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Permanent Structured Cooperation in the European Union – Milestone on the Road to Military Power, or Restart for the EU as a Force for Peace?

The European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) was created in response to the EU’s large-scale inability to take military action in the Kosovo war at the end of the 1990s. Since then, the EU has significantly raised its profile in this policy area. Numerous institutions for international crisis management have been established and expanded, and a series of civilian and military crisis management operations have been carried out.1

Yet there has been a clear gap between the EU’s declared aspiration of assuming responsibility as a security provider on the global policy stage and the stark raw political reality; between expectations of the EU and its actual (in)ability to act as a civilian-military crisis manager. Time and again, this has given rise to complaints. It has even been said, repeatedly, that the EU is irrelevant in matters of security policy because it ultimately lacks the military capabilities that the role of global security provider requires.2

When the Lisbon Treaty entered into force in 2009, it was meant to provide a remedy by turning the ESDP into the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). At least a renewed attempt was made to improve the EU’s military capabilities, via the instrument of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). According to this, the EU member states “whose military capabilities fulfill higher criteria” and “which have made more binding commitments to one another [...] with a view to the most demanding missions” under the CSDP should use PESCO as a deeper form of security and defense policy cooperation (cf. Art. 42 (6) and Art. 46 of the EU Treaty as well as the annexed Protocol no. 10). Thus PESCO is a permanent framework for action, based on the EU Treaty, which still needs fleshing out by the participating states.

However, the Member States did not make use of this possibility until the fall of 2017. In the words of the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, Permanent Structured Cooperation was the Sleeping Beauty of the Lisbon Treaty.3 This was mainly down to the absence of political leadership from the “Big Three”.4 France and the United Kingdom initially – even deliberately – opted for bilateralism outside of EU structures to improve their military capabilities. At the end of 2010, they agreed to cooperate on major defense projects, hold regular consultations on security policy issues, and set up joint intervention forces. For the German federal government, the main focus of its European policy was managing the European debt crisis. Meanwhile the smaller member states, which in any case were not key military players, feared becoming even more dependent in the defense policy field, and subject to the informal directorate of the aforementioned “Big Three.” Thus, to begin with, there was simply a lack of will to “wake up” PESCO.

Fresh momentum on the path to integrated European armed forces

Radical changes in the EU’s strategic environment and associated new challenges first led to a change in thinking, and put the EU’s ability to act in matters of security policy back on the agenda. There is certainly considerable pressure to act:

Firstly, Europeans feel pressured by U.S. President Donald Trump. He has been much more emphatic than his predecessors in demanding higher military spending by the Europeans, and openly called the United States’ NATO alliance obligations into question during his electoral campaign. At the same time, a strategic (re-)alignment of the United States is becoming increasingly clear, as it turns away from Europe and toward the Asia-Pacific region – particularly China, which it perceives as a rival. In many quarters, the impression prevails now that the U.S. security guarantees can apparently no longer be taken for granted, and that the EU finally needs to take its fate into its own hands. Meanwhile the pressure to act has undoubtedly increased, since the EU is facing a series of crises on its borders, encompassing political instability, violence and terror. On its eastern flank, with the Ukraine crisis, it is confronted with the Russian annexation of Crimea and Russia’s rising ambition to be accepted as a great power. In addition, for many years, large parts of the Middle East and North Africa have been shaken by violence and Islamist terrorism. Finally, within the EU, the so-called “Brexit shock” has to be taken into account.5

As a result, efforts toward more closely integrated and more effective European armed forces have gained fresh momentum. On November 23, 2017, the foreign and defense ministers of 23 EU member states signed a notification to the European Council of Ministers and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, in which they declared their intention to participate in Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).6 To deal with security policy challenges more effectively than before, cooperation within the CSDP framework is to be driven forward and significant advances to be made in improving the defense and intervention capabilities of participating states. At its session of December 11, 2017, the Council of the European Union approved the formal establishment of PESCO and adopted the list of participating states. Furthermore, an initial list was agreed comprising 17 projects to develop joint defense capabilities (such as creating a European Medical Command, setting up an EU Training Mission Competence Centre, and forming joint combat units by regions),7 along with national implementation plans and their evaluation by the Council at the EU level.

