European Affairs

Providing for the Common Defense of the EU     Print Email

jbebel201707At its June summit, the European Council agreed to further strengthen EU security and defense. In what European Council President Donald Tusk called a “historic step”, member states agreed to move forward with the proposed European Defense Fund and activate the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) mechanism. With Brexit negotiations underway, the agreement came without the UK, which has consistently opposed increased EU defense integration. Additionally, member states also agreed to revisit the funding of the EU battlegroups to facilitate their future deployment. This ambitious goal coincides with conclusions adopted by the Council in May to “reinforc[e] military rapid response” by restructuring the EU battlegroups.

Estonia assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union on July 1. Prime Minister Juri Ratas told the President of the European Parliament and other EU officials that “a safe and secure Europe” is one of four main areas of focus for the presidency. At a symposium on the future of EU common defense held in Washington D.C., Estonian Defense Minister Margus Tsahkna stated one of the first objectives of the Estonian presidency as “mak[ing] the existing EU battlegroups work.” With the Council’s conclusions and the Estonian Presidency’s priority focus, functionality of the battlegroups will be a major factor enhancing European security and defense moving forward.

The battlegroups themselves originate from the 1999 Helsinki European Council meeting at which rapid crisis response was identified as a key component of European security. In June 2004, the EU Military Committee agreed to develop the battlegroup idea and in October 2006 released a single document outlining the EU battlegroup concept as part of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). By January 2007, the battlegroups were formed.

Battlegroups are generally 1,500 personnel strong and have the initial supply capability to carry out 30-day missions, extendable to 120 days if resupplied properly. Two battlegroups are on stand-by for a rotating six-month period. Mobilization of the battlegroups focuses on the area of rapid crisis response and crisis management. The battlegroups concept provides a valuable opportunity for “enhanced military cooperation” among EU member states.

Each battlegroup is led by a “framework nation,” similar to the NATO Framework Nations Concept, or a multinational coalition of member states. The framework nation or coalition is responsible for generating a “battlegroup package” that dictates the capabilities a particular battlegroup will emphasize. There is no fixed structure, thus, offering member states flexibility in structuring a battlegroup.

Initially, member states agreed to the formation of 13 battlegroups. Since that time, 18 functional battlegroups have been formed with some countries like Germany and France participating in multiple groups. Not to be confused with NATO battlegroups, the EU battlegroups are formed and led by EU member states. Battlegroups may invite non-EU nations to participate and contribute to a force, but they operate independently of NATO. However, the Berlin Plus Agreement does lay out the terms by which CSDP and NATO should cooperate in crisis response. The arrangement allows for EU-led operations to utilize NATO assets and capabilities in crisis management.

Funding for the battlegroups is to come from the so called “Athena” funding mechanism. Athena covers “the financing of common costs relating to EU military operations” as a part of CSDP. Member states contribute to the fund based on an annual share of their gross national income as determined by the European Council. The mechanism can cover common costs ranging anywhere from running costs of military headquarters to providing for the lodging of forces. To date, Athena has helped finance EU operations in Libya, Congo, and Sudan. Currently, Athena is helping fund operations being carried out in Bosnia, Mali, and the Horn of Africa.

Yet, a recent European Parliament report shows that Athena covers only 10-15 percent of the cost to manage, arm, and deploy the battlegroups. This limited burden sharing means that the member states foot most of the bill. A majority of the funding comes from the member states following the “costs where they fall” principle. This arrangement burdens larger member states with a disproportionate amount of deployment costs. In 2015, member states agreed to a thorough revision of the mechanism, but have since done very little to affect the revisions.

Hence, the battlegroups have never been deployed. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini refers to “difficulties in the funding mechanism” which have stalled the deployment of these forces. Minister Tsahkna points out that a lack of equal burden sharing “reduces the political will” to mobilize the battlegroups. Others point to defense chiefs’ distrust of the EU as a major sticking point. Either way, the battlegroups are a controversial issue in European security. The Guardian even quoted a EU senior official declaring the battlegroups “the biggest failure of European policy.”

