Members' Research Service By / April 1, 2022

Third-country participation in EU defence

Cooperation with third countries is embedded in several dimensions of EU security and defence policy. The Strategic Compass, adopted in March 2022, dedicates one of its main sections to the role of partnerships.

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Written by Elena Lazarou.

Cooperation with third countries is embedded in several dimensions of EU security and defence policy. The Strategic Compass, adopted in March 2022, dedicates one of its main sections to the role of partnerships.


Third countries (i.e. non-EU countries) can take part in EU common security and defence policy (CSDP) in various ways. These range from contributing to CSDP missions, financial investment and joint training, to taking part in dialogue and defence industrial initiatives. In its section on partnering, the Strategic Compass, approved by the Council in March 2022, calls for stronger tailored bilateral partnerships with like-minded partners, such as the US, Norway, Japan, the UK and Canada, multilateral organisations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United Nations (UN) and regional organisations. It also stresses the importance of partnerships with the eastern and southern neighbourhood, the western Balkans, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, emphasising participation in CSDP missions and operations and support for capacity-building. It also envisages an EU security and defence partnership forum.

Permanent structured cooperation (PESCO)

Established in 2017, PESCO is designed to deepen defence cooperation among the 25 participating EU Member States. There are now 60 PESCO projects addressing a range of domains: training (9), land (8), maritime (8), air (10), cyber (10), space (4), and joint services (11). In 2020, the Council set out conditions ‘exceptionally’ permitting third countries to take part in PESCO, providing the countries added ‘substantial added value’ and shared the EU’s founding values, and no external dependencies resulted. Countries must submit their requests to participate to the project’s lead country, and all participating Member States must agree unanimously. The Council and the High Representative/Vice-President of the Commission must be notified, with the Council giving formal approval. In May 2021, EU defence ministers agreed to invite the US, Canada and Norway – three key NATO allies – to join the PESCO military mobility project. The focus is on facilitating cross-border troop and equipment movement and harmonising transportation rules; a goal also shared by NATO. The EU has also acknowledged Ukraine‘s wish to join PESCO projects, so as to deepen EU-Ukraine defence cooperation. Third-country-controlled entities can participate as of 31 December 2025.

European Defence Agency (EDA)

To help Member States with their capabilities development, the EDA can sign administrative agreements (AAs) with third countries, to allow their participation in military-technological programmes, providing there is reciprocal transparency and they adopt EU intellectual property rights legislation. The EDA has AAs with four non-EU countries: Norway, Switzerland, Serbia and Ukraine; and two organisations: the Organisation for Joint Armament Co-operation and the European Space Agency. In November 2021, the EDA was mandated to conclude an AA with the US, to outline a future framework for cooperation. In principle, an AA between a third country and the EDA is considered a pre-requisite for that country’s participation in a PESCO project.

European Defence Fund (EDF) and European defence industrial policy

The EDF supports research and development in EU defence capabilities, by co-financing measures that contribute to competitiveness, innovation and strategic autonomy and to a stronger defence technological and industrial base (EDTIB). The Fund has been endowed with €8 billion for the 2021-2027 period, of which €2.65 billion for research and innovation, and €5.3 billion for capabilities. The EDF regulation stipulates that, apart from non-EU countries that are members of the European Economic Area, only entities established in the EU or associated countries – and that are not subject to control by third countries or third-country entities – are eligible for EDF grant schemes. In cases of derogation from this rule, ‘there shall be no unauthorised access by a non-associated third country or non-associated third-country entity to classified information regarding action supported by the Fund’. In June 2020, the Commission announced a list of projects funded through the preparatory action on defence research and the European defence industrial development programme (precursors of the EDF), four of which involved the US, Canada and Japan.


