2nd April 2014 by Niklas Novaky * - europeangeostrategy.org
This year will mark the 10th anniversary of the European Union’s (EU) battlegroup (BG) concept. Despite the approaching milestone, the EU is unlikely to celebrate it with much fanfare. This is because, although the EU has deployed three Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) military crisis management operations since the first battlegroups became operational in January 2005, none of them have been a BG-operation.
The future of the BG-concept was subject to heated debate in the run-up to last December’s European Council, where EU heads of state and government focused on CSDP for the first time since the Lisbon Treaty’s entry into force in 2009. Over the years, many EU countries have become frustrated by the BGs because using them in crisis situations has proven extremely difficult, although they are often hailed as CSDP’s ‘flagship capability’.
The latest opportunity to use them came last year when the security climate in the Central African Republic (CAR) deteriorated. In March 2013, the Séléka group, a loose coalition of Muslim militias, overthrew the CAR government of President François Bozizé. After President Bozizé fled the country, Séléka-leader Michel Djotodia became the country’s President. However, the situation in the country deteriorated further after clashes between various Christian and Muslim groups escalated in the second half of 2013.
In order to contribute to the international community’s efforts to stabilise the situation in the CAR, the EU began to consider the option of deploying a BG in November. It was considered that the BGs would be an ideal instrument for providing temporary relief on the ground by stabilising the situation in Bangui, the CAR capital. However, the idea of deploying a BG collapsed quickly.
In the second half of 2013, the only BG on standby was led by the United Kingdom (UK). However, Britain’s conservative-led coalition government refused to discuss deploying the BG because it would have been extremely difficult for it to justify using the BG for its Eurosceptic domestic audience. In the first half of 2014, the only BG on standby was led by Greece. However, this BG could not be used either because it lacked financial resources. According to member state officials, Greece was also reluctant to deploy the BG for political reasons; since the country has gone through dramatic cuts to balance its budget, deploying the BG would not have been popular among the Greek public.
The EU’s inability to use the BGs in the CAR raises tough questions about the future of the BG concept. Finland’s Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, for example, expressed recently that ‘there is something fundamentally wrong in the EU’s capabilities’ if the BGs cannot be deployed when there is a clear need to deploy them. Furthermore, Sweden’s Foreign Minter Carl Bildt saw that the Union’s failure to use the BGs in the CAR could even spell the end of the BG concept as we know it.
The Nordics’ frustration is not just words. At the Athens informal EU defence ministerial in February, Sweden proposed that EU defence ministers should hold a workshop to study the conditions under which the BG could be deployed in the future. According to Finnish Defence Minister Carl Haglud, this shows that the member states are finally waking up to the reality that the BG concept simply ‘does not work’ in its current form.
In the author’s opinion, there are two options for increasing the deployability of EU BGs. The first one is the modularity idea, which was featured in High Representative Catherine Ashton’s annual report on CSDP in October 2013. According to Ashton, BG modularity ‘would allow incorporating the modules provided by the member states most interested in a given crisis, avoiding a too rigid and prescribed composition of the EU BGs, and allowing for more proportionate contributions according to member states’ means’. In other words, rather than having a rigid pre-determined structure, BGs could be assembled from EU member states’ modules on a case-by-case basis.
Modularity is an idea worth testing because it would increase the BGs’ flexibility. However, it is unlikely that it would significantly speed up the EU’s military deployment process. This is because the deployment of BGs would still depend on EU member states’ willingness to contribute the required modules, which is not guaranteed to happen. As the case of EUFOR RCA has show, EU member states have difficulties generating enough forces even for a relatively small operation of 1,000 troops. Thus, it is unclear how BG modularity would change the current dynamics in the EU’s force generation process.
In order to work, modularity needs to be complemented with second parallel reform, i.e. increasing common funding for possible BG-operations. In the event that the EU decides to launch a BG-operation, the vast majority of the operation’s costs would currently be funded according to the principle of ‘costs lie where they fall’. This means that each member state participating in a BG-operation would be responsible for covering the expenses of its own contingent without external assistance. The only exception to this rule is a small amount of common costs, which are funded through the Athena mechanism.
To improve EU member states’ incentives to participate in BG-operations, common funding should be increased significantly. The best-case scenario would be to have the Athena mechanism fund the majority of BG-operations’ costs. This way EU member states would not have to worry about funding issues at the time when they are making a decision on whether or not to contribute modules to a possible BG-operation. In other words, the idea of using a BG should never again collapse because there would not be enough funding for it!
Sweden’s proposal to hold a ministerial workshop on EU BGs is a good one, although it is likely that resolving the BGs’ current structural problems will take much more than one workshop. However, if EU member states could implement modularity in an effective way and increase the level of common funding for possible BG operations, the deployability of EU BGs is likely to increase.
* Mr. Niklas Novaky is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Aberdeen. He is also a Visiting Researcher at the Institute for European Studies, Free University of Brussels. He writes here in a personal capacity.