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Would PESCO and a European Army Make Estonians Feel More Secure?


Based on the results of the recent survey1 on security perceptions and strategic partnership across the EU member states, Estonian experts and policymakers consider Russia to be the main source of threat and instability. Even ten years ago, Estonia’s large neighbour was considered to be a serious threat when Estonia was confronted with Russia’s aggressive behaviour and meddling in Estonian domestic politics during the so-called Bronze Night in Estonia in 2007. The attitudes of local experts in Estonia have not changed in the meantime. Furthermore, the Russian–Georgian war in 2008 and the events in Ukraine from 2013 on have exacerbated these fears, so the same survey suggests that Russia will also remain the main source of threat and instability for Estonia over the next ten years (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: Estonian experts’ rankings on the country’s main sources of threat and instability in 2018, and their assessment on how the same threats would rank in 2008 and in 2028: the results of the ECFR survey in summer 2018 (ratings on a 1 to 5 scale, with 1 standing for “no threat at all” and 5 for “top priority threat”); see endnote 1.


In this light it is not surprising that Estonians are actively searching for any possible security guarantees against Russia’s aggressive ambitions to destabilize the current security environment in the former Soviet republics, retake the former territories, and delegitimize NATO if possible.3

For Estonians, but for Latvians and Lithuanians as well, the transatlantic security alliance NATO is definitely at the top of the list of these security guarantees. The transatlantic partnership is considered to be the key element and priority of Estonia’s defense doctrine, which states that Estonia ensures credible deterrence and military defense through NATOʼs collective defense, and that national military defense capabilities form a part of NATOʼs collective defense.4 Moreover, based on the public opinion survey from October 2017, about 74 per cent of the respondents in Estonia support the country’s membership in the alliance, and about 50 per cent of the respondents are convinced that NATO would provide military assistance if a conflict broke out in Estonia. In addition, 60 per cent of the respondents consider that the positioning of a NATO combat group in Estonia enhances security in Estonia, and 39 per cent of the respondents think that the country’s membership in NATO prevents military conflicts against Estonia.5 Thus, the transatlantic security alliance is clearly the main security provider for Estonians, and it is definitely challenging for other security initiatives and forms of cooperation to beat this result and to earn the trust of Estonians to the same degree as the transatlantic collective defense alliance does. 

However, two other initiatives – the launch of the EUʼs Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in December 2017 and Jean-Claude Juncker’s proposal in March 2015 to establish a European army – have recently created some excitement among local politicians and military experts. The launch of PESCO happened during the Estonian presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2017 and was a surprise even to Estonians themselves – the initiative appeared among the country’s priorities only shortly before the beginning of the Estonian EU presidency. The proposal to establish a European army coincided with the period when fears increased in Estonia because of Russia’s aggressive behaviour in the aftermath of the events in Ukraine. 

In the hope that both initiatives would make Estonians feel safer and more secure, it is definitely worth analysing what Estonian politicians, military experts, and the public ethically and practically think of PESCO and a European army, and what their motives are for this. In addition to that, looking at the wider context, it is intriguing to investigate what Russia might think of both initiatives.

