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13th Apr 2021

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Don't play EU 'games' with military HQs

  • Binelli Mantelli (l) at a Nato meeting in 2015 (Photo: nato.int)

Europe should not play "political games" with military HQs the way it did with EU agencies if it is to have effective armed forces, Italy's former defence chief has said.

Admiral Luigi Binelli Mantelli, Italy's top military commander from 2013 to 2015, spoke to EUobserver on Tuesday (24 April), one day after Spain launched its bid to take over an EU anti-piracy mission, Operation Atalanta, from the UK.

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  • Spanish aircraft carrier, the Juan Carlos I, took part in Spain's Rota campaign launch on Monday (Photo: Contando Estrelas Follow)

The Atalanta HQ move is part of a wider Brexit reshuffle, which earlier saw France and the Netherlands scoop the EU banking and medicines agencies, respectively, from the UK amid fierce competition from other member states.

The naval move has also sparked rivalry, with Spain and Italy vying for the jewel in the crown of EU military missions.

But defence HQs should not be shared out like EU civilian agencies to make member states happy, Binelli Mantelli said.

"Military logic calls for a unified command for both ongoing EU operations, Sophia and Atalanta," he said, referring to Operation Sophia, the EU's anti-migrant smuggler mission, which has its HQ in Rome.

"There are, however, signs of political games in perfect incoherence with the tenets of that logic," he added.

The retired admiral spoke to EUobserver in his personal capacity and not on behalf of Italy.

He said France and Spain were lobbying the EU to move Atalanta to Rota, a military HQ in southern Spain, where the Spanish navy showed off its capabilities to EU diplomats in a drill on Monday.

"That would mean one of two things - either a duplication of efforts, Rota for Atalanta and Rome for Sophia, or somebody is already envisaging to also move the command of Sophia to Rota. Both cases would be complete nonsense," Binelli Mantelli said.

It would be "nonsense" in operational and strategic terms, he noted.

The trickiest part of EU military missions was "force generation", he said, referring to the process in which member states assigned assets to joint operations.

"It's a long-lasting and often difficult task to be carried out among EU navies and much more among the EU general defence staffs … a unified chain of command would ease this," the admiral said.

Italy was better placed strategically to host a unified EU naval HQ, he also said.

"The critical side for the European Union is the south, with the wider Mediterranean as the forefront of potential troubles … and Italy - it's not just me saying that, it's a fact - is at the core of the wider Mediterranean, exposed as no other EU country is to the main modern threats," he said.

"The last point is staffing … which is, of course, more expensive if HQs are doubled," he said.

Old continent

The Atalanta move, to be decided in May, comes amid a broader EU push for military integration, as Britain, one of its preeminent military powers, prepares to exit the bloc next year.

The EU aims to create rapid reaction forces to intervene in conflicts in north Africa and the Middle East as part of the reforms.

The best model would be to have "flexible" and "modular" EU naval units, which took a "proactive" approach to "prevent rising tensions and crises at their very inception, rather than working reactively in settling already sparked threats," Binelli Mantelli said.

But European thinking was stuck in the past, he warned.

"The long history of Cold War-type land-centric power still has a deep influence on member nations' strategic vision," he said.

"In this light, we see, all too often, deployments of land brigades as the preferred option for solving crises, even though they're not the best solution due to their heavy demands in terms of time and space," he said.

Britain's departure from the EU would make Europe's military even more "unbalanced", he added.

"Lots of infantry brigades. Lots of combat planes and coast guard-type naval vessels, but dramatic shortfalls in terms of aircraft carriers, amphibious forces, submarines, drones, satellites, military intelligence, and joint logistics", Binelli Mantelli said.

Emotions

Spain's rivalry with Italy on Atalanta has stirred emotion.

"What I don't like is that Rome said it should get command of Sophia for reasons A, B, C, and now it's saying Rota should not get Atalanta for the same reasons. It's double standards," a Spanish naval officer, speaking off the record, said in Rota on Monday at Spain's Atalanta campaign launch.

Recent EU advances on military integration have also stirred optimism.

The European Union Military Staff (EUMS), a branch of the EU foreign service, is to take command of non-combat EU military operations at a new HQ in Brussels in another initiative.

The EU was moving at "the speed of light" Esa Pulkkinen, a Finnish general who heads the EUMS, said also in Rota on Monday. "Yesterday's dream is today's reality," he said.

The Italian admiral was less sanguine, however.

"Frankly, I don't see any impressive progress in EU military integration in the face of Brexit," he told EUobserver.

"There's no sign of integrated force planning, the way we see, to a certain extent, in Nato. There's a proliferation of EU HQs at various levels of ambition, lack of political guidance on EU operations, and heavy, and sometimes unfair, competition between EU defence industries," he said.

"I also see a dangerous drift between Nato and EU military affairs in Brussels, with Nato ever more firmly in US and British hands," he added.

"Maybe I'm wrong, but It's A Long Way To Tipperary," Binelli Mantelli said, recalling a World War I-era song to joke about the EU's slow steps toward its military objectives.

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