Ireland should engage more with EU defence structures such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (Pesco) process in the face of new global threats, an Oireachtas Committee has been told.
The Joint Committee on European Affairs heard from experts who said Ireland needs to ask itself “difficult questions” about defence and to consider its dependence on other powers for its prosperity.
Dr Kenneth McDonagh, Associate Professor of International Relations in Dublin City University (DCU), said the country needs to consider if it will continued to rely on the “kindness of strangers” to support its global ambitions “or if we are willing to take the serious steps necessary to develop the type of capabilities that will help Ireland to be safe, prosperous and influential for decades to come.”
One avenue for this is the EU’s push for “strategic autonomy”, a concept which involves reducing reliance on the United States for protection and on Russia and China for goods and energy.
EU leaders have argued that European prosperity has relied on cheap energy from Russia and cheap manufactured goods from China “while on the other hand, it has outsourced responsibility for its security to the United States”, Dr McDonagh said.
This led to the EU Foreign Policy chief Joseph Borrell telling diplomats “we have decoupled the sources of our prosperity from the sources of our security”.
Like the rest of the EU, Ireland has also decoupled its security from its prosperity, said Dr McDonagh.
Although located in a stable part of the world, far from potential enemies, “the realities of the modern world have reduced the buffer zone provided by geography, bringing once distant threats to our door or placing our people in harm’s way abroad”.
The academic pointed to the need for Irish officials to rely on the Finnish and French air forces to help evacuate citizens from Kabul after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in 2021.
One way the EU is trying to achieve strategic autonomy is through Pesco, a collection of military projects where member states work together to achieve a goal.
Ireland is currently a member of just five Pesco projects, ten per cent of the total numbers, Dr McDonagh told the committee. Until last year it was a member of just one.
It is currently involved in Pesco projects relating to maritime surveillance, cyber threats, disaster relief capability, special operations forces medical training and mine countermeasures.
Dr McDonagh suggested it examine taking part in projects involving the development of a new, EU-made warship, a mid-size transport aircraft and an armoured fighting vehicle.
Prof Andrew Cottey from University College Cork (UCC) said Ireland has arguably been excessively cautious in engaging with EU defence co-operation and that it could do more in this area. More active co-operation would allow Ireland to be seen “as a contributor rather than a free-rider and help the Defence Forces develop the capabilities they need”.
While defence co-operation has increased under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), the EU still stops short of being a collective defence union, Prof Cottey said.
The ongoing dependence on Nato for European defence needs means it is unlikely to move towards such a union for the foreseeable future. Therefore, Ireland’s involvement in EU defence co-operation will likely continue to be compatible with the policy of neutrality, he said.