The Estonian perspective on a European army

Jean-Claude Juncker’s proposal to establish a European army has been met by local politicians in Estonia mostly with caution and pessimism. The arguments vary from unnecessary duplication of NATO to lack of solidarity among the EU member states. For example, Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas clearly states that, in his opinion, Europe does not need a separate army and that he does not support the idea of a European army. His arguments are mostly based on the idea that no competition and duplication between the EU and NATO are needed, and the only way that the EU and NATO could contribute to increased security in Europe is by boosting mutual cooperation.6 Minister of Justice (former Minister of Defense) Urmas Reinsalu argues that Juncker’s proposal is not a practical cooperation initiative, but a political declaration with little to offer to meet the current security needs of Estonia. He also stresses that the formation of a European army requires the inclusion of national defense issues in the treaties, but since the latter requires a consensus between the EU member states, it would be difficult to achieve in practice. He also points to the solidarity principle in the EU, arguing that in crisis situations the EU solidarity clause could be applied already nowadays and this could be more important for Estonia than the formation of a European army.7 Head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the national parliament (Riigikogu) Marko Mihkelson states that Europe’s current military structure should not be reformed too easily only because of Russia’s recent aggressive behaviour. He also stresses that the initiatives and activities that strengthen the role of the European allies in NATO and deepen the economic and military cooperation at the transatlantic level should be prioritized, thereby also referring to the importance of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement.8 Minister of Foreign Affairs Sven Mikser calls the initiative “interesting, but with much scope for improvement,”9 and Minister of Defense Jüri Luik says that the EU could not have a common European army and, if really necessary, military units should be compiled on the basis of the national defense forces of the EU member states.10 At the EU level, Estonian Deputy Minister for EU Affairs during the Estonian EU presidency Matti Maasikas describes Juncker’s proposal as part of the current debate on the possibilities of how to strengthen military cooperation in Europe.11 However, he agrees that the security policy initiatives and concepts should be revised, considering radical changes in the security situation in Europe. One member of the European Parliament (MEP) from Estonia Urmas Paet (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) is concerned about the currently inefficient use of the EU Battlegroups and financial issues. However, he also states that the EU should continue with the plan.12 Overall, there is only one politician in Estonia, Estonian MEP Indrek Tarand (The Greens/European Free Alliance), who somewhat separates himself from the rather pessimistic pack and argues that a European army is “the only correct solution,” based on the argument that “European nations currently rely on the US taxpayer to fund deterrence against Russia and none of the EU nations could withstand Russian aggression alone.”13 The Estonian military community’s reaction to Juncker’s proposal of establishing a European army is also rather pessimistic. Although serving members of the Estonian military forces have avoided public comments on the idea of creating a European army, two ex-servicemen, who are considered to be opinion leaders in security and defense issues in Estonia (both are also members of the national parliament), Lieutenant General Johannes Kert and General Ants Laaneots, have made their opinion clear on this topic. Lieutenant General Johannes Kert argues that the EUʼs efforts to consolidate the EU’s foreign policy, which, among other instruments includes military forces, seems to be a rational step, and that common military forces combined with EU membership in NATO would boost increased standardization, offer more optimal use of resources in Europe, and create a better operative decision-making mechanism. However, he says that the European army will only be created in the 2030s, and he puts into question the real ability of a European army to function as a tool of collective deterrence due to the lack of geostrategic advantage that NATO has over the EU.14 In principle, he seriously questions the purpose for which a European army would be created. General Ants Laaneots states that the idea of creating a European army could get entangled in the different interests and demands of the EU countries. He quotes the example of Afghanistan to show that EU countries have different demands and limits in terms of military action.15

The pessimism of local politicians and military experts towards the creation of a European army seems to be shared by the general public in Estonia.16 The Eurobarometer survey from April 2017 indicates that 48 per cent of the respondents in Estonia are totally in favor of and 42 per cent totally oppose the idea of the creation of a European army. Interestingly, this result is the lowest among the Baltic countries – the results in Lithuania were 71 per cent and 25 per cent and in Latvia 59 per cent and 36 per cent respectively.17 However this should not be translated as a lack of consensus among the Baltic States that NATO is currently seen as the key actor for safeguarding regional security and stability, but rather as the testimony that Latvians and Lithuanians have much more faith in the European army initiative than Estonians have.

The public attitude in Estonia towards a European army has not changed much over time – a similar survey from early 2014 showed that 47 per cent of the respondents in Estonia were totally in favor of and 44 per cent totally opposed the idea of creating a European army.18

What about PESCO? 

