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Why has the EU’s army never been deployed?

Austrian Army

As France urges the EU to create a fund to finance military operations of member states, FRANCE 24 takes a look at the pan-European army that was established nine years ago – but has yet to be deployed.


One year after proving reticent to join France’s military intervention in Mali, the EU is balking at the prospect of sending troops to bolster French soldiers currently in the Central African Republic.

But at a year-end summit of European leaders that kicked off Thursday in Brussels, French President François Hollande appeared determined to increase EU involvement and investment in his country’s military operations.

To that end, he has suggested the creation of a common European fund that could finance such operations – even when they are undertaken by a single member state.

“France esteems that its operations in Mali and the Central African Republic are in the best interests of all EU countries, so there’s no reason for the French to be the only ones paying,” explained Federico Santopinto, a specialist in EU conflicts at the Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security (GRIP) in Brussels.

But Hollande’s proposal has received only lukewarm support.

An EU army waiting in the wings

Europe already has a joint, 28-member military initiative, consisting of tactical “battle groups” that can be swiftly deployed to prevent international conflicts or reinforce global security. The groups were launched in 2004 and have been fully operational since 2007, with 1,500 soldiers permanently on standby and member states alternating command of the units.

According to regulations that have been laid out, the battle groups can begin an intervention ten days after the European Council approves a road map for the operation. Their missions must last at least one month, but can be prolonged by the European Council for an additional three months.

On paper, the “European army” is efficient and credible. But the battle groups have never, in the seven years that they have been waiting in the wings, seen action.

There have been times when their deployment was conceivable. In 2007, the UN called for European military support in both Chad and Darfur to deal with large-scale humanitarian crises. The European battle groups were ready to leave, but the EU decided to assemble a different army – called Eufor Chade – tailored specifically for the mission, arguing that Chad was neither a priority nor an emergency.

And in both 2008 and 2012, the UN asked Europe to send the battle groups to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in an effort to bolster the “blue helmets” (the UN peacekeeping mission) in their effort to combat sexual violence in the country. But due to a lack of consensus between the 28 member states, the groups were never deployed.

‘Putting the horse before the carriage’

The European affairs blog Bruxelles2 has recently reported that the EU will not be sending its army to the Central African Republic anytime soon. In December, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, said that the UK had not signed off on any deployment of the groups. British officials, traditionally closely aligned with the US on military matters, have made it clear that they consider European security to be NATO’s domain.

“Theoretically, the battle groups could have intervened in the Central African Republic, but also in Mali,” Santopinto noted. “But the problem is that the EU has never carried out any major unified military operation. By creating a common military force without determining a common foreign policy, the European Council put the horse before the carriage.”

Without a common foreign policy, it is indeed difficult for the EU to arrive at the 28-member consensus needed for a deployment of its troops – especially since the regulations stipulate that the two or three countries assuming the rotating leadership of the battle groups finance the operation almost exclusively.

In other words, mobilising the troops essentially amounts to mission impossible. “Hollande’s proposal to create a common EU fund to finance any one member state’s military operation is an admission of the failure of the battle groups,” Santopinto concluded. “It’s a back-up plan to compensate for the fact that Europe is not using the tools it has at its disposal.”

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