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Debate surrounds future of EU battle groups

The European Union has its own troops dedicated to global military missions. But these soldiers have never been deployed. German Defense Minister de Maiziere and other politicians want that to change.

Since 2007, the European Union has two battle groups with 1,500 soldiers each at the ready. The member states take turns sending soldiers on a half-year rotation. Usually made up of multinational troops, the battle groups are intended to be the EU's quick intervention team and able to prepare the ground for long-term missions. But the battle groups have never been deployed.

It's certainly not for a lack of conflict involving European interests, be them in Europe itself or in wider region. The battle groups aren't being deployed because there isn't political will to send the troops abroad, according to Michael Gahler, the German representative of the Christian Democratic Union in the European Parliament and security spokesperson of the EVP parliamentary group.

Gahler said he is worried that if this continues, the question of whether to keep the groups will eventually come up.

"At some point you have to wonder whether another way to do this isn't better," he told DW. The troops should be deployed, "or at some point, no one will believe in this option anymore."

Broader scope instead of abolishment?

Michael Gahler, chief of the European Election Observer Mission talks with journalists in Islamabad, Pakistan, 13 May 2013. European Union election observers reported serious irregularities at 10 per cent of voting centres, most of them in the country_s southern province of Sindh, and said the overall elections process elsewhere were satisfactory or good. Former prime minister Nawaz Nawaz Sharif was emerging victorious in the weekend's elections, according to partial official results released 13 May. The Pakistan Thereek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of former cricketing star Imran Khan had 21 seats, while the former ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) trailed in third with just 18. The election marks the first-ever democratic transition from one civilian government to another. EPA/T. MUGHAL pixel

Gahler: No political will to deploy battle groups

But so far, no one really wants to abolish the battle groups as they represent Europeans' ambitions to have their own crisis forces and thus a way to stand up to the Americans, who tend to take the lead in the NATO alliance.

There's also a Europe-wide consensus, however, that the status quo cannot be maintained. In April, German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere suggested not only using the troops for military missions, but also for "fast training missions" or on UN assignments to "observe, advice and assist."

Gen. Patrick de Rousiers, head of the EU's military committee, was in favor of the plan. De Maizere's suggestion "worked as a catalyst for the discussion on how far the general chiefs of staff were willing to go in this direction," the general said.

At a May military committee meeting, there was a clear willingness "to advance in order to increase the European Union's ability to respond to crises," according to the French general. He didn't go into any more detail, but de Rousiers said he was thankful that de Maiziere was considering complementing, not abolishing, the battle groups.

Verteidigungsminister Thomas de Maiziere (CDU, r) wird am Montag (18.03.2013) am Flughafen in Bamako in Mali bei seiner Ankunft von Soldaten der deutschen Beratergruppe empfangen. Foto: Oliver Lang

De Maiziere: Use battle groups for training missions or observation assignments

Mali crisis a trial

The German defense minister had also presented his plan in the context of the recent conflict in Mali and said, "Now we see that there are many situations in which the EU is required to act quickly in another way."

But Mali could also have been a case for the battle groups. Instead, France took the military initiative. EU politician Gahler was one of the very few who supported a battle group mission to Mali. Not a military one at the front, but a mission "in the hinterland, where the Malian authorities were slowly rebuilding their administration. We could have fit it in with securing their sovereignty and the administrative structures." But again, "the political will just wasn't there," he added.

One problem, especially with extremely short-notice combat missions, is that many of the nations supplying the troops need a parliamentary approval for such assignments. But until such an approval can be given, the right moment for military intervention may very well have passed. Short-notice training missions, like those proposed by de Maizière, probably would not require such parliamentary approval.

More European involvement in own backyard

French soldiers patrol in the Terz valley, about 60 km (37 miles) south of the town of Tessalit in northern Mali, March 21, 2013. France has deployed some 4,000 troops to Mali, alongside a regional African force, in a nine-week operation that has driven Islamists into desert hideaways and mountains near the Algerian border. Picture taken March 21. REUTERS/Francois Rihouay

French soldiers, not the EU battle groups, are now deployed in Mali

Battle group critics have repeatedly said the groups cover ground already addressed by NATO, especially for the NATO Response Force (NRF), and thus represent an expensive double-structure. Gahler, however, said he does not believe that a NATO divide is a possible result. He said the US is looking for a stronger European military contribution, at least for conflicts in and around Europe: "Whenever they tell us, 'Take care of your backyard,' the Americans are right."

But it seems that Europe is not yet clear on what this contribution should look like, and what role the battle groups could play. Gen. de Rousiers recently spoke about different views, mainly on the "robustness of missions." The classic combat troops aren't on the chopping block, but additional troops "that are more open and comprehensive and could maybe be used in less conflict-ridden areas" should be added, European heads of states will probably decide on the future concept for the battle groups during a summit in December.

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