Contrary to the mostly pessimistic attitude towards the creation of a European army, Estonians seem to be very optimistic as far as the PESCO initiative is concerned. The importance of this initiative has been stressed by both local leading politicians and representatives of the military forces. Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas calls PESCO first and foremost a “fundamental step,” which shows that 25 countries are focused on closer cooperation in the area of security and defense, and are committed to increasing national defense expenditures and improving national defense capabilities. Furthermore, he particularly highlights the so-called “military Schengen” project (or, to use his expression, the “tanks’ Schengen”) as a cooperation area with very high potential, as it would allow moving military equipment from one EU country to other EU member states.19 Estonian Minister of Defense Jüri Luik stresses both the political importance and practical value of PESCO. On the one hand, he sees PESCO as a political “umbrella” or a cooperation form, which would send a clear signal to both the EU member states and Russia that the EU is highly interested in joint activities of the EU member states in the defense area, and that the EU is willing to take joint political, defense-related, and financial actions to strengthen this cooperation. In this light, he also stresses that PESCO is an example of the viability of the EU, not focusing on just other problems or crises, but on the future and positive ideas. On the other hand, Jüri Luik points out that PESCO has a very practical side not only in the form of joint projects but also thanks to the possibility that countries like Norway and the UK could participate in these projects, which would definitely be in Estonia’s best interests.20 Furthermore, the commander of the Estonian armed forces General Riho Terras strongly stresses military aspects of PESCO, saying that joint projects in the PESCO framework are focused on developing the newest and most innovative defense solutions, which would strengthen operational capabilities of the EU, and that PESCO helps to realize the huge potential of the EU in the defense area and strengthen the European “pillar” in NATO. In addition to the so-called “military Schengen” project, he also mentions four projects Estonia is interested in as an observer, such as the projects of underwater drones or underwater robots, the project of communication systems in the form of new digital information exchange, the project of maritime surveillance, and the cyber project.21 The opportunity to develop innovative solutions in the PESCO framework has been also stressed by Jüri Luik, who mentioned that Estonia has submitted an innovative project in unmanned ground systems, and that the most influential countries like Germany and France were interested in it. He also pointed out that it is important to be flexible in involving third countries when developing smart and innovative defense technologies and to support cross-border activity of small and medium-sized businesses.22

A fundamental choice

It is intriguing that the PESCO initiative, which is more defense-oriented, seems to be popular in Estonia, but the idea of creating a European army, which is more deterrence-oriented, generates uncertainty and hesitation among local politicians, military experts, and the public. This phenomenon may most likely be rooted in two aspects: firstly practical considerations and secondly the mentality not to call into question the role of the transatlantic security alliance NATO in the current security environment. 

So, on the one hand, Estonia’s decision to join PESCO seems to be a purely rational choice, which allows the country to reduce its vulnerabilities and to use its advantages like technological knowledge. For example, Estonian Minister of Defense Jüri Luik has also publicly stated that the PESCO initiative is very useful for the Estonian defense industry, which has focused on robotics, cyber security and communication, and on developing modern technological solutions in general.23

However, on the other hand, the decision to favor PESCO over a European army seems to be a fundamental choice in Estonia. In principle, the Estonian political and military community seems to be convinced that NATO membership and the idea of collective defense and solidarity of the alliance should not be questioned and even debated. Even the most radical political party in the Estonian parliament, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), has never questioned the country’s membership in the alliance and NATO’s role in protecting Estonia. In this light, the mostly cautious or pessimistic reactions of Estonian politicians to the idea that could potentially duplicate the aims and structures of NATO are somewhat understandable. So the somewhat lukewarm reaction in Estonia to the idea of creating a European army seems to be a first instinctive reaction to “protect” the alliance. 

A real chance – and a real threat?

Overall, it is clear that the current developments in the EU of moving towards closer cooperation in the area of security and defense are in the best interests of Estonia. This makes the European Union stronger in military terms and increases security of the European citizens, which means that the security of the Estonian population will also be increased. The same applies to the establishment of the European Defence Fund, which, in essence, should generate “more collective defense” also for Estonia.

