Brexit is allowing Europe to get serious about defending itself

The headaches of negotiating Brexit
The headaches of negotiating Brexit

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The headaches of negotiating Brexit 01:37

Steven Blockmans is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, a think tank based in Brussels. The opinions in this article are those of the author.

(CNN)The theatrics surrounding the Brexit negotiations have caused many to pay little attention to something far more important when considering the future of Europe: the formal launch of the EU's "permanent structured cooperation" in defense.

Euroskeptics have for years derided such moves as an attempt to undermine NATO by forming some kind of parallel "EU Army." In reality, the plans are so moderate and the politics behind them so fraught that such concerns flatter those responsible.
Lack of political will and mutual trust among EU member states have long been an obstacle to more cooperation in the area of security and defense.
In the years of austerity that followed the financial crisis, defense budgets all over Europe were slashed in an uncoordinated manner, hollowing out most member states' military capabilities.
    Facing a fraught security climate in the Arab world, EU member state leaders decided in 2013 to buck the trend. But progress has been slow.
    Tapping into the political momentum generated by Russia's assault against Ukraine, the prospect of Brexit and the unpredictability injected into US foreign policy under Donald Trump, this time last year, European leaders instructed EU institutions to prepare the ground for strengthening the Union's common security and defense.
    Twelve months later, a separate European defense fund has been created, along with an annual review mechanism to make sure member states are keeping up with their defense spending and planning, as well as a permanent headquarters.
    On top of that, the EU is now formally launching the catchily-named permanent structured cooperation ("PESCO" in Eurospeak) between 24 member states for the development and deployment of defense capabilities.
    Although this package was developed with remarkable speed -- in response to the sense that European countries should be offering better protection against the security threats within and outside of its borders -- the political rhetoric surrounding it has raised expectations that the Union may not be able to meet.
    First, the German desire for inclusivity -- having as many as 25 member states on board in PESCO -- will ultimately hold back substantial progress in this field.
    While the level of ambition described has thus far been maintained, the EU's decision-making by way of unanimity will mean that the speed with which any of this can happen will be determined by the slowest of the pack.
    Poland may well replace the UK as the member state which most frequently slams on the brakes.
    In the face of Russian aggression, the country relies on the provision of hard security guarantees by the US. Warsaw has long resisted the idea of EU defense integration for fear that it might undermine NATO's resolve in coming to the rescue in its hour of need.
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    Second, the new European defense fund has been touted as a "game changer" because it introduces an instrument whereby the European Commission can tap into the EU's general budget to finance initiatives in the area of defense.
    The plan to earmark €1.5 billion a year after 2020 to spend on military research and development is indeed ground-breaking. But it is also conditional on a future agreement on the EU's post-Brexit financial framework.
    And as things stand, the sums of money currently available -- and the arrangements to bring EU funds online for development and acquisition -- will fail to produce the big bang that the EU needs to create a military-industrial complex.
    The potential to "turbo-charge defense spending" is likely to be limited to areas where EU-wide initiatives do not threaten national industries and local jobs and where transnational responses are required to meet challenges. A European cyber shield and drone force come to mind.
    Third, the creation of a coordinated annual review on defense (CARD) also depends on trust.
    The system is designed to encourage EU member states to synchronize their budgets and capability plans. Yet CARD operates on a voluntary basis. Short of suspending a member state from PESCO, it is unclear how compliance with the binding commitments will be enforced.
    It is worth noting that none of these efforts are intended to duplicate or compete with NATO, but to streamline and improve the functioning of existing structures within the EU.
    In fact, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has given his seal of approval to the EU's initiatives, provided that the two organizations act in a manner in which one doesn't undermine the other.
    National governments operate a single set of forces, so by using joint instruments and developing member states' capabilities, the EU will strengthen capabilities that are also available to NATO and the United Nations.
    A stronger EU will also be in the UK's interest once it has left the EU.
    The British government's plans to forge a strong military partnership with the EU may seem ironic when considering the fact that as a member state, the UK constantly tried to prevent such progress.
    But if Europe is to address the threats it faces from both inside and outside of its own borders, Britain and the EU will need to work together more closely than ever.