PESCO has therefore been brought to life – the Sleeping Beauty of the Lisbon Treaty is awake now. Yet since PESCO is not a substitute for policy, our examination of it must not stop at an analysis of military capabilities and the resulting possibilities and limits for action by the EU. If the debate goes no further than that, it at any rate runs the risk of losing sight of the ultimately central aspect – namely the crucial question of what political goal Permanent Structured Cooperation is really supposed to serve.

Role models for the EU’s ­security policy posture

The debate over efforts to improve the EU’s military capacity to act must not be separated from the normative question of which model the EU should pursue as a foreign and security policy actor.

Given the shifts of power in the international system and new threat scenarios, should the EU transform itself into a conventional kind of world or military power, with comprehensive political and military capacities to act?8 To supporters of this position – also referred to as the “global power” theory – the Union at any rate appears to be a “vulnerable island of stability,” surrounded by an anarchic international system characterized by “instability and unpredictability.”9 This calls for the will and ability on the part of the EU firstly “to preserve peace on the European continent and also to restore it in the face of aggressors,”10 and secondly to assert its legitimate own interests on the global level, if necessary by military means.

Or should it follow the “force for peace model,” where the task of civilian conflict management is brought into balance with a military role in averting threats to world peace and maintaining international security? According to Hans-Georg Ehrhart, the EU under this model is “neither an actor relying exclusively on civilian means, nor does it pursue military power politics in the style of a conventional great power. Instead, it is an international actor that uses the full range of its capabilities for the prevention and constructive management of violent conflicts.”11 Until now, however, it has only been a “force for peace in progress.” Ehrhart believes that an “EU as a force for peace” should in any event

  • first have a normative orientation to cooperative security and peaceful change;
  • second give clear priority to preventive strategies, but without excluding rule-based coercive intervention;
  • third have at its disposal the necessary civilian and military instruments for constructive conflict management;
  • fourth cooperate closely with societal actors, especially with non-governmental organizations, and
  • fifth maintain extensive cooperative relationships with international and regional security organizations, particularly with the United Nations which can authorize military interventions.”12

The direction is still unclear

So what does Permanent Structured Cooperation mean for the EU’s role as an actor in the international context? Is it a milestone on the road to the EU as a military power, or a “restart for the EU as a force for peace?”13 Anyone who expects a clear answer to this question will be disappointed, since the findings are ambivalent.

On the one hand, some interpretations point in the direction of the EU becoming a military power. The German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen welcomed the waking of the PESCO Sleeping Beauty as a milestone on the road to the “long-term goal of a common European Security and Defence Union,” as formulated in the 2016 White Paper on German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr.14 On the occasion of the PESCO notification, she declared: “Today is a great day for Europe. [...]. Today we are founding the European security and defense union.” And she added that in her view, PESCO is “a further step towards an army for Europe.”15

Whether the time for the idea of a European Army has now actually come, or whether this is rather just a “chimera,”16 is at least a contentious issue – no less contentious than the question of whether the establishment of a security and defense union can contribute to peace in any way at all.

Long before Permanent Structured Cooperation was agreed, significant doubts had been cast over the assumption that establishing a defense union could yield peacebuilding consequences. Decades ago, for example, the integration theorist David Mitrany expressed concern that such a process might even increase the potential for conflict in the international system.17 And back in the mid-1990s, it was warned that “military alliances” – meaning the development perspective of the EU – were poorly suited to “overcoming the anarchy of the international system and helping the ‘strength of the law’ to achieve a breakthrough. On the contrary, they prototypically embody the ‘power of the strongest’ and, as ‘self-help institutions’, are an integral part of this anarchy.”18

Meanwhile, the EU obviously sees itself less as a military power in progress, and more as a force for peace, when it claims the need to assume responsibility in the world as a global security provider. This can be seen particularly clearly in the description of the EU as a civilian and military crisis manager. Thus the “Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy,” in view of past failures of military invention, contains a reminder that the EU’s strength lies in peacebuilding through civilian means. At the same time, Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, states in her foreword to the Global Strategy that the “idea that Europe is an exclusively ‘civilian power’ does not do justice to an evolving reality.”19 Above all, however, this key document contains a clear commitment to an integrated approach to conflict resolution:

