defence cooperation framework – should be made conditional, by the Council, upon their reciprocal support of the Next Generation EU recovery package. At this crucial turning point, cooperation and solidarity against external threats are critical and cannot be subject to cherry-picking.

Defence, an increasingly relevant, yet little-known, facet of the EU

As established in Title V of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), defence and security are the exclusive responsibility of Member States. Hence, defence collaboration across EU countries is an opportunity for optional, enhanced cooperation among states towards the “progressive framing” of a common defence policy, as stated in the TEU. While optional, the benefits are obvious – close political association, ease of cross-border industrial collaboration and shared priorities, to name but a few. All this happens under the auspices of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), chaired by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and overseen by the Council as part of the wider Common Foreign and Security Policy.

Its optional nature, as well as the relatively low public awareness surrounding these activities, have not prevented strong interest across most Member States. This interest has significantly intensified after the UK, traditionally opposed to this cooperation, announced its intention to leave the Union.

Finland, Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands, four of the Member States opposed to the COVID-19 economic recovery package under Next Generation EU, are strongly involved in the CSDP. More specifically, they are among the 25 member states legally committed to one of the CSDP’s central elements, the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).

PESCO was born, as many other EU building blocks, out of a compromise. Launched in 2017, it establishes a binding legal framework to enable willing member states to pursue specific defence-oriented projects of their interest, in order to develop joint capabilities.

Participation across this roster of projects, currently numbering 26, and ranging from operational integration to systems development, varies widely – and so does their progress in delivering results. Nevertheless, PESCO is judged to have been, so far, a substantial success, and a seminal step in fostering tangible cooperation between states. A Strategic Review of its progress and architecture by the Council, with views to its next phase, is due later in 2020.

Why PESCO is a true gamechanger with solidarity at its core

This is where the importance of PESCO to Finland, Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands comes in. Like for many other small states, the critical mass of the EU automatically unleashes the possibility of participating in more advanced and costly projects, which could otherwise be out of their reach. Moreover, PESCO provides an EU-sponsored, standard legal arrangement, away from risky, biased partnerships elsewhere.

The numbers speak for themselves. Sweden is involved in 3 projects, Finland and Austria are involved in 4 projects each, while the Netherlands stands out as one of the leading promoters of the framework, with involvement in no fewer than 10 projects. Moreover, the Netherlands leads the “Military Mobility” project, aimed at facilitating rapid transit of military units across the EU to facilitate quick responses against common threats.

This latter project, however, might even be more decisive to Finland, Sweden and Austria, all three also participants. The reason is that none of them are NATO members, a legacy from their unique Cold War status, and one whose potential change has repeatedly been opposed by Russia, deeming it a provocation. Therefore, at least de jure, none of these countries are covered by the North Atlantic Treaty’s mighty Article 5, enshrining mutual defence. Instead, they benefit from a broadly equivalent mutual defence statement under TEU Article 42.7, albeit one which has traditionally not enjoyed the credibility of its NATO equivalent. This is mainly because the EU has lacked NATO’s practical defence efficacy. This, however, is all set to change with PESCO and “Military Mobility”, which are laying the foundations for a credible military assistance across EU member states, granting these nations a practical and credible alternative to NATO membership.

This provision – nothing short of a legal and practical commitment to mutual defence – is a crucial and enormous solidarity mechanism, and one that is only set to grow in weight. Along with the EU’s critical mass in terms of defence capacity – which all four small Member States lack –, the next EU Budget is set to include an annual half billion euros for defence-related R&D under the European Defence Fund, allowing further cooperation, this time under the oversight of the Commission.

Relying on the EU as a force multiplier, if not as a single-piece defence entity against external threats, is critical to all Member States, but undeniably more so in the case of Finland, Sweden and Austria. In Finland’s case, a nation bordering Russia and advocating “Total Defence” as the centrepiece of its military doctrine, PESCO has enjoyed enormous popularity with both the current and previous administrations, most notably during the recent Finnish Council presidency.

But this renewed focus on European defence, shared with many other Member States, hardly comes as a surprise. In the last decade, we have woken up to an international scene where stakeholders, including Russia, have adopted increasingly aggressive attitudes in the immediacy of the EU’s borders, and with both traditional and unconventional security threats – including state-sponsored cyberattacks and disinformation – proliferating across the globe.

What is completely unacceptable is the lack of reciprocity when it comes to aiding peer member states in recovering from the painful shock exerted by other external threats. Obstructing the recovery package under Next Generation EU would amount to nothing short of cherry-picking and hypocrisy. But it would also be incredibly short-sighted, as it would undermine the political will that underpins the mutual military defence concept which, heavens forbid, could be much needed one day. How would European society react if the mutual military defence clause were invoked by any of these states, after having vetoed this same solidarity in fighting the consequences of COVID-19?

European ideals are incompatible with this one-way solidarity

In a post-Brexit EU, we cannot settle for more divergence in European integration, especially in what refers to protecting the freedom and wellbeing of our citizens in the most fundamental ways. The price is simply too high – damaged credibility, diminished capability and blurring of much needed democratic accountability.

With the lessons learnt in the crucial first iteration of PESCO, a revamped “PESCO 2.0”, with a stronger strategic outlook, should be laid out by the Council in its upcoming 2020 Strategic Review. But crucially, this should be conceived as an integral part of a comprehensive “EU Common Shield”, encompassing the Next Generation EU package designed to tackle the consequences of COVID-19, uniting both elements as what they truly are – two mechanisms of mutual defence and solidarity in the face of EU-wide external threats. As such, any member states effectively vetoing Next Generation EU should be automatically excluded by the Council from this next phase of PESCO.

Although the Parliament lacks the power to enforce such a mandate, passing such a resolution would send a strong message - as it did in demanding this very economic recovery instrument in the first place. It would demonstrate that, while lacking the responsibility, it feels the accountability to promote an EU with the instruments to protect its citizens against all threats. And perhaps more importantly, it would be stating its vision of a coherent and robust future for our European Union.

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