Nov 07, 2022

Zeitenwende or Standstill in EU Crisis Management Operations?

Everyone is talking about Europe's defense. With good reason. But the EU also needs a renewal of its international military and civilian operations.

British Major General Charles Richard Stickland gives the EU flag to the Spanish Vice Admiral Antonio Martorell during the ceremony of transfer of authority of the leadership of European Union Atalanta Operation which is in charge of counter-piracy in the Indian Ocean, at the naval airbase in Rota, near Cadiz, southern Spain March 29, 2019.

In 2023, external European crisis management will mark a special anniversary: It will be 20 years since the European Union first deployed international missions, both civilian and military, to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo under what was then called the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP).

It was a different time when, shortly after the Al-Qaida September 11 attacks and the subsequent fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Europeans set out to define their own international crisis policy, build structures for it, and gain their first practical experience. Since then, 37 crisis management missions have been implemented in the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), renamed after the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009. Currently, the EU is conducting 18 missions, comprised of 11 civilian missions and seven military operations.

A New Focus on Visibility?

These numbers are impressive at first glance. However, European missions have changed a lot over the last decade. In the beginning, EU missions spoke of the ambitious European Security Strategy (ESS), presented in 2003. The EU wanted to engage, to make a difference—and it did so primarily with the goal of supporting United Nations’ activities and missions.

During the first five years, the EU implemented almost the full range of military and civilian missions envisioned within the ESDP/CSDP framework. The missions not only enjoyed strong political support from member states, but also benefited from their willingness to provide significant numbers of personnel and resources. Whether it was 3,700 soldiers in Chad and the Central African Republic, 1,800 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 700 police officers in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 3,200 personnel in the Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, or 200 monitors each in Aceh and Georgia—the EU and its member state were ambitious and deployed the instrument globally.

This changed with EU enlargement and the Lisbon Treaty. Simply put, the new member states from Eastern Europe had different interests and threat perceptions. This circumstance became a key weakness for the continued implementation of CSDP missions, both in agreeing on a mission and in providing personnel. In addition, even the large member states, which had been very engaged in the early days of CSDP, now had no great appetite for personnel- and cost-intensive missions. With the exception of the maritime Operation Sophia (involving around 1,400 military personnel), the military operation in the Central African Republic (around 750), and the military training mission in Mali (around 600), the personnel strength of new EU missions and operations since 2010 has generally been between 20 and 100.

Almost all post-Lisbon Treaty missions focus on training and capacity building of security services (the police and the military) or advising ministries and other government institutions in the host country. Short-term stabilization now plays only a secondary role. Where, as in the case of the war in the Central African Republic, the EU wanted to send a stabilization mission, it almost failed due to the unwillingness of member states to send larger military contingents. In the case of the ultimately small EUFOR CAR, instead of one force generation conference, it took six such meetings, with the final size only achieved through a substantial contribution from non-EU member Georgia.

With the alternative focus on training, today’s CSDP looks like a collection of different, more long-term European projects rather than rapid responses to crises and conflicts. The deployment of missions is also no longer primarily complementary to UN peace operations, but rather a dedicated, stand-alone EU contribution. Prioritizing this visibility (“waving the EU flag”) instead of a needs-orientated approach, focused on the problems on the ground, has greatly increased.

A Shift in the Narrative

In addition, since 2014-15, there has been a shift with regard to political objective and narrative of these missions, which was further reinforced by the launch of the 2016 EU Global Strategy. Clearly shaped by the refugee and migration movements in 2014 and 2015, terrorist attacks within Europe, the Brexit referendum, and Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, the Global Strategy refocused European foreign and security policy. Unlike the strongly norm- and value-oriented 2003 ESS, it focused on the interests and the protection of the EU. Tellingly, the first of its five priorities was now stated as “the protection of the Union, its citizens, and its territory.”

Influenced by member states such as Austria, Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, the CSDP and its missions now focused more on the internal and external security instead of global crisis management. Nowhere was this more visible than during the 2018 Austrian EU Presidency, which chose the motto “A Europe that protects.”

After the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) deployed its first mission, Triton, to reduce illegal migration across the Mediterranean, the CSDP followed suit in 2015 with the military operation EUNAVFOR Med ("Operation Sophia"). This was primarily intended to combat criminal smuggling networks in the central Mediterranean Sea. In addition, the EU adapted the mandates of the civilian CSDP missions in Mali and Niger to better reflect the areas of migration control and border security. In June 2016, both missions became part of the Migration Partnership Frameworks (MPF) for Mali and Niger. The MPF is intended to curb northward migration in a “holistic” manner, bringing all European actors and instruments into play. With the opening of the regional office of EUCAP Sahel Niger in Agadez in the north of the country, influence was supposed to be exerted on one of the central migration routes toward the Mediterranean.

In this way, CSDP deployments have been presented as instruments for border control and migration management to populist governments in EU member states. In principle, it is to be welcomed that the EU and its member states are responding to internal threats that are being instrumentalized by populists across Europe in a targeted and destabilizing manner. However, ultimately, the CSDP is the wrong instrument for this.

The Pandemic and Russia’s War

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, EU missions, with few exceptions, saw their staffing levels halved in less than eight weeks through repatriation, and the implementation of mandates largely halted. In UN peace operations, too, programmatic work came to a temporary halt, but stabilization tasks continued to be performed. Compared with the European missions, hardly any personnel were withdrawn from the UN. By the end of April 2020, especially the EU missions with a training and advisory role had ended activities, largely also because host countries ceased cooperation in these areas. Individual member states even unilaterally withdrew their uniformed personnel from smaller and medium-sized EU missions, while leaving corresponding contingents in UN peace operations, for example.

