The United States should welcome PESCO, and encourage Europe to do more

It is sometimes said that President Trump’s irreverent attitude toward NATO has rendered Europeans a service by highlighting that the continent’s 70-year holiday from history, safely under the United States’ protective umbrella, is over. Yesterday’s set-up of the Permanent Structured Cooperation in the area of defense (PESCO) might be a case in point. 23 EU countries signed up for PESCO, an idea that had lain dormant since its outline in the Lisbon Treaty a decade ago. It is a voluntary, process-oriented framework that will commit European countries in a binding way to pool their defense capabilities, invest in shared military infrastructure, and make their own militaries available for joint operations.

Accompanied by the modestly-sized European Defense Fund launched earlier this year, PESCO is a step in the right direction and is firmly in America’s interest. A common European approach toward making commitments on defense policy is a necessary condition for the “European pillar” of NATO to throw its weight around. Given their sizes, no European country alone — not even France, the UK, or Germany — can act autonomously and successfully deter the likes of Russia, or police Europe’s Southern and Middle Eastern neighborhood.

Furthermore, closer cooperation on defense and security enjoys an overwhelming support of Europeans, with 75% being in favor of a common defense and security policy according to the latest Eurobarometer. That includes majorities in countries generally thought of as Euroskeptic, such as Poland (79%), Hungary (71%), and the UK (67%).

However, a PESCO-like framework is in itself insufficient to turn Europe into a coherent strategic actor. Although duplication and fragmented procurement processes are a real problem, the main issue is the reluctance of generations of European leaders to spend real resources on their countries’ militaries. That even applies to some of the countries that are meeting NATO’s 2% target, such as the United Kingdom (which is on its way out from the EU and therefore not joining PESCO) where the official figure includes large chunks of intelligence spending.

While binding pledges under PESCO might incentivize countries to spend more, the new system is unlikely to do the trick without firmer political leadership at the national level. Europe’s largest economy, Germany — which finds itself in the midst of complicated coalition talks — comes to mind as an example of punching well below its weight in terms of hard power.

But a common defense policy will also require a different kind of leadership at the European level, able to identify shared priorities and make the political case for them. There, the current High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, has proven herself to besingularly ill-suited for the job by systematically underestimating the threat that Russia poses. To have a common defense and security policy with real bite, the EU might thus have to wait until after the 2019 European election.

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies European political and economic trends. Specifically, he is working on Central and Eastern Europe, the European Union (EU) and the eurozone, US-EU relations, and the post-Communist transitions and backsliding of countries in the former Soviet bloc. He is concurrently a visiting junior fellow at the Max Beloff Centre for the Study of Liberty at the University of Buckingham in the UK and a fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London.

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