“When violent conflicts erupt, our shared vital interests are threatened. The EU will engage in a practical and principled way in peacebuilding, and foster human security through an integrated approach. Implementing the ‘comprehensive approach to conflicts and crises’ through a coherent use of all policies at the EU’s disposal is essential. [...]. The EU will act at all stages of the conflict cycle, acting promptly on prevention, responding responsibly and decisively to crises, investing in stabilisation, and avoiding premature disengagement when a new crisis erupts.”20

However, to move “from vision to action,” an emphasis is placed, here too, on improving the EU’s military capacity to act:

“In particular, investment in security and defence is a matter of urgency. Full spectrum defence capabilities are necessary to respond to external crises, build our partners’ capacities, and to guarantee Europe’s safety. [...] [T]o acquire and maintain many of these capabilities, defence cooperation must become the norm.”21

For: “In full compliance with international law, European security and defence must become better equipped to build peace, guarantee security and protect human lives, notably civilians. The EU must be able to respond rapidly, responsibly and decisively to crises [...].”22

From this perspective, the establishment of PESCO in the fall of 2017 looks like a step toward implementing the EU Global Strategy.

Anyone who now formulates the objection that the military buildup measures under PESCO are nevertheless turning the EU into a military power might wish to consider that the foreign and security policy decision-making structure in the EU is still a hindrance to any role as a world or military power. Even the Lisbon Treaty’s reforms to the EU’s external relations have done nothing to change the continuing intergovernmentalism of the EU’s foreign, security and defense policy, which is therefore likely to act as a brake on such ambitions. At least “the consensus principle [...] is an obstacle to swift decisions, decisive mobilization of power resources, and their concentration on a point – therefore precisely the capabilities that characterize a military power.”23

Accordingly, from the peace policy perspective, the continued intergovernmental decision-making structure is by no means the central problem of the CSDP – despite frequent mantra-like claims to the contrary. This decision-making structure rather appears to act as a kind of protection mechanism against a conventional policy of military power, which at least seems to guarantee that the pros and cons of interventions, and the associated interests, are extensively debated.

Nevertheless, of course the possibility cannot be ruled out that the EU will in the future use its capabilities built up under PESCO primarily or increasingly for conventional military power projection, to assert its own interests.

In other words, the realization of “Europe as a force for peace” remains a challenge and a mission. It is still a project – at least if the EU wishes to maintain its ambition “to promote peace, security and progress in Europe and in the world” by means of progressive realization of the CSDP, as it states in the preamble to its founding treaty.

1 For an overview of current and completed military and civilian operations, see (accessed October 17, 2018).

2 See for example Bahr, Egon (2014): “Braucht die Europäische Union eine eigenständige Sicherheitspolitik?”­ In: Staack, Michael/Krause, Dan (eds.): Europa als sicherheitspolitischer Akteur. Opladen, Berlin, Toronto,
pp. 15ff.

3 Cf. speech by President Jean-Claude Juncker at the Defence and Security Conference Prague: In Defence of Europe. (accessed September 24, 2018). The following section is based on Rinke, Bernhard (2015): “Formen differenzierter Integration und ihre Konsequenzen in der GASP/GSVP.” In: Stratenschulte, Eckart D. (ed.): Der Anfang vom Ende? Formen differenzierter Integration und ihre Konsequenzen. Baden-Baden,
pp. 165–185.

4 Ibid., pp. 174f.

5 Cf. Fiott, Daniel / Missiroli, Antonio / Tardy, Thierry (2017): Permanent Structured Cooperation: What’s in a name? (European Union Institute for Security Studies. Chaillot Papers No 142.) Paris, p. 20. See also: Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe. A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign And Security Policy, p. 3. (accessed November 4, 2018) .

6 Notification on Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) to the Council and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, (accessed September 1, 2018). The document was initially not signed by the foreign and defense ministers of the following states: Denmark, Ireland, Malta, Portugal and the United Kingdom. Denmark is not participating at all in the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy. Malta did not want to meet the PESCO participation criteria. The United Kingdom will in any case be exiting the EU, after a referendum on June 23, 2016 returned a “leave” vote of around 52 per cent. Ireland and Portugal signed later.

7 Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) first collaborative PESCO projects – Overview. (accessed September 1, 2018).

