We've been asked about claims that the UK Government intends, regardless of the BREXIT referendum vote, to integrate this country's armed forces with those of other EU nations under the banner of so-called 'Permanent Structured Cooperation' (PESCO). A petition about this has gained an impressive number of signatures, claiming that "Government Ministers are seeking to appease the EU with agreements to combine all UK Defence Forces into one EU Defence Force ... If this goes ahead, It will mean that foreign (EU - German?) armies will be given [the] right to be deployed on our streets to control any civil unrest - eg: opposition to the EU." [Our bold]
Although aware of PESCO, the politically-non-partisan BAFF wouldn't normally be commenting on such policy issues except where there were clear implications for HM Forces personnel.
But any plan to "combine" British and foreign armed forces, if it existed, would be a very legitimate subject for comment.
PESCO has been featuring on social media since long before the referendum, especially in eurosceptic circles. To date there's been very little about it on the GOV.UK website, but there have been plenty mentions in Parliament from 2011 onwards - try searching for 'PESCO' or 'Permanent Structured Cooperation' at www.theyworkforyou.com.
In the Lords on 16 November 2017, former First Sea Lord, Lord West of Spithead, described the PESCO process as "very misguided" - "talking shops, headquarters and posturing" - but nevertheless argued that the United Kingdom should be "fully involved in this process and at the heart of Europe in defence terms, because we cannot let Europe go running off, not achieving anything and not looking after its security. We are good at this and we need to be fully involved."
In the Commons on 1 December 2017, Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan reported in a ministerial answer that:
"The aim of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) is to strengthen EU Member States' cooperation in military matters. PESCO is voluntary and works on an opt-in basis.
"The UK Government has not committed to PESCO but supports its ambition to develop military capabilities that address the shortfalls in EU and NATO contexts. We welcome PESCO as a tool to support the development of capabilities that Europe needs for its security, provided it remains complementary to NATO and encourages EU-NATO cooperation; and that projects carried out under PESCO remain Member State-owned and the capabilities delivered are available not only to the EU but can also be used in support of NATO and UN operations...
"We are encouraging Member States to develop PESCO to be open to third country participation where there is clear value in doing so.
"Our vision is of a unique third country partnership that enables unprecedented levels of practical cooperation in tackling common threats building on our shared values and interests. We believe that PESCO must be designed in a way that promotes an open and competitive European Defence industry..."
PESCO is also, rightly, on the radar of several House of Commons Committees - eg European Scrutiny Committee, 13 November 2017.
"Third country participation" and "third country partnership" means the UK, so the petitioners are quite right in that HM Government appears prepared to consider such a relationship "where there is clear value in doing so".
These are indeed very legitimate subjects for concern and debate. There are four facts worth bearing in mind, however:
- The PESCO protocol is subsidiary to the EU Treaties, specifically the Lisbon Treaty. Therefore, the UK is entitled to sign up to PESCO while it remains an EU member, but its membership of PESCO would automatically end on its leaving the EU, unless some special "third party" arrangement is negotiated.
- As the UK is on the way out of the EU, it is no longer in a realistic position to veto a wish by other sovereign nations to sign up to PESCO.
- PESCO would not entitle participant nations to deploy forces to the territory of another participant nation, without the invitation of the host nation.
- Crucially, the use of a nation's military personnel and resources would remain a sovereign decision of that nation.
The petitioners are justified in drawing continued public attention to this issue. However, discussion should be factually based. The Government must keep Parliament informed, and (if it believes that there is "clear value" in UK involvement in PESCO) report to Parliament before any commitment is entered into.
Tags: UK Politics & Government