Some Estonian experts have also suggested that the topics which are relevant in the EU today also overlap Estonia’s priorities such as practical considerations, proactivity, far-sightedness, and coverage with real resources.24 This means that Estonia’s interests should be in principle well-represented in the EU in the area of security and defense. 

However, to a certain extent, what Estonians are lacking today is the “bigger picture,” the sense of “being European.” As already mentioned, some local politicians in Estonia have highlighted the importance of PESCO as an initiative that reflects the commitment of 25 countries to move towards closer cooperation in the area of security and defense and to improve both national and collective defense capabilities. At the same time, the opposing positions as far as a European army and PESCO are concerned give an indication that Estonians may not fully sense the importance and the potential of the closer cooperation in the area of security and defense in the EU today, and react instinctively and, without further consideration, negatively to the initiatives that might potentially overlap the aims and activities of NATO. Only after the direct contact point with the alliance is discovered (e.g. that PESCO could strengthen the “European pillar” in NATO), the attitude changes. However, the EU as a whole should also not ignore the fact that part of the skepticism in Estonia might be related to the issue that the usefulness of increased defense and security cooperation in Europe is currently praised by the same people who argued ten years ago that cooperation in the EU in the area of security and defense is needed only when NATO fails to provide security guarantees, and, until then, there is no need to waste resources for duplication.

Last but not least, it is definitely intriguing to analyse what Russia thinks of both initiatives. One way to understand it would be to look at the Russian-minded Estonian-language media. While Jean-Claude Junckerʼs idea some years ago to create a European army has not generated strong (neither positive nor negative) emotions in the Russian-minded media in Estonia, the recent ­PESCO initiative has already gained some attention. Pursuant to Russia’s attempts to spread disinformation, the reaction was, according to expectations, negative and derogatory. To quote a news article published in Sputnik, the Russian government-funded media outlet, in November 2017, the new European military initiative is fully irrational in its essence, is directly oriented against Russia, and is a priori predestined to fail unless it had already been realized in the last century. Furthermore, the newspaper argues that it is obvious that the military union of the EU without the support of NATO is unable to confront Russia’s military capabilities anyway, and that PESCO will just be a new instrument to take money away from the EU member states. To conclude, the newspaper quotes Sir Christopher Meyer in that “pigs will fly before the EU creates an army.”25


The official tone and the message of this Russian news article are obviously clear. However, the entirely different matter is what Europeans could take from this message. Since Moscow reacts only on topics it feels seriously offended by, it might be the case that when developing closer cooperation in the area of security and defenye, the EU has ­revealed one of Russia’s vulnerabilities. 

1 European Council on Foreign Relations (2018): The nightmare of the dark: The security fears that keep Europeans awake at night.

2 Andžāns, Maris; Veebel, Viljar (2017): Deterrence Dilemma in Latvia and Estonia: Finding the Balance between External Military Solidarity and Territorial Defence. Journal on Baltic Security, 3 (2), pp. 29−41.

3 Veebel, Viljar (2017): Estonia: “On the way to a European army.” In: Bartels, Hans-Peter; Kellner, Anna Maria; Optenhögel, Uwe (eds.). Strategic Autonomy and European Defense: On the way to a European army?, pp. 152−164. 

4 The Government of the Republic of Estonia (2017): National Security Concept of Estonia. (accessed September 18, 2018). 

5 Kivirähk, Juhan (2017): Avalik arvamus ja riigikaitse/Public opinion and state defence. (accessed September 2, 2018). 

6 Riigikogu (2017): XIII Riigikogu stenogramm, 16. mai 2017 [The protocol of the XIII Riigikogu on May 16, 2017] (available only in Estonian). (accessed September 9, 2018).

7 Postimees (2015): Mikser nimetas ELi ühisarmee ideed huvitavaks [Mikser says the idea about the European army is interesting] (available only in Estonian). (accessed September 11, 2018). 

