Old allies, new ways: Reappraising European defense

On May 6, the Council approved the participation of the United States, Canada and Norway in the Permanent Structured Cooperation’s (PESCO) Military Mobility project. The project was launched in 2018 and commits the participating states to synchronize their national activities to be able to face the emerging “ring of fire” in the European neighbourhood with a “seamless movement of troops.”

Naturally, PESCO’s projects stem from the members of the European Union converging on certain issues. The ability to construct wider partnerships provides the 25 participating states (Denmark and Malta are not participating) with a unique window of opportunity to address their own economic, military, and industrial blind spots in the defense sector.

After several years as part of a backdrop for successive American administrations to participate in EU-led projects, accepting the US into PESCO marks a salient step for the future of EU-US cooperation in projects under EU rules.  On the eve of embarking on the Military Mobility project, the US repeated its concern over duplication of NATO’s efforts as well as increasing fear that it would cut off US military manufacturers

The Americans’ skepticism in 2018 escalated with an apprehension of PESCO becoming a protectionist vehicle for the EU. But after the bumpy road in the US-EU defense cooperation, the EU decision to allow third countries to participate in the project at the end of 2020, has put some strategic allies such as the US, Canada or Norway at ease. 

In short, the recent deal might likewise serve as evidence that the new US administration supports the materialization of EU’s defense ambitions.  There is no doubt that this is an important step for future transatlantic cooperation and a definite beginning of the EU-US defense agenda, which does not replace but rather enrich cooperation within NATO framework. 

The decision to revive the EU-US defense cooperation agenda comes only a month before the upcoming NATO summit and the EU-US summit, both to be held in June. These will allow for a further discussion on how to reinforce the transatlantic cooperation within NATO as well as in EU led projects. 

Not to forget, admitting non-EU countries to PESCO project is also a success story for EU-Norway defense cooperation. Norway, being the most integrated non-EU country, maintains a fervent interest in continued involvement in EU led defense projects and in civilian and military missions. Norwegian participation in the Military Mobility project will improve the ability to deploy forces from Northern Europe and will contribute to the overall security of the region. 

Although the swift movement of personnel and equipment – and the military mobility in itself – is the primary objective of the project, this may live up to the expectations only if the efforts match the advancement of the ill-adapted critical infrastructure. 

Here, the cooperation within PESCO project will be key in streamlining the red tape, customs procedures as well as cross-border clearances.

Not only does the United States currently have around 70,000 troops stationed in Europe, but also 30,000 are involved in the Defender Europe 2021 exercise. Canada is already participating in NATO battlegroup near Russia’s borders, in which Norway takes part as well. Therefore, the question of military mobility far exceeds the scope of PESCO.

The task of conveying military equipment, in the event of an attack, has been part of NATO´s calculus for decades. When it comes to physical critical infrastructure, NATO does not have the capacity to build bridges, roads, rail connections, adequately long airstrips or to work on the mechanisms to bridge the bureaucratic and administrative procedures for transporting military equipment across Europe.

Additionally, swifter deployments of troops require a level of standardization of states’ customs rules which are incompatible with the Customs Code’s not covering military equipment. The European Union’s 27 members need to be on board with facilitating this type of military mobility while still having until 2024 to “simplify and standardise” relevant practices linked to this framework.

Fixing this issue is important for the technological advancement of European forces as well as NATO’s mobilization of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, if necessary. With the recent European Council’s decision, the EU is well-positioned to make use of the €1.7 billion the bloc set aside in the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) to support the desired mobility.

This is where PESCO has a chance to bring about considerable improvements in critical infrastructure such as technology, data connectivity, cyber defence, and to safeguard and maintain the transportation infrastructure – to magnify NATO’s existing mechanisms within EU-led projects and initiatives.

The US, Canada and Norway’s invitation to participate in the Military Mobility project comes at a time when Central and Eastern European countries strive for more funds directed towards enabling the interoperability of military personnel through NATO’s eastern flank in case an intensified confrontation in the east was to occur. 

While the funding dedicated to European defence has been reduced in the MFF compared to the original proposal, the recently approved €7.9 billion package for the European Defence Fund (EDF), pledging more money than what the EDF was supposed to receive after the bitter budget negotiations, implies that the EU is moving in the right direction.

German Defense Minister, Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer, said that the bloc sees itself “as the logistical hub in Europe.” This EU “hub” is to commence the flagship initiative for EU-NATO cooperation while broadening the spectrum of the bloc’s defense capabilities.

Nonetheless, the EU needs to ensure that the initiative will not be quelled by insufficient funds or immense bureaucratic processes. Unity, transparency, and coherence will remain crucial. 

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