Bringing good news from Ghent

If there was ever a moment for defence ministers to pool their efforts and resources, then this is it. Defence budgets across the continent are being severely cut as austerity measures kick in. Ahead of the defence ministers’ meeting in Ghent on 23-24 September, Nick Witney points out that the Lisbon Treaty offers defence ministers a ready-made ‘transnational defence cooperation’ device in the form of PESCO – and urges them to use it.

In the galloping anapaests of Robert Browning’s poem, the messengers rode through the night to bring the good news from Ghent to Aix. But Europe’s defence ministers, meeting on 23-24 September in Ghent, will arrive with little but bad news to share. Each is oppressed by the same problem – how to make radical reductions to their expenditure plans in the light of the eye-watering cuts being visited on defence budgets across the continent.

In Austerity Europe, finance ministers are riding high. Even in the best of times, it is part of their vocation to resent providing money for defence. Now, backed by the government-wide imperative to slash expenditure, they can really stick the knife. From Germany’s 8 billion euro cuts to Bulgaria’s crippling 40%, the story is the same across the continent: the financial roof is about to fall in on European defence.

Well, a problem shared is meant to be a problem halved: and, if the defence ministers are not too depressed to take it, their Ghent discussions offer them a golden opportunity to chart a way out of their difficulties. For years, they have all signed up to earnest declarations emphasising the need for them to do more together – to cut back on all the wasteful duplication that the blinkered national approach to defence entails (just how many wind-tunnels, or flight schools, do we actually need in Europe? Was the 4 billion euros spent putting the new NH90 helicopter through repeated national analyses of its airworthiness really money well spent?). If there was ever a moment for defence ministers to embrace the imperative to pool their efforts and resources, from the research laboratory to the front line, then this is it.

Serendipitously, the Ghent agenda places before them a ready-made way to do it, in the shape of a device in the Lisbon Treaty called ‘permanent structured cooperation’ (PESCO for short). It is designed to promote exactly this sort of transnational defence cooperation, by encouraging the formation of pioneer groups – self-selecting bands of member states who, according to interest and aptitude, will commit themselves to deepen their cooperation on collaborative weapons projects; or to rationalise their shipyards; or to work together on pretty much anything else that would save money if done once together rather than many times separately. The scheme allows the pioneers to set their own criteria for participation, and to specify commitments as conditions of entry – thus both telling their own people how high to aim, and ensuring that the member states who are serious about getting real results are free to get on with it, unimpeded by the merely curious, or the downright obstructive. The device might even spur some of the defence laggards if they find themselves no longer able to hide in the crowd.

A lifeline to grab with both hands, you might think. Yet the reaction of the defence establishments in member states has so far been muted, at best. No surprise that the defence laggards (those with the lowest levels of defence expenditure, and a record of absenteeism from European crisis-management operations) have been most vocal in decrying the idea as ‘divisive’. But more general doubts have been raised about the value-added – why bother with this new arrangement when the European Defence Agency already exists precisely to facilitate such small-group, ‘variable geometry’ cooperation?

The short answer is that such step-by-step progress towards greater defence cooperation which the Agency has been able to stimulate simply does not meet the stark new circumstances. The defence ministers’ house is on fire, and it is time they stopped throwing tentative bucketfuls on the blaze and turned a fire-hose on it. The Agency deals essentially at the retail level, encouraging cooperation project-by-project: PESCO would require such efforts to be scaled up into wholesale, programme-by-programme joint endeavours. Thus far, in the absence of agreed targets or specific commitments, national defence ministries have been able to approach the Agency with the reflexes of the Victorian grande dame: ‘Find out what the children are doing, and tell them to stop’. Now, with the financial roof falling in on European defence capabilities, a fundamental change in attitude is required – from the ‘you propose and we’ll think about it’ mind-set to ‘we’ve taken the strategic decision to cut our maintenance costs by 25% through cooperation, now you help us to do it’.

Defence is by definition risk-averse: its purpose is to preserve the status quo. Vested interest resists change, and reinforces a culture of caution, in which the response to any new initiative is to exhaustively evaluate the possible down-sides. It needs determined leadership from the top to bring home to national defence establishments that often the riskiest course of all is to do nothing – and that this is such a moment.

So the onus falls on the ministers meeting on 23-24 September to send out the clear message that a step-change in European defence cooperation from the tactical to the strategic level is now essential; and that PESCO, designed for exactly this purpose, is their chosen means. The consequent press briefings and instructions to their staffs will be less dramatic than a mad gallop by night across the Low Countries: but this would truly be good news from Ghent.

A shorter version of this piece was published by European Voice.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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