Ireland and Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in EU Security and Defence


Over the last year Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, has been working with member states on a package of measures designed to deepen EU cooperation in security and defence. This has come in response to a number of developments: the threat of state-sponsored hybrid warfare and the undermining of democratic processes, the threat of international terrorism, major cyber-attacks in Europe (especially threats to energy infrastructure), Russia’s occupation and destabilisation of parts of Ukraine, diminished confidence in the stability of US foreign policy, the humanitarian crisis of mass migration and even Brexit. Ireland faces the same set of threats, with some of these moderated by geography and our traditional military neutrality, while others are amplified by them.

The package of EU security and defence measures on the table includes a new €500m annual budget for joint security and defence projects, a new system of coordinated defence planning and budgeting, more shared funding of overseas missions, new planning and command structures and a new overarching framework for those states that want to pursue intensified defence cooperation. This last item is based on EU treaty provisions that allow for so-called ‘permanent structured cooperation’ (PESCO) in defence. Irish officials have been working hard within all of these discussions to ensure that their principles and practice can be reconciled with Irish defence interests and values. Ireland has always been an above-average contributor to EU security and defence operations but it has also sought to ensure that the ‘specific character’ of Irish policy (aka traditional military neutrality) is accommodated.

Irish policy makers now face a decision as to whether to engage in PESCO or to opt out. Both options are open – but each has its 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 a tough parliamentary debate and the risk of a major political defeat on the issue. Engagement will also require that Ireland take on substantial commitments to raise its game on defence policy; both in terms of spending and planning but also in the development of defence capacities. The cost of non-engagement is a degree of political marginalisation – retiring Ireland among less than a handful of states outside the PESCO framework. It would also threaten a further deterioration of Irish defence capacity and diminish Ireland’s peacekeeping options.

New Horizons in EU defence

On Monday, the ministers of 23 EU member states signed a ‘joint notification’ of their desire to pursue permanent structured cooperation in defence. Ireland did not sign the notification. Under 2009 legislation any proposals to set up PESCO must be agreed by cabinet and approved by the Dáil. Reports suggest that cabinet will consider the matter shortly. The notification will now be passed on by Federica Mogherini to the next Foreign Affairs Council meeting on 11 December. It is they who can decide whether or not to agree to set up this new framework and the rules under which it will operate. The notification sets out the proposed principles of cooperation, the commitments that the member states seek to establish among themselves, and the decision-making rules that will apply for individual projects.

The idea of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) was provided for in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. It set out a process by which a subset of EU Member States could deepen their security and defence cooperation by making more binding commitments in pursuit of more demanding defence tasks. Through regularly reviewed national implementation plans, participating member states must meet unanimously agreed targets on defence investment, capability development and operational readiness. They can then subdivide into smaller groups to pursue particular projects. These can range across a wide variety of areas such as developing new defence equipment, joint procurement projects, developing joint military units such as the Belgian-Dutch Navy or the European Air Transport Command or creating new structures for joint training and exercises. The critical point is that each project is created on an ‘opt in’ basis and remains wholly voluntary. Moreover, decision-making is in the hands of those Member States engaged in that particular project.

Principles of Cooperation

The key principles of this new framework are identified in the notification document submitted by the 23 sponsoring member states. The first of these is that this new “ambitious, binding and inclusive European legal framework” is designed to strengthen Europe’s military assets and defence capabilities through specific, collaborative defence projects. The scheme is also designed to be as inclusive as possible – respecting the needs of both NATO members and non-NATO members. Finally, the voluntary and intergovernmental nature of cooperation is underlined, with a clear declaration that PESCO is voluntary and that it “leaves national sovereignty untouched.”

These principles have been designed to accommodate the interests of non-NATO EU members – with Austria, Finland and Sweden among those already sponsoring the initiative. Irish military neutrality – as defined by successive governments – is unaffected (i.e. Ireland is not joining a Common Defence). At the same time PESCO clearly implies much deeper defence cooperation than we have seen to date and requires Ireland to take defence policy much more seriously.

