By Matt Ellison
A landmark defence agreement was signed on Monday between 23 member states of the European Union.
The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) will aim to expand and consolidate research and development on military technologies across Europe to harmonise and complement capabilities across national military forces.
The pact also envisages an expanded role for joint operations between EU militaries.
In the past, steps to move towards an ‘EU Army’ have been thwarted by Britain, who historically have jealously guarded NATO’s position as the sole defensive pact protecting Europe from Russian westward revanchism.
The failure of NATO to act in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea and subsequent intervention in the ongoing Ukrainian separatist conflict, however, combined with the withdrawal of both Britain and the United States from positions of global responsibility, has spurred voices in Brussels calling for an expanded military arm within the EU.
In September, French President Emmanuel Macron added his voice to longstanding German ambition in the direction of a European military initiative when he called for the creation of an EU defence force capable of “autonomous capacity for action.”
The decision comes as the post-war order that largely maintained peace throughout Western Europe even in the face of the threat of communism has started to fray.
The decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union will leave Europe bereft of its most powerful military and without Europe’s largest stockpile of strategic nuclear weapons.
US President Donald Trump’s campaign trail threats to abandon NATO and withdraw America from its position as global sentinel, while not having been borne out in fact, nonetheless served as a jarring reminder to European countries that collective defence could not be entrusted to politically fractious America indefinitely.
Increasing boldness from an ever more proactive and emboldened Kremlin has left Europe with little choice but to take responsibility for its own military needs.
Although outwardly Brussels has stressed that PESCO is in place to supplement NATO, past rhetoric from European leaders may indicate that the agreement is intended to serve as a stepping stone towards further military integration and expansion by the hitherto largely demilitarised bloc.
In June, then-Commissioner for the Armed Forces in Germany’s Bundestag Hans-Peter Bartels called the eventual consolidation of European militaries under a single command structure all but inevitable.
Despite repeated assurances to the contrary, with American authority on the wane and a post-Brexit EU appearing more resurgent and surefooted than at any point since the financial crisis, it appears likely that whatever form this new European defence initiative takes will operate independently of existing NATO structures.
While the resurgent threat of Russia plays a heavy factor in European rearmament, flexibility and capacity for multifaceted battlefield roles are the watchwords of the new European alliance.
A multinational European force led by French troops has been operating in Mali since January 2013, originally deployed in response to advances made by Islamist Tuareg rebels towards the centre of the country. Following the French victory against the Tuaregs the objective of French, European and allied African troops in North Africa expanded to a general counterinsurgency effort against Islamist groups sworn to the Islamic Caliphate declared by ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
The PESCO agreement will see European forces cooperating more closely to support and assist African forces combatting Islamic extremism throughout North Africa, a region traditionally neglected by NATO, of which no African state is a member.
PESCO will likely expand upon existing European defensive structures, like the EU Battlegroups established by the Common Security and Defence Policy, to provide rapid reaction forces capable of deploying across the European Union and its border regions.
The EU Battlegroups, battalion-sized formations comprised of seconded national units on a rotating basis, exist to rapidly respond to catastrophic terrorist attacks and other emergencies. So far, the EU has never deployed a Battlegroup into active service.
An expansion of this concept would likely see the national militaries of European member states folded into command structures headed up by a single nation’s military, most likely Germany’s Bundeswehr.
Military cooperation could also see unified Naval efforts to patrol the Mediterranean, reinforcing and bolstering European-wide efforts to deal with the ongoing migrant crisis.
Why Die For Danzig?
Any deepening of military cooperation between EU member states is sure to be met with some resistance by a Europe already wary of any further integration at a European level.
While Denmark has signalled its intent to remain outside any defensive framework, others, like Austria, have remained on the fence.
During the week, Leo Varadkar stressed Ireland’s commitment to its constitutional neutrality while indicating that the government sought to involve Ireland in a support capacity with any future European military structures.
Irish neutrality, while fundamentally not threatened by PESCO or any mooted European military proposals, may be considered a bargaining chip as the threat of a severe Hard Brexit draws closer.
A source within the government suggested that in order to maintain European support on the Brexit issue, particularly surrounding the status of Northern Ireland, Ireland in future may need to commit to the concerns of Eastern European EU member states; chief among them, the ever present threat of Russian aggression.
With Russia largely quiet outside of the digital arena following the US election, there are likely to be no calls for Irishmen and women to march on Moscow in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, with defence budgets now pledged to rise all across the EU and Ireland’s own Defence Forces in dire need of overhaul, the question of Ireland’s future role in a militarised Europe may be up for debate sooner rather than later.
At least one Fine Gael Senator has indicated their favour of scrapping neutrality, and as America and Britain fade from the world stage and Europe becomes a less cohesive and more dangerous place, Ireland faces some stark questions about its future role in the EU.
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