By Alan Kelly
Many commentators have argued that Irish participation in PESCO amounts to de-facto NATO membership, and marks an end to our traditional policy of Military Neutrality. This is not the case. This blogpost will show that PESCO membership falls squarely within the Irish definition of military neutrality. It will assess exactly what PESCO membership means for Ireland, before examining the arguments of those opposed to Irish participation. This blogpost will conclude that these arguments are unfounded, and that PESCO membership presents numerous opportunities for Ireland. This blogpost will also assess the consequences of non-membership of PESCO and will conclude that this would be damaging to Irelands international reputation.
Together with 24 other EU member states, Ireland joined PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation on Security and Defence) on 7 December 2017. The aim of PESCO is to jointly develop defence capabilities and make them available for EU military operations. The motivation of key Irish decision makers in joining PESCO is based on the Rational Choice Theory of Integration, as a state-based approach to security and defence policy is no longer viable given the need for cooperation in tackling modern security issues such as cyber-warfare. Indeed, an EU member state has recently been the victim of cyber warfare – ten years ago Russia launched a cyber-attack on Estonia. Therefore, the need for cooperation in areas such as this is obvious.
Despite this obvious need for cooperation, many argue that Ireland should take no part in PESCO. This argument is largely centred on the belief that PESCO threatens Irelands policy of military neutrality. PESCO, however, falls squarely within the definition of military neutrality which, in an Irish context, simply means non-membership of a military alliance with a binding mutual defence obligation. PESCO contains no such obligation. Indeed, including such an obligation in the future would require a unanimous vote by the European Council. In this scenario, Ireland would be obliged to opt out under the provisions of Article 29.4.9 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, which states that “the State shall not adopt a decision taken by the European Council to establish a common defence”.
Yet much of the controversy in the Dáil appears to be based on the assumption among some opposition TDs that PESCO inevitably leads to a common EU defence or an EU Army, and that PESCO membership amounts to de-facto NATO membership. This is simply not the case. NATO defence is about defending borders from geo-political threats and planning for the next war, while PESCO is essentially about external crisis response. PESCO is about citizens rather than territory. Indeed, it has been noted that “it is more about policing and intelligence than tanks and aircraft”.
Furthermore, member states that have signed up to PESCO get to choose what projects they participate in and those they do not, once again highlighting the voluntary nature of PESCO membership. Indeed, Ireland has only signed up to 2 of the available 17 projects: European Union Training Mission Competence Centre and Upgrade of Maritime Surveillance. The former will upskill the trainers of the Irish Defence Forces for future EU training missions, and the latter will integrate land, sea and air surveillance systems in order to distribute real-time information to member states. These projects will greatly benefit Irelands capacity in Security and Defence, and certainly contain no mutual defence obligation.
The question must be asked: what if Ireland did not join PESCO? There is no doubt that a degree of political and diplomatic isolation would ensue as PESCO includes 25 out of 27 EU member states. Furthermore, the image of Ireland as marginal and weak on defence matters would be reinforced. This would likely undermine Irelands valuable reputation in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. Therefore, non-membership of PESCO presents a far greater threat to Irish Foreign Policy than PESCO membership does to Irelands policy of military neutrality.
While PESCO membership presents many opportunities for Ireland, and certainly doesn’t threaten our policy of military neutrality, its full effects on Ireland’s security and defence policy have yet to be seen. Whether Ireland will sign up to more PESCO projects largely depends on the next governments willingness to integrate further. While the two projects currently undertaken are relatively uncontroversial, attempts to sign up to other PESCO projects which involve deeper cooperation may be greeted with hostility from the opposition benches. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that PESCO membership is in Irelands best interests.
“Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) Factsheet,” European Union External Action, Last Modified November 12, 2019. https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-Homepage/34226/permanent-structured-cooperation-pesco-factsheet_en
Migena Pengili. “In Search of a Theory for PESCO: A Dialogue Between Rational Choice and Fusion Thesis,” Centre International de Formation Europeenne(2018)
Jean-Marc Rickli, “European small states’ military policies after the Cold War: from territorial to niche strategies,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs21, no. 3 (2008): 308.
David Cullinane, Dail Debates968, no. 7, 9 May 2018.
Brendan Flynn, “PESCO and the Challenges of Multilateral Defence Cooperation for Ireland: More of the Same or Sea Change,”Irish Studies in International Affairs29 (2018): 78. Accessed 02 March 2020. url: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.3318/isia.2018.29.07
Flynn, “PESCO and the Challenges of Multilateral Defence Cooperation for Ireland: More of the Same or Sea Change,” 77.
Ireland. Bunreacht na hEireann 1937, art 29.4.9
Flynn, “PESCO and the Challenges of Multilateral Defence Cooperation for Ireland: More of the Same or Sea Change,” 78.
Nathalie Tocci, Framing the EU Global Strategy: A Stronger Europe in a Fragile World (Germany: Springer International Publishing, 2017)
European Commission, Reflection Paper on the Future of European Defence(Brussels: European Union, 2018), 12.
“Current List of PESCO Projects,” European Defence Agency, Last Modified March 2018. https://www.eda.europa.eu/what-we-do/our-current-priorities/permanent-structured-cooperation-(PESCO)/current-list-of-pesco-projects
Flynn, “PESCO and the Challenges of Multilateral Defence Cooperation for Ireland: More of the Same or Sea Change,” 85.
“Current List of PESCO Projects.” European Defence Agency. Last Modified March 2018. https://www.eda.europa.eu/what-we-do/our-current-priorities/permanent-structured-cooperation-(PESCO)/current-list-of-pesco-projects
David Cullinane, Dail Debates968, no. 7, 9 May 2018.
European Commission. Reflection Paper on the Future of European Defence.Brussels: European Union, 2018.
Flynn, Brendan. “PESCO and the Challenges of Multilateral Defence Cooperation for Ireland: More of the Same or Sea Change.” Irish Studies in International Affairs29 (2018): 73-95. Accessed March 3, 2020. url: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.3318/isia.2018.29.07
Pengili, Migena. “In Search of a Theory for PESCO: A Dialogue Between Rational Choice and Fusion Thesis.” Centre International de Formation Europeenne(2018). Accessed March 2, 2020. url: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Megghi_Pengili/publication/331585828_IN_SEARCH_OF_A_THEORY_FOR_PESCO_A_Dialogue_Between_Rational_Choice_and_Fusion_Thesis/links/5c817e1e92851c6950608eca/IN-SEARCH-OF-A-THEORY-FOR-PESCO-A-Dialogue-Between-Rational-Choice-and-Fusion-Thesis.pdf
“Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) Factsheet.” European Union External Action. Last Modified November 12, 2019. https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-Homepage/34226/permanent-structured-cooperation-pesco-factsheet_en
Rickli, Jean-Marc. “European small states’ military policies after the Cold War: from territorial to niche strategies.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs21, no. 3 (2008): 307-25.
Tocci, Nathalie. Framing the EU Global Strategy: A Stronger Europe in a Fragile World. Germany: Springer International Publishing, 2017.
Alan Kelly is a 3rd year BCL (Law with Politics) student in UCD. This blog post was written as part of the coursework for INRL20160 – Introduction to EU Politics.