Pesco, the impotent gorilla

Criticisms of PESCO could equally be applied to Germany’s broader security and defence policy.

If you grab a random German on the street and ask what “PESCO” is, there’s a good chance that the answer will be “a gorilla”, rather than “the cornerstone of a European defence and security union”. Why? In 1999 – incidentally the year in which the Amsterdam treaty came into force and laid the ground for PESCO – the Saarbrücken zoo got its first male gorilla, named Pesco. Searching PESCO in the German press, you are thus more likely to find reference to an – admittedly handsome – silverback gorilla, than to the European defence initiative.

The PESCO notification was signed with much fanfare in Brussels on Monday. At the same time, a rather fancy conference on NATO took place in Berlin next to the Brandenburg Gate. When the panel on European defence ended, several people complained to me that the speakers were using acronyms like PESCO “that nobody knows or understands.”

More PR work therefore seems necessary to support the union’s plans for Permanent Structured Cooperation on defence. The German press reported on the signing ceremony, but most reporters were clearly rewriting the same press release, telling the same story of how Europe was finally becoming serious on defence because of the Trump scare and because, thanks to Brexit, the UK could no longer block such cooperation.

Granted, even in pro-European Germany one would not expect every new EU initiative to get major attention. And Germany is of course busy with the negotiations for Jamaica. But PESCO is a project that the German government welcomed as “a big step towards [European] self-reliance” (Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel), and “another step in the direction of the Army of Europeans” (Defence Minister von der Leyen). So this is allegedly a really big deal.

Not all assessments have been positive, however. ECFR’s Nick Witney, the first chief executive of the European Defence Agency, argues that PESCO has been made far too inclusive (a German demand), including members that only joined to slow it down in the case of Poland. “There is no value-added in any of this”, he concludes; “Big noise on stairs, nobody coming down”.

Unfortunately, these words could also apply to Germany’s supposed increased commitment to security and defence policy more broadly. Newly based in Berlin, I have spent the last few weeks meeting with members of the German security and defence community. One thing that has become obvious is a worrying disparity between Germans’ domestic perception of their efforts in security and defence and the perceptions of those efforts elsewhere in Europe.

The Berlin narrative is clear: ever since the 1990s, Germany has gradually stepped up its game. The Kosovo intervention broke the taboo of the use of military force. Afghanistan proved German reliability. Germany is now engaged in Mali, and a series of influential politicians keeps emphasising Germany’s willingness to do more. Germany took the lead in making PESCO happen. So things are clearly moving in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the view outside Germany is markedly different. The narratives start diverging after Kosovo. While the German military is very proud of its Afghanistan engagement, allies complained about restrictive rules of engagement and caveats. Observers criticise Germany’s role as a NATO framework nation as politically motivated but militarily absurd, as divisions are paired that can’t work together in any meaningful way. And now PESCO, which some argue has been severely watered down by Germany’s insistence on inclusivity.

There is some truth to both the domestic and foreign narratives, but the disparity in perception is alarming. Germans are proud of how far they have come. But European allies are starting to roll their eyes when they hear this narrative.

PESCO could still present a way out of this. It’s a framework, rather than a policy, and we are in the early stages where vague declarations of intent still need to be filled with content. 47 projects are on the table; 10 should be decided on by the end of the year. The participants could yet find a way to prevent the inclusive nature of the framework from diluting its ambitions and deliver some far-reaching projects.

Sophia Besch from the Center of European Reform notes that “an effective assessment mechanism that holds member-states to account, and ultimately kicks them out of the club if they fail to fulfil the ambitious commitments they have signed up to” would be one way to strengthen the framework. PESCO might even help to foster a European strategic culture and push Germany to go beyond statements. A girl can dream. Let us just hope that PESCO does not end up like Pesco the gorilla, for which the official website notes “so far without offspring”.

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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