Finding a use for the European Union Battle Groups


Peace, Security & Defence

When the laser was invented, somebody said that it was a wonderful solution waiting for a problem. Something similar can be said for the EU Battle Groups (EU-BG).

At first, it looked as if the concept of the EU-BG was rather clear and would provide solutions to various security problems. The European Council Summit of 1999 had decided to set up “smaller rapid response elements available and deployable at very high readiness”, while the 2010 Headline Goals, adopted by the European Council in 2004, specified the EU’s military goals as “humanitarian and rescue tasks, peace keeping tasks, task of combat forces in crisis management including peace-making.” The EU-BG was supposed to play the role also of an initial entry force to be followed, if necessary, by more sizable European units, as well as to provide support for a country affected by a terrorist act and assist in state-building operations.

The idea was to always have two Battle Groups ready for active deployment, to be replaced by another pair every six-months. Since 2005, when the first two BGs were formed, not a single one of the over 20 that have so far been set up has been called to action. This is not because there was no need for them. Throughout this period, the EU has sent troops to address various crises like those in Chad, the Congo and Mali, just to name a few. On each occasion, the deployed EU military force has always been formed from scratch, from outside the EU-BG system. The most natural question to ask is why?

It is worth reminding ourselves that the decision to use the EU-BG can only be taken by full EU consensus, so any reluctance from one of the contributing countries is absolutely decisive. To hide a country’s true reasons for objecting, which very often result from internal politics, various technical arguments have been used. Often the point is made that the mission requires a totally different kind of force than what the EU-BG can provide – either because it’s too small or of the wrong composition. Sometimes the obstacle was cited as timing – the mission was supposed to go beyond the BG period of availability, with the other BG not yet ready for action. Sometimes the genuine reason was financial. In the EU, unlike in the UN, the main bulk of the mission’s costs are covered by the nations providing the deployed troops.

One solution is simply to scrap the programme altogether. But another is to draw lessons and introduce amendments; so how exactly can and should this be done?

  • It’s absolutely necessary to streamline the decision process regarding BG deployment. If the deployment request comes from the UN or OSCE, the power to veto should be with the countries that are the main contributors to the BG under consideration. For other missions, a rule of “consensus minus one” seems quite appropriate.
  • The system of financing the EU operations should be radically changed to mirror that of the UN. In EU operations almost all the costs are covered by the participating countries, whereas in UN operations all costs including the use of equipment are on the UN side. This is why, for many countries, participation in the UN operations is a reasonable source of income and the largest contributors to UN operations are countries like Ghana  or Nepal.
  • Of the two on-duty BGs, one should be capable of engagement in a more demanding mission like ceasefire enforcement or a rescue operation in a hostile environment, whereas the other one should be dedicated to more peaceful tasks like the supervision of an election, natural disaster relief or classic peace monitoring. It means that the composition of these two specialised BGs should be completely different.
  • To avoid a situation in which BG deployment is not possible because the end of the BG’s on-duty period is approaching, it is necessary to extend the 6-month period to at least 9 months, allowing for a 3-month overlap with the readiness time of the next BG.
  • All procedures should be adapted for compliance with NATO standards, including a common set of rules of engagement. Thereafter, closer co-operation with NATO must be secured by working out the details of a BG co-ordination concept and deployment strategy, especially in anticipation of a more demanding mission that may require a more substantial military deployment.

By revising rather than scrapping its present arrangements, it is indeed possible to make the EU Battle Groups much better suited to the needs of the Common Security and Defence Policy. Following these steps will make the BG an effective, and indeed readily deployable, solution to Europe’s security threats.

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