European Participation in International Military Operations: National Decision-Making and the Role of EU Institutions | Institute of International, Defense & European Analyses

European Participation in International Military Operations: National Decision-Making and the Role of EU Institutions

Analyses | 14/03/2017

Lecture by Professor Kjell Engelbrekt, Swedish Defense University

Thessaloniki, 10 March 2017, University of Macedonia

Dear Brigadier, General, Mr. Vourekas, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen!

Thank you for your kind invitation. It is nice to be back in this part of Europe, where I feel quite at home since the early 1980s. It is also always delightful to revisit this extraordinary city, bursting with history, culture, but also adorned with its vibrant street-life and beautiful, talented youth, some of which I see assembled here today.

I will right to the heart of the matter. As I see it, there are three underlying challenges to the overall theme of this conference:

–we live in an era when the wider project of European integration is being questioned on political grounds. Some say the introduction of the euro was a bridge too far. I am not an economist, so it is not for me to say. It would certainly be a fateful twist of irony if the common currency, established to bring societies and economies closer together, ultimately will have contributed to the undoing of this unique project;

–the narrower project of establishing an effective foreign, security and defense policy within the EU (and/or the European pillar of NATO) is only receiving limited support. There is apparently some renewed impetus behind such a project at present, associated with concerns of ‘transatlantic drift’ following the election of a new American president. But there is also considerable reluctance and skepticism on the other side;

–the conceptual, legal and organizational difficulties of bringing together the three Ds—diplomacy, development and defense—into a comprehensive approach or framework are considerable. In combination with the previous two challenges it will certainly not be easy to make progress in this area.

So it is at all worth trying to move the needle? Yes, I think there are three particularly good reasons to renew efforts in this direction nevertheless. This is because 1) the problems confronting Europa in the security realm are not going away anytime soon; 2) non-Europeans appear less interested in doing heavy lifting on our part than in the past; and 3) the EU is already quite an important player in two of these dimensions, namely diplomacy and development.

So to my mind the missing link is defense. It is defense as a) an autonomous capability at the disposal of EU countries but also as b) an integrated component of a ‘strategic gaze’ onto Europe’s vicinity and vis-à-vis the world at large.

In a project devoted to the EU as an emerging strategic actor that I a colleague and I led out of the Swedish Defense University ten years ago I argued that the Union’s policymaking after the end of the world war did have certain strategic qualities (Engelbrekt and Hallenberg 2008). Let us be honest: few governments have the capacity to focus enough to engage in ambitious strategy-making. Individual governments have to consider electoral cycles every four years or so; temporary domestic coalitions of interests fluctuate and thwart long-term planning; and they rarely have time and resources to spend on forging full-fledged strategies and see them through. But the EU, by painstakingly negotiating ambitious policies toward entire regions and groups of neighbors, demonstrated in the eastward enlargement policy and the European Neighborhood Policy that it could engage in long-term milieu-shaping that individual governments rarely are able to accomplish.

At the same time, in two important respects the Union was a decade ago not able to muster effective approaches required for preparing and executing strategy, namely in intelligence-gathering and assessment and in defense policy proper. In these two areas the performance of the EU was at best that of a ‘composite actor,’ constantly relying on individual member states volunteering assets and resources for the good of the Union.

Notably, the intelligence and assessment function of the EU has through institution-building within the European External Action Service (EEAS) improved considerably since then (Spence and Bátora 2015). Member states now share more low- and mid-grade intelligence than ever before, and the analytical capacity of the EEAS appears to be far beyond that of EU institutions of the past. As this capacity is beginning to inform the policy analysis and planning of EU networks, a strategic outlook that extends beyond individual member states is under formation. The adoption of an EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Security policy in 2016 is one expression of this, but also one where growing aspirations are being matched by serious conceptual work and follow-up plans for implementation.

Conversely, however, almost nothing has occurred in the defense policy realm proper. Even though we have a Political and Security Committee, an EU Military Committee and an EU Military Staff assisting the EEAS, the actual decision-making relies on capitals weighing their options within the context of domestic politics, foreign policy considerations and ties to military allies and economic partners. The military component of the comprehensive approach is typically subordinated to a wide array of logics that precede operational needs, predisposing governments to be reluctant about committing troops and valuable equipment to EU operations.

It is not inconceivable that the current turmoil in transatlantic relations will produce fresh, sustainable impetus toward closer defense cooperation among European NATO allies and their EU partners. The European Defense Fund established in late 2016 is one indication of reinvigoration. But I am skeptical that such developments will significantly alter the ‘composite actor’-character of EU defense efforts. I would therefore argue that we should primarily advance pragmatic collaboration in accordance with actual alignments on issues and availability of useful, deployable resources.

The pragmatism I am talking about is in part related to precisely assets and resources, often created within NATO but in recent years oftentimes placed at the disposal for EU use as well. I am talking about assets that can serve national and regional purposes by virtue of their location, bolstered by military contingents rotating in for shorter or longer periods. The five operational headquarters spread out over the continent illustrate the potential for building on the already existing infrastructure of a European military command-and-control system, a logistical supply network and basing system for rotating forces that could be further consolidated. A sixth OHQ in the Baltic Sea area, perhaps hosted by Poland, could be a natural extension into a region where geopolitical tension is on the rise.

