Berlin (CNSNews.com) – A majority of European Union countries have signed up to a plan to establish an E.U.-wide joint defense cooperative, in a bid to strengthen European unity and reduce dependence on NATO.
Defense and foreign ministers from 23 E.U. member countries signed the plan to form the “Agreement on Permanent Structured Cooperation” (PESCO), which will allow members to cooperate more closely on security operations and building up military capability.
Participants will be able to invest in joint projects, and share planning, operations, assets and costs when acquiring new capabilities such as military air transport.
“PESCO is an ambitious, binding and inclusive European legal framework for investment in the security and defense of the E.U.’s territory and citizens,” the document states.
Support for the initiative appears to be driven by a desire to bolster European defense and unity following Britain’s vote to leave the E.U. and the turmoil in Catalonia, and by uncertainty over President Trump’s commitment to NATO.
Trump while campaigning labelled NATO “obsolete” and accused European partners of failing to meet financial obligations. Last April, however, he said during a meeting with NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg that he no longer viewed the alliance as “obsolete,” and praised its long history.
Still, doubts remain.
“It was important for us especially after the election of the American president that we can organize ourselves independently as Europeans,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said at the PESCO launch. “If there is a crisis in our neighborhood, we must be able to act.”
Still, PESCO is intended to complement rather than replace NATO, and would for instance undertake tasks outside of NATO’s remit, such as in Africa.
Speaking at the launch, Stoltenberg described PESCO as an opportunity to “strengthen the European pillar within NATO.”
“I’m a firm believer of stronger European defense, so I welcome PESCO because I believe that it can strengthen European defense, which is good for Europe but also good for NATO,” he said.
Britain, which is set to leave the E.U. in 2019, chose not to sign up, along with Denmark. Ireland, Portugal, Malta remain undecided, but those who have not joined may do so at a later date.
(Britain has long resisted E.U. defense cooperation, objecting to previous attempts for fear they were paving the way for an “E.U. army.”)
Crediting France and Germany with leading the initiative, von der Leyen said it would allow Europe to stand on its own feet when it comes to security and defense.
“We see that nobody will resolve the security problems Europe faces in its neighboring countries for us,” she said. “We have the instruments, but up until now we weren't organized to do so. If there is a crisis in a neighboring country, we have to be capable to act with political will.”
Also voicing support, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel noted that the E.U. spends half of what the U.S. does on defense, yet achieves only 15 percent efficiency in comparison.
PESCO nations will be required to regularly increase their defense budgets, and to direct 20 percent of defense spending to procurement and two percent to research and technology. For its part, the E.U. intends to contribute 500 million euro ($592 million) annually to joint arms projects, rising to one billion euro ($1.2 billion) after 2021.
Once heads of state sign off on the agreement, expected as soon as December, the European Defense Agency together with E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and E.U. military heads will review annual defense action plans and determine whether states are meeting their commitments.
The plan has raised concern in some quarters.
Alice Billon-Galland, a research fellow at the London-based European Leadership Network, said while PESCO will help E.U. governments acknowledge and address capability shortfalls, it will also highlight differences in threat perceptions and security priorities.
“Core disagreements on the end goal of E.U. defense remain,” she told DW. “The idea that PESCO is a step towards ‘European strategic autonomy’ is still highly problematic to some member states.”
Portugal’s Socialist government, which has not yet decided on whether to join PESCO, faced fierce opposition in its parliament on Friday, when communist lawmakers called the plan “warlike” and part of a German-led move to escalate tensions with Russia.