EU defence co-operation is no threat to Irish neutrality

Pesco will ensure collective security and defence not a common European army

As the Brexit negotiations reached a critical point in early December, support for Ireland’s key strategic interests from the EU26 was unwavering. Now, as Europe takes on more responsibility for its own security, Ireland should be part of that initiative not just out of pragmatism but also to fulfil the values associated with EU membership. This is a matter of practical politics and a demonstration of reciprocal solidarity.

Permanent Structured Co-operation (Pesco) is a treaty-based framework and process designed to deepen defence co-operation among those EU member states who are capable and willing. Renewed focus on Irish neutrality emerges whenever security or defence co-operation at EU level takes place. Yet, these developments do not necessarily imply an attack on our neutrality.

Ireland’s decision to participate in Pesco, which was approved by a Dáil majority of 75-42, does not affect the Government’s long-standing position on Irish military neutrality. Pesco is not a new civilian-military arrangement, but was voted upon, and passed, under the Lisbon Treaty [articles 42(6) and 46, and protocol 10] in 2009.

There are three other militarily non-aligned member states that have signed up to Pesco – Sweden, Finland and Austria. The Triple Lock – meaning Government approval, Dáil approval and UN authorisation must be given before Irish troops are deployed in missions overseas – remains firmly in place. Pesco does not include an agreement to come to the defence of others, as is the case of Nato article 5.


Peacekeeping nation

Pesco will not result in a European army – its aim is to provide “a crucial political framework for all member states to improve their respective military assets and defence capabilities through well co-ordinated initiatives and concrete projects based on more binding commitments”. Pesco does not mean that Irish troops will be participating in expeditionary operations overseas – Ireland is a peacekeeping and peacemaking nation and that will not change.

Each Pesco project is created on an opt-in or opt-out basis and participation is completely voluntary. Decision-making remains in the hands of the participating member states engaged in that particular project. Irish sovereignty is unaffected. Although a National Implementation Plan will come into effect as a result of Pesco (to monitor our commitments to it), this does not take decision-making authority away from the participating member states.

Opponents of Pesco often refer to article 29 (4)(9) of Bunreacht na hÉireann, which is worded as follows: “the State shall not adopt a decision taken by the European Council to establish a common defence pursuant to article 42 of the Treaty on European Union where that Common Defence would include the State”. This is not contravened by Pesco. The critical distinction is that Pesco is a separate initiative to European common defence, which would require the complete integration of member state’s defence forces. This aspiration of common defence would challenge Ireland’s position on neutrality. However, Pesco’s opt-in/opt-out nature is an example of enhanced co-operation, not complete harmonisation and integration, as would be seen in the completion of European common defence.

Defence expenditure

As it stands, Ireland is a very low spender on defence. The agreement under Pesco is that participating member states agree to an overall collective spend of 2 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) – Ireland by itself does not commit to spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence, rather the participating member states collectively agree to spending 2 per cent of their combined GDP on defence. This could help to fill strategic capability gaps, such as addressing the lack of military helicopters across member states. According to Eurostat figures, Ireland comes second only to Luxembourg in terms of lowest defence expenditure relative to GDP. Any increase in defence expenditure for Ireland, in real terms, will be very small, as stated by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney during the Dáil debate. Exact figures on adjustments to Ireland’s defence expenditure are not yet available.

Ireland and other participating member states of Pesco will be able to draw down funding for research and capacity building from the European Defence Fund, which amounts to €500 million. Funding for research and capabilities, in Ireland’s case, does not amount to “bomb making” or similar weaponry manufacturing. Funding will, however, enhance the safety of Ireland’s Defence Forces in areas such as training, resources, equipment and information sharing. Although formal agreement has not taken place yet, Ireland has expressed interest in taking part in five of the proposed 17 projects: European Training Certification Centre for European Armies; Deployable Military Disaster Relief Capability Package; Harbour and Maritime Surveillance and Protection (HARMSPRO); Cyber Threats and Incidence Response Information Sharing Platform; and a Centre of Excellence for EU training missions.

Security threats

Ireland, like many other EU member states and countries around the world faces an increased number of security threats. Nathalie Tocci, the lead writer of the EU’s global strategy (a document setting out EU priorities and principles for engaging with the wider world), told an audience at the Institute of International and European Affairs in October that a distinction should be drawn between the Nato narrative of spending more on defence and the EU narrative of spending better on defence. She stated that up to €100 billion is wasted through duplication of effort.

If additional spending on security and defence cannot be delayed, it is better that it be done efficiently. Pesco co-ordinates European approaches to countering new and emerging threats. The decision to participate in this initiative, with the approval of Dáil Éireann, does not represent a threat to Irish neutrality but rather an opportunity to be part of a more efficient approach to collective European security and defence.

Barry Andrews is the director general of the Institute of International and European Affairs