The 2016 space strategy promotes synergies between the civil and defence sectors. Geopolitical competition extends to outer space, and autonomous space capabilities enhance situational awareness, not least through the European global navigation satellite system (Galileo), Copernicus, and the European geostationary navigation overlay service (EGNOS). The EU earmarked €13.2 billion for space activities in the 2021-2027 period, managed by DG DEFIS. In 2004, the EU and US agreed on cooperation between Galileo and the global positioning system (GPS), while the EU signed agreements with Norway (2010) and with Switzerland (2013) on cooperation on satellite navigation and Galileo-related classified information exchange. According to the EU’s negotiating directives, the UK can access Galileo’s public regulated service (PRS), but third parties cannot take part in encrypting the PRS system. The UK is participating in Copernicus as a third country in the 2021-2027 period. This allows it to apply for EU Copernicus tenders.

The Commission’s space-based secure communication system, part of its space package, secures uninterrupted access to satellite communications and improved connectivity. Here, dialogues with third countries are expected on space traffic management while third countries may participate in the 2023-2027 ‘Union secure connectivity programme’. Similarly, the Roadmap on critical technologies for security and defence notes that in order to reduce strategic dependence, the EU needs to coordinate with like-minded partners such as NATO, the US, Canada, Norway and Japan. Transatlantic coordination on critical technologies also takes place within the EU-US Trade and Technology Council.

CSDP missions and operations

The Strategic Compass includes the creation by 2025 of the EU rapid deployment capacity, a modular force of up to 5 000, including substantially modified EU battlegroups. Operational since 2007, but yet to be deployed, the battlegroups are of a rotating nature and can involve non-EU countries. For example, the Nordic battlegroup includes Norway; and Ukraine and Serbia took part in the Greek-led Balkan battlegroup. Ukraine was invited to join the Visegrad battlegroup in 2016.

The Council has highlighted EU support for regular dialogue with third countries, while facilitating partners’ participation in CSDP missions. The EU currently has seven military and 11 civilian missions under CSDP, while the 20 framework cooperation agreements (FPA) currently in force provide the political and legal basis for third-country participation in missions. These also clarify that this contribution should be without prejudice to operational planning and EU decision-making autonomy. The EU’s counter-piracy mission EUNAVFOR Atalanta has, for instance, involved Colombia, South Korea, Montenegro, Ukraine and others, while Turkey contributes to the EUFOR Althea mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The new EUTM Mozambique mission is also open to third-country involvement. In all, more than 45 third countries have contributed to CSDP missions so far. In January 2021, the EU Military Committee (EUMC) recommended developing criteria for non-EU country participation in CSDP missions, and creating a CSDP ‘partners consultative mechanism’ to be chaired by the EEAS. According to the EUMC recommendation, the basic conditions for a third country to become a ‘CSDP partner’ would be an FPA, a security of information agreement (SIA), good neighbourly relations with the EU, shared EU values and principles, and respect for international law. Also in 2021, the EU enhanced the modalities for participation of third countries in CSDP missions and operations by ensuring a greater level of information-sharing. Partner countries have also taken part in CSDP exercises. For example, in 2020, the US, Canada and Norway joined in the EEAS EU Integrated Revolve 2020 exercise to improve crisis management.

The European Parliament has welcomed third-country involvement in CSDP missions and third-party involvement in the EDA, noting that participation in PESCO should be based on ‘established and effective reciprocity’. Parliament has also asked to be ‘fully involved’ in the process of opening PESCO to third countries. Parliament’s 2020 annual report on common foreign and security policy (CFSP) meanwhile, acknowledged the contribution of Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries to CSDP, and called for deeper EU-EaP cooperation in EU-related defence policies. On the EDF, Parliament has recognised the need to regulate access to companies controlled by third countries and noted that while third countries may offer ‘technological and operational added value’, this must not weaken the EU’s strategic security interests or undermine EDF objectives. Parliament has also stressed the need to be ‘creative’ regarding EU-UK cooperation on CFSP and CSDP.

Read this ‘at a glance’ on ‘Third-country participation in EU defence‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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