Jun 03, 2021

EU Crisis Management: Back to the Future

A proposed EU military training mission to Mozambique ostensibly speaks of new ambitions. In fact, the present approach is everything but ambitious. The EU Strategic Compass offers a chance to get crisis management back on track.

Malian soldiers of the 614th Artillery Battery are pictured during a training session on a D-30 howitzer with the European Union Training Mission (EUTM), to fight jihadists, in the camp of Sevare, Mopti region, in Mali March 23, 2021. Picture taken March 23, 2021.
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While Germany is debating whether or not the EU and UN missions in Mali should continue after the recent military coup there, the EU is currently talking about a small military training mission to Mozambique. The mission is meant to support the government in Maputo in stabilizing the situation in its northern province Cabo Delgado; it might even work, or so some in Brussels hope, as a pilot for providing Mozambique’s government with military equipment under the newly established European Peace Facility (EPF).

Apart from the grave doubts about how a training mission could have a beneficial impact on this rapidly evolving conflict—talk about a Mozambique mission also raises the general question about the EU’s level of ambition when it comes to international crisis management at a time whendefense ministers are openly contemplating a new 5,000-strong European rapid reaction force—even though the already existing EU battlegroups (EUBG) mechanism (on paper two EUBGs each 1,500 soldiers strong should be ready to be deployed at all times) has never been used since its creation in 2007.

Such newly ambitious thinking seems to have been pushed by the discussions surrounding the EU’s Strategic Compass, which started last year. The Compass’ main aim is for member states to come to an agreement on clear and achievable strategic objectives to strengthen the EU as a security and defense actor; it is also supposed to offer political guidance for future military planning processes.

While there is a “basket” on crisis management in the Compass, the process is heavily biased toward defense, running the danger of further weakening the EU’s external crisis management under the framework of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). Moreover, interest and commitment of EU member states in CSDP missions and operations has decreased. So, this is a key moment for the EU to decide if it really wants to be a global actor for crisis management or rather focusses on protecting Europe, trade, and maybe play a complimentary support role in external crisis management like the UN.

Enlargement and the Refugee Crisis

Early EU crisis management, in accordance with the 2003 European Security Strategy (ESS), used to be quite diverse and ambitious, from Kosovo to the Democratic Republic of Congo, from Georgia to Somalia. But EU enlargement and the Lisbon Treaty (2009) changed that. Put simply, the new member states from Eastern Europe had differing threat perceptions, with some since arguing that this “divergence in threat perceptions among member states is a central weakness of the CSDP.” Moreover, the construction of the new European External Action Service (EEAS) kept the EU so busy that “the CSDP agenda suffered for several years after Lisbon.”

With the exception of the naval Operation Sophia (about 1,400 military personnel), the military operation in the Central African Republic (about 750), and the military training mission in Mali (over 500), the staff size of new EU missions and operations since 2010 has normally been between 20 and 100. The number of deployed personnel in civilian CSDP missions has more than halved, declining from more than 3,000 in 2010 to fewer than 1,500 in 2019.

From 2015 onwards, the EU was confronted with a dramatic rise of asylum applications, “one of the most distressing consequences of the depleted security environment on the European Union’s outer periphery.” As a consequence, the EU built an invisible wall to stop migrants from the south, with the Valetta summit in Malta as a key moment, when the 28 EU member states sought to externalize their fight against immigration with the help of some African states. The maritime CSDP operation EUNAVFOR Med—later re-named Operation Sophia—became an instrument to stop migration flows by trying to tackle human trafficking and to build up the capacities of the Libyan coast guard.

“A Europe that Protects”

This shift intensified through the adoption of the EU Global Strategy (EUGS) in 2016. EU citizens’ protection became a key objective, replacing the traditional approach of the EU as an entity projecting values and providing security internationally. In the follow-up to its launch, many member states took this narrative of “protecting Europe” even further, thus applying a very narrow interpretation of the EUGS. How much this interpretation of the EUGS had taken root was never more obvious than in 2018, when the Austrian EU presidency used the motto “A Europe that protects,” putting a “focus on security and the fight against illegal migration” at the top of its three priorities.

As a consequence, the domestic politics of member states have increasingly influenced the mandates of existing and other new CSDP missions and operations, for example the civilian EU Capacity Building Mission (EUCAP) Sahel Niger and EUCAP Sahel Mali, which became part of the overall effort of the EU Migration Partnership Frameworks. In April 2016, EUCAP Sahel Niger opened a field office in Agadez, which “contributes to a better control of the irregular migration flows and its related crimes.”