8 Wessels, Wolfgang (2000): “Die Europäische Union als Ordnungsfaktor. In: Kaiser, Karl/Schwarz, Hans-Peter (eds.): Weltpolitik im neuen Jahrhundert. Bonn, pp. 575–590, p. 576. Also Weidenfeld, Werner (1995): “Europa – Weltmacht im Werden?” In: Internationale Politik. Vol. 56, no. 5; pp. 17–22. This section is based in particular on: Rinke, Bernhard (2007): “Von der Zivilmacht zur Weltmacht? Die Europäische Union als Akteur im internationalen System.” In: Ehrhart, Hans-Georg et al. (eds.): Die Europäische Union im 21. Jahrhundert. Theorie und Praxis europäischer Außen-, Sicherheits- und Friedenspolitik. Wiesbaden, pp. 108ff. Also Ehrhart, Hans-Georg (forthcoming): “Friedensmacht.” In: Giessmann, Hans J./Rinke, Bernhard (eds.): Handbuch Frieden. 2nd edition. Wiesbaden.

9 (Translated from German). Naumann, Klaus (2002): “Der Begriff der Sicherheit im Wandel.” In: Hoyer, Werner/Kaldrack, Gerd F. (eds.): Europäische Sicherheits- und Verteidigungspolitik. Der Weg zu integrierten europäischen Streitkräften? Baden-Baden, pp. 27–33, p. 32.

10 (Translated from German). Janning, Josef (2002): “Frieden in Europa.” In: Weidenfeld, Werner (2002): Europa-Handbuch. Bonn, pp. 827–853, p. 847.

11 (Translated from German). Ehrhart, Hans-Georg (2007): “Friedensmacht in Aktion? Der Militäreinsatz der EU in der DR Kongo zwischen Symbolik, Realpolitik und kosmopolitischem Engagement.” In: Ehrhart, Hans-Georg et al. (eds.): Die Europäische Union im 21. Jahrhundert. Theorie und Praxis europäischer Außen-, Sicherheits- und Friedenspolitik. Wiesbaden, pp. 148ff., p. 150.

12 (Translated from German). Ehrhart, Hans-Georg (forthcoming): “Friedensmacht.” In: Giessmann, Hans J./Rinke, Bernhard (eds.): Handbuch Frieden. 2nd edition. Wiesbaden.

13 (Translated from German). Dembinski, Matthias (2017): “Ist die EU als Friedensmacht am Ende?” In: Friedensgutachten 2017. Berlin, pp. 69–81, p. 77.

14 German Federal Ministry of Defense (2016): White Paper on German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr. Berlin, p. 73.

15 (Translated from German). Quoted in: Becker, Markus (2017): “23 EU-Staaten gründen Militärunion.” Spiegel Online, November 13, 2017, (accessed September 1, 2018).

16 Cf. on this point the essay by Hans-Georg Ehrhart pp. 21–26 in this issue.

17 Mitrany, David (1975): The Prospect of Integration: Federal or Functional? In: Groom, Arthur J.R./Taylor, Paul (eds.): Functionalism. Theory and Practice in International Relations. London, pp. 53–78, p. 56.

18 (Translated from German). Spanger, Hans-Joachim (1995): Europa als Wille ohne Vorstellung. Zur Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik der SPD. (HSFK-Standpunkte Nr. 11/12 1995.) Frankfurt am Main, p. 1.

19 Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe. A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy, June 2016, p. 04. (accessed November 5, 2018). 

20 Ibid., p. 09f.

21 Ibid., p. 10f.

22 Ibid., p. 30.

23 (Translated from German). Dembinski, Matthias (2017): “Ist die EU als Friedensmacht am Ende?” In: Friedensgutachten 2017. Berlin, pp. 69–81, p. 78.



Dr. Bernhard Rinke is an external project associate of the Institute for Theology and Peace (ithf) in Hamburg, and a member of the Center for Democracy and Peace Research (ZeDF) at Osnabrück University, where he is also a lecturer in the Institute of Social Sciences. He studied political science, communication science and geography at the University of Münster. From 2002 until 2008, he was a doctoral student and fellow at the University of Hamburg Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH). From 2009 to 2015, he was a research fellow at the Chair of International Relations & Peace and Conflict Research at Osnabrück University. The main focuses of his work include questions of the ethical legitimacy of military force, humanitarian interventions, and EU foreign and security policy.