Even so, with mixed signals coming from the Trump administration on America’s role in European defense, the bloc’s desire to strengthen the continent’s defense capabilities has become a top priority. In response to uncertainties about President Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently stressed that Europe must “take [its] fate into [its] own hands.” In addition, European Council President Jean-Claude Juncker stated that the EU “can no longer afford to piggy-back on the military might of others.” The EU is beginning to move towards greater independence in providing for its own security, and the battlegroups play an integral part in those plans.

In June 2016, the EU released its new Global Strategy and cited the “deployment of the battlegroups” as a major goal to increase the responsiveness and resilience of European defense. High Representative Mogherini voiced the Commission’s support for using the battlegroups as “an asset” for “rapid European intervention.”

Steps have already been taken. In March 2017, the EU established a military training headquarters in Brussels that will be the office for the new Military Planning and Conducting Capability (MPCC) mechanism. One of the purposes of MPCC is to improve the “crisis management structures of the EU;” of which, the battlegroups are an essential part.

The proposed European Defense Fund (EDF) was given the go-ahead by EU27 at the most recent European Council meeting in Brussels. Agreement on EDF represents a renewed political will to revisit defense financing, such as the Athena mechanism. In fact, the European Commission has promised a “comprehensive revision” of Athena to be completed by the end of the year. At the aforementioned summit, member states also reaffirmed their commitment to bear the “common cost” of the battlegroups through Athena.

Additionally, the triggering of PESCO will allow for an “opt-in approach” to future security and defense cooperation. Those member states ready to move forward with projects, such as deploying the battlegroups, can do so without consent from every member state. Within three months, member states will agree to a common list of criteria to initiate this cooperation. President Tusk stated the aim of PESCO to be “ambitious and inclusive” in moving forward with future projects.

Nevertheless, despite this progress, obstacles remain on the road to European defense integration. Although the PESCO mechanism offers the chance for the EU to move forward with security measures, there is some worry over the implications of such a mechanism. Member states such as Poland do not want to see PESCO as “an alternative” to NATO, but rather “a bridge” between NATO and EU countries. Despite assurances from President Tusk, the Visegrad bloc (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia) has voiced “fierce resistance” to the concept as it could exclude their participation in future EU initiatives if some states move forward and the Visegrad nations do not. 

While these issues remain, EU appetite for using the battlegroups has increased. A recent Special Eurobarometer shows that 75 percent of EU citizens are in favor of a stronger “common defense and security policy between member states.” In terms of an “EU Army,” 54 percent of respondents are “in favor” of its creation, with the UK and Sweden as notable exceptions. Some experts see the future use and build up of the battlegroups as the first step towards creating an EU Army.

Making the battlegroups functional and affordable could also increase the effectiveness of European members in NATO. Some experts argue that increased emphasis on CSDP and the battlegroups would encourage member states to increase defense spending to meet their 2 percent defense spending commitment. In fact, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg encourages stronger European defense that “reinforces” a strong NATO. 

In addition, the battlegroups could improve EU-NATO cooperation. Currently, the battlegroups are to be primarily used for rapid crisis response and crisis management in Europe and its neighborhood. There have already been a number of successful EU-NATO joint missions in crisis response as seen with efforts in Kosovo, Somalia, and the Aegean Sea. Effective and efficient use of the battlegroups will enhance the ability of the EU and NATO to work together in their “comprehensive approach” to crisis management. 

All in all, the future of the EU battlegroups seems more positive now. European leaders have already committed to Estonia’s goal of mobilizing the battlegroups by the end of the year. Furthermore, EU officials have recently discussed the use of the battlegroups for future interventions in North Africa and the Middle East. Ongoing commitment to the battlegroups underlines a renewed European devotion in taking more responsibility for the EU’s own defense and security.

Moreover, the future of the European Project may be judged on its ability to thoroughly integrate on defense and security issues. As one senior EU diplomat puts it, “The real test is going to be on defense and not on the euro.”

Joseph Bebel is European Affairs Editorial Assistant


[1]The other three being “an open and innovative European economy”; “digital Europe and the free flow of data”; “an inclusive and sustainable Europe.”

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