8 Veskioja, Risto (2015): Mihkelson Junckeri EL-i ühisarmee plaanist: tänast Euroopa julgeolekuarhitektuuri ei tohiks kergekäeliselt muuta [Mihkelson about Juncker’s plan: the current security structure in Europe should not be adopted easily and casually] (available only in Estonian). (accessed September 11, 2018).

9 See footnote 6.

10 Kressa, Kaarel (2017): Intervjuu: Kaitseminister Jüri Luik: uus Euroopa kaitsekoostöö on kasulik nii Eesti julgeolekule kui meie firmadele [Interview: Minister of Defence Jüri Luik: new defence cooperation in Europe is useful for national security and for local companies] (available only in Estonian). (accessed September 12, 2018).

11 Tralla, Johannes (2015): Analüütik: Junckeri Euroopa armee idee pole plaan, vaid unistus [Expert: Juncker’s idea about the European army is not a plan, but a dream] (available only in Estonian). (accessed September 2, 2018).

12 Veskioja, Risto (2015): Paet: Junckeri EL-i ühisarmee plaaniga tuleb edasi minna, kuid lihtne see olema ei saa [Paet: Europe should go on with the idea of the European army, but it will not be easy] (available only in Estonian). (accessed September 2, 2018).

13 ERR (2015): Laaneots: EU army could stumble on different demands of member states. (accessed September 11, 2018). 

14 Kert, Johannes (2015): Euroopa Liit vajab tulevikus kindlasti ühiseid relvajõude [The EU definitely needs common military forces in the future] (available only in Estonian). (accessed September 30, 2017).

15 See footnote 12.

16 As a remark, publicly available media debates were practically missing in Estonia, being limited only to several rather skeptical headlines, and mostly focused on the question of why we restrict ourselves only to the European common military forces while knowing that a much wider and fully functioning transatlantic security network already exists.

17 European Commission (2017): Special Eurobarometer 461. Designing Europe’s future: Security and Defence, p. 21. (accessed September 20, 2018).

18 European Commission (2014): Special Eurobarometer 413: Future of Europe (Report), p. 30. (accessed September 30, 2018).

19 Pealinn (2017): Ratas: Euroopa Liit on täna ühtsem, tugevam ja turvalisem kui enne eesistumist [Ratas: The EU is today more integrated, stronger, and more secure than before Estonia’s EU presidency] (available only in Estonian). (accessed September 20, 2018).

20 See footnote 9.

21 ERR (2017): Terras: PESCO teeb EL-i sõjaliselt tugevamaks [Terras: PESCO makes EL military stronger] (available only in Estonian). (accessed September 20, 2018).

22 LETA (2018): EU defense ministers discuss cooperation, security of Western Balkans. (accessed August 30, 2018); see also Ministry of Defense (2018): Estonia looking to develop unmanned land systems within the framework of European defence cooperation. (accessed September 29, 2018).

23 See footnote 6.

24 Uibo, Lembit (2017): Missuguse näoga on Euroopa Liidu kaitsealane koostöö [What does the EU cooperation in the area of security and defence look like] (available only in Estonian). (accessed December 12, 2017).

25 Hrolenko, Aleksandr (2017): Euroopa armee on müüt [Europe’s army is a myth] (available only in Estonian). (accessed September 20, 2018).



Dr. Viljar Veebel is researcher of the Department of Political and Strategic Studies at the Baltic Defence College. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Tartu, Estonia. He has worked as academic advisor of the Estonian government in the European Future Convention, as researcher for several European institutions and as lecturer in, among others, University of Tartu, Estonian National Defence College, Estonian Foreign Policy Institute and Ukrainian Diplomatic Academy. His specific competence areas include Russian military doctrine and strategic ambitions, as well as the response concepts and models of the EU and NATO to counter Russian activities.