Greater military co-operation under Pesco presents range of costs

Ireland’s defence and peacekeeping will influence choice to opt in or out of €500m plan

Federica Mogherini, the European Union's foreign policy chief, has worked for the last year with EU states on plans to deepen EU co-operation in security and defence, prompted by growing international dangers.

The list is long: state-sponsored actions, cyber attacks, the manipulation of information, fears about Russia’s actions or instability in Washington, or the humanitarian crisis of mass migration. Even Brexit has raised tensions.

Ireland faces the same threats. Some are moderated by geography and by Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality, but others are amplified.

The EU plan, known as Pesco, includes a €500 million annual budget for joint security and defence projects, co-ordinated defence planning and budgeting, and more shared funding of overseas missions.


In addition, it includes new arrangements for states that want to pursue intensified defence co-operation, based upon already-passed treaty rules that allow for so-called permanent structured co-operation (or Pesco).

Irish officials have worked hard to ensure that they can be reconciled with Irish interests and values, but Ireland must now decide to engage, or opt out. Both options are open – but each has costs.

Engagement reinforces the government’s position that, post-Brexit, Ireland is fully committed to EU membership. That signal, however, comes at the price of tough Dáil debates and the risk of a defeat in a Dáil vote.

It means, too, that Ireland would have to spend more on defence, and work harder on planning. Staying outside risks marginalisation, but it would threaten Ireland’s defence capacity and possibly limit future peacekeeping options.

On Monday, 23 EU states signed up to pursue more, and better defence co-operation. Ireland did not, for now. Under 2009 legislation, Irish involvement needs a Cabinet decision and the support of the Dáil.

Deeper security

It will go to Cabinet shortly, reports suggest. EU foreign ministers, after they hear from Mogherini, will decide on December 11th whether or not to agree to set up this new framework and the rules under which it will operate.

Greater co-operation was provided for in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, which set down rules on how EU states that chose to do so could deepen security and defence co-operation with binding and demanding obligations.

Participating member states would unanimously agree and meet new defence spending targets. They could come together to build new equipment, to buy it from others or develop joint military units such as the Belgian-Dutch navy.

The critical point, however, is that each project is created on an “opt in” basis and remains wholly voluntary. Moreover, decision-making is in the hands of the member states engaged in that particular project.

The key principles stress that Pesco is a new “ambitious, binding and inclusive European legal framework” designed to strengthen Europe’s military capabilities through specific, collaborative defence projects.

Equally, it tries to be inclusive – respecting the needs of Nato and non-Nato members. Finally, the voluntary and intergovernmental nature of co-operation is underlined, and "leaves national sovereignty untouched".

The language is carefully drawn to accommodate the interests of non-Nato EU members – especially since Austria, Finland and Sweden are among those who have already signed up.

Irish military neutrality is unaffected – there is no agreement to come to the defence of others, though Pesco clearly implies much deeper defence co-operation than has been seen before.

Strategic gaps

In particular, Pesco is designed to fill existing strategic gaps: EU states do not have enough military helicopters, or air-to-air refuelling, and few of them spend the 2 per cent of gross domestic product target set down by Nato as the minimum needed.

Some gaps will be filled by states getting a better bang for their buck by bulk-buying equipment, which would, in turn, make life easier for forces that later have to work together on the ground.

Today, Ireland spends less on defence per head than any other EU state. Money from the new €500 million European Defence Fund will be available. This is perhaps the greatest practical challenge for Ireland. Increased Irish defence spending is planned, but there is no specific target yet set down.

Irish defence policy has never been the subject of sustained national debate, let alone scrutiny from outside – where tough questions will be asked about how well our defence resources are being used to deal with major threats.

However, there is potential for gain. The Defence Forces have already developed systems and technologies which may be of interest to other European partners. Equally, they could benefit from better and cheaper equipment.

Meanwhile, Pesco lays down rules to speed up national decision-making and to ensure the swift deployment of forces on unanimously agreed EU operations. However, each state will decide each and every time what it wants to do.

Efforts will also be made to improve common training. Direct EU funding of EU military operations is also envisaged – so that costs do not fall only on those that participate in a particular operation as at present.

In Ireland, the prospect of central EU funding will be welcome because peacekeeping can be expensive – the 2008 Irish-led European Union Force (EUFor) mission to Chad has cost taxpayers €59 million.

Neutrality fears

These commitments do not pose any obvious challenge to Ireland’s neutrality. The so-called “triple lock” on Irish overseas deployments (which requires some form of UN authorisation) remains firmly in place.

On equipment matters, Ireland’s exposure is limited. Without a significant domestic defence industry, the scope for Irish participation is likely limited to smaller, specialised producers of high technology which may see new investment opportunities.

At the same time, the Government’s last defence white paper does highlight specific technologies – such as in maritime surveillance – which would be of significant pan-European interest and potentially win substantial European investment.

The notification document underlines the fact that Pesco will deliver on its overall commitments through specific projects. Each of these will be governed by those who chose to participate, under the overall Pesco umbrella. Projects can be proposed by any participating member state(s). These will be evaluated and those deemed best to deliver on shared ambitions will be recommended for support by the EU’s foreign policy chief to the Pesco council of participating states.

The key here for Ireland is the “opt-in” nature of Pesco projects. If Ireland is willing to make the general commitment to reinforced defence co-operation, then the day-to-day reality of Pesco is largely unproblematic.

The State will be free to pick from a broad menu of options and to work with like-minded states on the construction of their own preferred projects. The critical question, however, is whether the overall commitment is possible and desirable.

Ben Tonra is professor of international relations at UCD school of politics and international relations