New Commitments

The notification document sets out the agreed commitments which define member states’ participation. These include increased defence spending to meet agreed targets, spending a greater proportion of those funds on filling strategic gaps in EU defence capacity such as helicopter support and air-to-air refuelling, and spending at least 2 percent of overall defence budgets on research and technology. In part, this is to be achieved through joint, collaborative projects – some of which would benefit from direct funding from the EU’s new €500m European Defence Fund.

This is perhaps the greatest practical challenge to Ireland. While increased defence spending is foreseen within the Defence White paper to fill our own defence gaps (especially as regards aircraft and naval vessel replacements) this is a commitment to year-on-year real increases in spending and investment. There is no specific GDP target set (such as the 2% target in NATO) but there is the promise of meeting ‘agreed objectives’ which implies a greater level of both absolute and relative defence spending. Today, Ireland spends less on defence in relative terms than any other EU member state and is among the very lowest defence spenders in the world. On the other hand, there will be additional resources at EU level to support major collaborative defence infrastructure and procurement projects from which Ireland could certainly benefit.

As well as a commitment to spend more effectively on defence, PESCO entails a greater level of coordination of that defence spending. A voluntary coordinated annual review on defence (CARD) is proposed which will ensure that defence planning and national budgets include a European dimension. This includes ‘pooling and sharing’ defence capacities in areas such as cyber defence, training and in operational support. It will also include direct financial support – by the new European Defence Fund – of major defence procurement projects.

This too will pose challenges for Irish defence planners. Irish defence policy has never been the subject of sustained national debate. Under this framework, Irish defence budgets and planning will be subject to world-class review and scrutiny – with tough questions asked, requiring serious answers as to how well our defence resources are being targeted at real world security threats. Again, however, the potential is there for Ireland to benefit from the pooling and sharing of technology and infrastructure as in cyber defence and intelligence sharing – and Ireland has something to contribute. The Defence Forces have already developed defence systems and technologies which may be of interest to other European partners.

A third set of commitments relate to the availability, interoperability, flexibility and deployability of defence forces. These commitments relate largely to speeding up national decision making and ensuring the swift deployment of forces to unanimously agreed EU operations. In each and every case, national governments will determine whether or not to participate in any particular operation. Efforts will also be made to ensure that national troops can operate together seamlessly through joint training and exercises and common standards. Increased shared 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.

These commitments don’t pose any obvious challenge to Ireland. The deployment of national military forces on EU operations remains solely in the hands of national governments. The so-called ‘triple lock’ on Irish overseas deployments (which requires some form of UN authorisation) also remains firmly in place. The commitment here is really to intensified training, joint exercises, shared standards and agreement on standing command and control systems. This is to ensure that once the political decision to participate in a peacekeeping mission is made, the time gap between that and ‘boots on the ground’ is minimised. Certainly too, the prospect of central EU funding for operations will be welcome. Ireland’s participation in peacekeeping can be expensive, with the 2008 Irish-led EUFOR peacekeeping mission to Chad costing taxpayers €59m.

Finally, a set of commitments is also outlined to address specific strategic weaknesses in European defence. Here, the participating states undertake to work collaboratively in projects designed to increase Europe’s defence capacity, to fill gaps at national and European level and to ensure that the European defence industry delivers real added value and minimises duplication and overlap.

Ireland’s exposure here 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 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 cooperation, then the day to day reality of PESCO is largely unproblematic. The Government and the Defence Forces will be free to pick and choose from among a broad menu of project proposals and to work with like minded states on the construction of their own preferred projects. With the addition of up to €500m per year through the European Defence Fund, those projects could offer a serious economic return – as well as delivering substantial added value to Irish defence capacity. The critical question, however, is whether the overall commitment is possible and desirable.

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