But pragmatism should also be understood to derive from political opportunity, starting with the security interests and sensibilities of member states toward sets of issues and geostrategic considerations that come naturally to them. If reflective of such preferences one can imagine a series of mid- to long-term alignments of governments that cooperate more deeply on some security challenges than others, but where the aggregate policies and programs over time will amount to a comprehensive ‘strategic gaze’ covering all major problems and a wide range of minor ones.

The most promising framework for this type of pragmatic collaboration is no doubt the famous PESCO—the Permanent Structured Cooperation—provided for by the Lisbon Treaty. PESCO can either be part of a top-down approach whereby a subset of EU member states decided on one or several strategic objectives and then set aside resources aimed at gradually realizing those objectives. But many believe a bottom-up approach is equally or more feasible (Biscop 2017). In that case a subset of countries would start by elaborating a Capability Development Plan, work through national authorities as well as the European Defence Agency toward creating those capabilities, and then deploy them with a view of achieving a multiplied military effect.

Still, for any of these approaches to be credible the military component must have solid political backing. And so, we need to think especially hard about moving toward a more expeditionary outlook in terms of an overlapping set of strategic cultures among EU member states. Let me be clear: I am not saying that all EU countries have to be prepared to put boots on the ground on short notice. But EU member states that take part in PESCO or some other collaborative mechanism that enhances European military effectiveness should earmark and genuinely prepare at least part of their armed forces for joint military operations. And they should think through to which type of contingencies those forces can make a substantial contributions in ways in which its citizens are likely to be supportive.

After having worked on another project—this one devoted to the half dozen or so most consequential armed forces in Europe (Britz et al 2016), I believe the critical weakness in the current setup is the extraordinary variation that exists as to how decisions about military deployment abroad are adopted at the national level. That we would be able to fully harmonize our decision-making procedures is highly unrealistic. But if national decision-making procedures could be engaged under a PESCO framework so as to map security priorities and a range of options that include military deployment, this could help integrate the military tool within a comprehensive approach and also facilitate robust action by the core executive—be it the cabinet or a commander-in-chief—on short notice.

Ideally speaking, it would be beneficial to see a careful preparatory procedure involving EU institutions as well as national parliaments and core executives of the affected member states. Germany or Sweden, where deployment decisions are vetted carefully by parliamentary committees, might provide a basic model. Once that initial process has been completed, however, the core executive should be able to rely on military and diplomatic expertise when deciding to utilize some part of the armed forces for the options that received parliamentary approval. In this context I would argue that Israel or Greece can serve as models for how to organize fast-paced crisis management, insulated from the domestic policy coalitions that otherwise may undermine robust action, with authority vested in a subset of the cabinet.

For swift and robust action is a sine qua non if European participation in international military operations are to benefit member states and contribute to the stability and security of the Union. Our joint action must send clear messages to our adversaries, our citizens, our allies and partners. By combining our capabilities and different types of assets and resources, the EU surely has the potential to exert considerable influence over its vicinity and deter its adversaries.

I will end with a few thoughts from Tzvetan Todorov, a great European intellectual from southeastern Europe with intimate knowledge of classical and modern Greece, who passed away a few weeks ago. In his last book Todorov cautioned us of “hubris” with regard to European integration and the nearly 2,500 year old democratic project that it embodies (Todorov 2012). In a previous book inspired by Konstandínos Kaváfis famous poem from the former turn of the century, called “Waiting for the Barbarians,” he similarly asked us not to succumb to our own anxieties in the face of terrorism and immigration (Todorov 2008). When it comes to security and defense, finally, Todorov insisted that Europe should steer clear of neo-colonialism and seek to exert a tempering, mitigating influence in the world. He used the French term La puissance tranquile (The Tranquile Power) to describe this approach.

For historical reasons but also in order to be effective and shape a neighborhood where Europeans are respected rather than feared, I believe Todorov’s image of a dignified tranquility associated with Europeans’ use of power, at this point in time can serve our continent well.

Thank you for your attention!

Biscop, Sven (2017). Differentiated Integration in Defence: A Plea for PESCO. EU60: Re-Founding Europe. The Responsibility to Propose. Instituto affari internazionali, 6 February.

Britz, Malena, ed. (2016). European Participation in International Military Operations. The Role of Strategic Culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Engelbrekt, Kjell, and Jan Hallenberg (2008). The European Union and Strategy: An Emerging Actor. London: Routledge.

Spence, David, and Josef Bátora, eds. (2015). The European External Action Service: European Diplomacy Post-Westphalia. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Todorov, Tzvetan (2008). La peur des barbares : Au-delà du choc des civilisations. Paris: Robert Laffont.

Todorov, Tzvetan (2012). Les ennemis intimes de la démocratie. Paris: Robert Laffont.