Varadkar defends neutrality as EU steps up co-operation on defence

EU flag to fly over range of military projects from peacekeeping to weapons research

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives for a two-day EU council meeting in Brussels, June 22nd. Photograph: EPA

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives for a two-day EU council meeting in Brussels, June 22nd. Photograph: EPA


The EU treaties provide for the possibility – it’s called “enhanced co-operation” – that groups of willing member states can, if all 28 agree, work together on their own projects, a sort of advance guard, waiting for others to join in or catch up, if they wish.

In practice there have been for many years examples of such enhanced co-operation – the Schengen passport-free area, the euro, aspects of justice co-operation – but in defence it has remained an untested theoretical possibility.

Several member states, led by the French and Germans, have in recent times argued strongly that the EU needs to create a real military presence on the world stage, as a complement, not an alternative, to Nato.

They are prepared, they say, to create such co-operative projects in defence, even if some member states do not themselves want to go along, and on Thursday at the European Union summit leaders agreed to “the need” to launch such co-operation, known in the jargon as “Pesco” (Permanent Structured Co-operation). This is now expected to happen by the autumn and may involve projects ranging from peacekeeping operations under the EU flag to co-operation in weapons research.

For Ireland, always keen to be at the centre of whatever the union is getting up to, as evidence of our wholehearted European vocation, the move represents a potentially politically difficult step. Neutrality is sacrosanct but has never inhibited incremental steps in defence co-operation, two decades ago in Nato’s Partnership for Peace, and more recently in the emerging EU defence dimension, including a commitment to come to the defence of other states if attacked.

On Thursday, Ireland was saying to fellow member states that it is enthusiastic about the project, wants it to be “ambitious”, but we are not necessarily committed to participating in each and every iteration. Ireland strongly supported the declaration’s insistence that Pesco be “inclusive” – or has room for the likes of us.


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was nuanced when asked by journalists if the time had come for a revision of our traditional neutrality: “No. Ireland’s position on neutrality is longstanding. We believe that by being a country that is neutral but not being part of any military alliance, that it actually makes us stronger in the world, that we’re more respected around the world particularly beyond this continent, because we aren’t members of Nato and we don’t take part in a military alliance, our focus is on other things, like development for example.

“Having said that, co-operation around security and defence is changing. The threats that we face in the world are less about wars between countries, and more about threats created by terrorism, by extremism, and by cyber attacks for example.

“And those areas are not areas in which we should be neutral. We should be very much involved in working with European partners to prevent cyber attacks to manage migration and to stand against terrorism.”