This realignment of EU crisis management missions to serve internal interests of member states has drawn some heavy criticism. The “preponderant influence of internal security priorities on the foreign policy agenda” has led to a “progressive narrowing down of stabilization efforts and capacity-building carried out by CSDP missions to migration management,” Nicoletta Pirozzi, of the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), argued in 2019. However, “CSDP is a relatively small policy tool, and forced displacement and migration is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon,” the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) pointed out. “Creating unrealistic expectations by introducing ambitious mission objectives without a clear intervention logic or without the staff to support specific areas of work would undermine the EU’s role as an external actor.”

The heavy politicization of CSDP since the adoption of EUGS had a clear impact on the daily running of missions and operations. A case in point was Operation Sophia, which was rendered dysfunctional in summer 2018 through constant attacks by the Austrian, Hungarian, and Italian governments. In the end, the Italian commander of EUNAVFOR Med decided to send the ships only to areas where they would not encounter any refugees or smugglers as there was no open port where rescued people would be accepted. This in turn led to the withdrawing of all vessels by Germany and other EU member states, and in January 2019 left a maritime mission without any maritime assets—a rather absurd situation.

A Modular Approach

Looking ahead, discussions regarding the EU Strategic Compass’ “crisis management” basket  will be, of course, most relevant for the future of CSDP missions and operations. Avoiding neglecting civilian CSDP in this defense-dominated process will be key, as most of the EU’s crisis managements missions have been civilian. The Compass will also have to offer answers regarding the future of civil-military cooperation.

Unfortunately, the Portuguese EU presidency of the first half of 2021 seems to have steered discussions on civilian CSDP mostly toward questions of how to move external action and internal security even closer together by aligning Frontex with civilian missions. Instead, the Compass should finally clarify—as Christian Mölling and Torben Schütz suggested in 2020—“the balance between crisis management and protection/territorial defense … If the CSDP’s central purpose is crisis management, then what type of crises should the EU get involved in? Should it limit itself to stabilizing its immediate neighborhood? Or should the CSDP become a tool for global power projection?”

In short, the Compass provides a chance to return to the ambitious and diverse EU foreign policy of the pre-Lisbon era. In order to do so, member states have to find new common ground on what the EU wants and can deliver in peace and security. It might be wise to reduce the number of simultaneous CSDP missions and operations. All the same, EU missions should be ambitious and ideally fill gaps where other partners such as the United Nations or the African Union will not or cannot deploy for whatever reasons.

Also, CSDP advisory tasks as well as capacity-building might better be dealt with by the European Commission, as the case of the Commission-led mission in Moldova demonstrates. Training is not crisis management and there are reasonable doubts about the impact of this signature task of CSDP. Thus, an integrated approach on training and advising combining the EEAS and the commission in the field could prove more effective.

It might also be advisable for the EU to revive the “modular approach” when cooperating with the UN, by providing expertise to be integrated into existing UN peace operations. This approach had been part of the first two Action Plans for EU-UN cooperation in peacekeeping and crisis management, and had been pioneered even before the advent of CSDP as an “EU Pillar” integrated into the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Such a modular approach could prove both efficient and cost-effective. This year, the EU and the UN will sit down to update the key document for their cooperation, the UN-EU Priorities for Peace Operations and Crisis Management Missions 2019-21. The new priorities should, again, include a modular approach.

However, if member states really want to strive for bold proposals in the Strategic Compass, they should push for merging structures, funding, and procedures for civilian and military CSDP. A starting point could be a pilot project to explore the benefits. So, how about merging EUCAP Sahel Mali and EUTM Mali together with the EU Delegation into an integrated and multidimensional crisis management mission led by the civilian Head of Delegation? If the CSDP mission in Ukraine can administer European Commission funds (as it has done for some years), a creative model of EEAS and commission cooperation in Mali should be feasible.

What’s more, a comprehensive European external action might also be a better way forward for crisis management in Cabo Delgado instead of training and equipping Mozambique’s armed forces in counter-insurgency operations with limited prospects of success.

Tobias Pietz is deputy head of the analysis division at the Center for International Peace Operations (ZIF) in Berlin.

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