However, four of the EU's then 17 missions and operations proved resilient during the pandemic outbreak. These were the two military operations, EUNAVFOR Atalanta, the anti-piracy mission at the horn of Africa, and EUFOR Althea in Bosnia, as well as the civilian missions EULEX Kosovo and EUMM Georgia. They have been able to retain at least most of their personnel and thus perform their core functions.

What do they have in common? They are large and almost all member states are heavily committed to them. For the most part, they are geographically close to Europe. They are less about training and capacity building and more about stabilization and surveillance. Downsizing or freezing their activities could have had serious consequences. In the case of the EUMM, the Georgian government feared Russian aggression if the EUMM ceased its monitoring activities. EUFOR troops also continue to play an important role for security in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In addition, the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, which started in February 2022, may also provide clues as to where and how EU member states would like to engage with CSDP in the future. Some have already signaled that they would like to greatly expand EUAM in Ukraine. However, unlike EU military operations, which are now funded through the European Peace Facility (EPF), which was introduced in 2021 as a new financial instrument outside the EU budget, the budget for civilian CSDP is capped and already fixed through to 2027 by the EU's budget, the so-called multi-year financial framework. In order to expand the civilian EU mission to Ukraine, the EU must downsize or close other operations, which is the only way to mobilize resources—an unsustainable situation that has existed for a couple of years already.

Another question raised by the now extreme geopolitical rivalry for peace operations may be crucial for the near future of CSDP missions: What happens when there is no longer a UN Security Council mandate for peace operations? So far this year, Russia and China have only changed their voting behavior on various missions from approval to abstention. But vetoes are likely, including for the mandating of EUFOR in Bosnia in the fall. If this threatens the existence of UN peace operations in the near future, EU operations could play a key role, since they can be implemented without a UN mandate, such as with EUMM in Georgia. The recent and quick deployment of EUMM monitors to the Armenia-Azerbaijanian border (though at the moment only for a duration of two months) show that with strong political will there might even be a stronger role for CSDP missions for peace and security in the post-soviet space. A role that does not focus on training but on stabilization and peacebuilding.

Compass and Compact as Renewal Processes

Two documents are intended to make CSDP fit for the future: The 2018 Compact for a Civilian CSDP and this year’s Strategic Compass. In the case of the Compact, member states are drafting a new version, which is also intended to clarify the level of ambition for civilian operations. This “New Compact” is expected to be adopted in 2023 during the Swedish EU Presidency.

The first Compact led to (temporarily) greater attention being paid to civilian CSDP—but not to greater participation by member states that have so far been less interested in deployments. It has triggered important discussions, especially at the technical-operational level, including on the flexibilization and adaptability of mandates and missions.

The Strategic Compass, on the other hand, which was strongly influenced by the Russian attack, which took place two months before publication, shows a clear prioritization of defense. Although this is understandable, one would have liked to see more on the concrete future of the EU's crisis management missions. For example, a clearer statement on how and where these missions will be implemented in the future. There is much talk of “strengthening” and “expanding” missions, but also of “ad hoc missions under European leadership” under Article 44 of the EU Treaty instead of the CSDP framework. In addition, flexible and modular mandates continue to be called for.

None of this is surprising, given the sometimes lengthy and cumbersome processes that lead to a military operation or civilian mission under CSDP. The domestically influenced areas of work for civilian CSDP outlined in the Strategic Compass indicate that the priorities of the Global Strategy, including increased cooperation with Frontex and Europol, are also meant to be continued.

However, both processes lack a critical element for success: a structured and independent impact analysis of the missions. This has not yet been requested by the Brussels institutions, probably due to concerns about negative results. Initial analyses of the EU’s military training missions by the Stockholm-based peace research institute SIPRI show that this concern is not unfounded. However, an organization will only learn and develop further if it also includes negative results and deals with them constructively.

Focus and Ambition

Of course, even small and medium CSDP missions have made an impact after the Lisbon Treaty and are implementing meaningful activities with their personnel. However, the question arises whether it would not be better to implement advisory and training initiatives (or even the issues of migration management and border control) in a different framework and use the CSDP mission instrument primarily for ambitious EU crisis management. This would include missions where the EU makes the difference, for example in Georgia and now also Armenia and Azerbaijan, where the UN and the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) are either blocked or unable to act; missions in which all member states, and not just half of them, are engaged; missions in which the focus is not on the EU's domestic policy, but on the needs on the ground.

This would mean moving away from small and medium-sized missions that primarily train and advise. These mandates could easily be fulfilled by the European Commission, as the example of the EUBAM Moldova and Ukraine mission shows. Since commission projects such as EUBAM Moldova and Ukraine are planned from the outset as medium- to long-term support and—unlike CSDP missions— have direct access to commission funds, they would also ensure planning and budget security for the host countries.

Such a reform would pave the way for a reduction and thus a focus on perhaps half a dozen missions, military and civilian, in which all member states are involved. These are currently mainly in the European neighborhood, in Bosnia, Kosovo, Georgia, and Ukraine. Freed-up resources could also be made available on a modular basis for UN peace operations in countries to which one or even two EU missions are currently deployed in parallel. There is still a lot of room for improvement in the desired complementarity between EU and UN missions.

There is clearly a need for sustainable and joint crisis management by all EU member states. In the new era, focused on the defense of the EU, this must not be forgotten. Now we have a window of opportunity to take big decisions and make structural changes. The current process for the development of a German National Security Strategy, which is being closely monitored in Europe, could also develop ideas for the European level, which could then be implemented in the first half of 2023 with like-minded partners during the Swedish EU Presidency. The time is ripe for a substantial renewal of European crisis management operations.

Tobias Pietz is Deputy Head of the Analysis Team at the Center for International Peace Operations (ZIF) in Berlin.

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