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Signing of the PESCO on 13 November at the European Council. Photo: Ministero Difesa (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Some time ago the European Commission presented five scenarios for the future of Europe: (1) carrying on; (2) nothing but the Single Market; (3) those who want more, do more; (4) doing less more efficiently; and (5) doing much more together. It seemed that the scenario with the best prospects was (3), the variable geometry option or the Europe of various speeds (not the same thing). The Commission’s President, Jean-Claude Juncker, in the state of the Union address he gave in September, seemed to favour a single-speed approach, however, in what he termed his “sixth scenario”, which included the equality of its citizens and shared values. The historic step that has just been taken in defence –which the Council of Europe has to ratify in December– suggests that Europe prefers to close ranks when advancing onto new ground, as well as on the Union’s basic principles. Everyone, or almost everyone, prefers to be part of everything they can.
Of a total of 28 member states (27 excluding the UK, in the process of withdrawal), 23 have signed up to the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in the area of defence. Two more –Portugal and Ireland– may join when they sort out internal problems. Only the UK, Denmark and Malta remain on the side-lines. Some are joining out of conviction and others, rather like Pascal with his doubts about the existence of God, just in case. It is worth remembering that the other great variable project, the Economic and Monetary Union, involves a majority of states. Let it not be said that it comprises an exclusive nucleus when it has 19 members (and Juncker is proposing that it should be broadened to include all those that have committed to it). The borderless Europe of Schengen also includes almost all, and even some that do not belong to the EU, like Switzerland and Norway.
As far as defence is concerned, there has been a clash of approaches between its two main proponents, France and Germany, reflecting different interests and different ideas of Europe. France wanted a small group of countries to collaborate as deeply as possible around French forces to enable the launching of joint operations, with French industry playing a central role. Germany, seeing the way the EU was fraying in the East, favoured broad membership so that its neighbours could feel part of the community, latterly renamed union. PESCO has thus been launched in an inclusive rather than an exclusive way.
Although the project predates them –indeed it goes back at least 10 years and the Treaty of the EU– the convergence in defence, the stirring of the so-called ‘sleeping beauty’, while not amounting to a Defence Union, has been aided by Brexit and Trump, together with the need to fight jointly against Jihadist terrorism, strengthen cybersecurity and address hybrid threats. London had always tried to thwart progress in this area, wanting at all costs to safeguard the predominance of NATO (which was not really at stake) and relations with the US. The Trump factor has also had a bearing, because the withdrawal initiated by the US, which started with Obama, and its doubts about NATO have breathed new life into European defence. Trump’s pressure on Europeans to do more for their own defence also played a part. They spend half of what the US spends, but manage only 15% of its efficiency. European armed forces require more and, above all, better spending with greater interoperability. The 23 participants in PESCO have made specific commitments in this regard. The European Commission had already launched a European Defence Fund, with €5.5 billion per year to incentivise industrial cooperation in this field. There is no mutualisation of debt in the Monetary Union, but there may start to be a certain mutualisation of European defence.
What this means is that the idea of more integrated nuclei or a vanguard that pulls the rest behind it, or variable geometry, has not materialised. It does, however, fall to the major states (France and Germany, backed by Spain and Italy) and the institutions to lend weight to the big initiatives, and to ensure that once the UK leaves it is not replaced in its efforts to hinder integration (by the Poles and Hungarians, for instance). It is also true that if defence had not originally been presented as cooperation between a few, it would not have ended up attracting the many.
Just when France was recovering under Emmanuel Macron and a clear path to European integration was being mapped out, the German election has put the brakes on Berlin at the very moment Angela Merkel had reached the height of her powers, having steered the EU through the crisis. Now Merkel has her work cut out trying to strike a coalition deal with the liberals –who are ill-disposed to deepening the Monetary Union, especially if it is a matter of committing funds or guarantees, and have walked out of talks to form a government– and the greens –more pacifist and reluctant to spend money on defence– and must refashion her proposal for this nascent Europe. As has been seen with PESCO in defence, however, she has managed to ensure that no-one who wants to participate is left out. The exercise with the five scenarios will in the end prove useful, because it floated a range of possible futures that could have transpired, and that some wished to avoid. In spite of everything, there are still major disagreements about what Europe should be, and in what areas, and at what speed, or speeds, it should progress.