17th Oct 2019

Sweden seeks scrutiny of EU battle groups

  • The coat of arms of the Nordic EU battlegroup depicted a castrated lion (Photo:

The Swedish EU presidency wants defence ministers to have a closer look at the bloc's quick response forces, which so far have never been deployed due to a lack of consensus among member states.

"The concept of EU battlegroups is good, but they have not been used until now. We want to have a political discussion on why this is the case," Olof Skoog, a diplomat representing the Swedish EU presidency told members of the security and defence committee in the European Parliament on Monday (7 September).

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Since January 2007, the EU has in theory always had two battlegroups on call, each comprising at least 1500 combat soldiers from one or several member states. The two battlegroups on call rotate every six months and are selected from a total of 18.

Set up for deployment within 5-10 days, the battlegroups are designed as rapid response forces in emergency situations, when the United Nations or Nato cannot intervene quickly enough. They need the unanimous approval of all EU member states in order to be deployed, which is the main reason why they have not been used so far.

Defence ministers will discuss the matter at the end of the month and possibly consider ways of making the mechanism more "flexible", for instance by deploying just parts of a battlegroup when needed.

The Swedish diplomat talked about "variations" in the political commitment of member states when it comes to making the battlegroup they contribute to really deployable.

The lack of sufficient strategic airlift in most member states meant that "you might have the troops, but no means of putting them on the ground" - which defeats the very rationale of a quickly deployable force.

As most of the Nato countries are also EU members, it is obvious that troops and technical equipment is scarce for both EU battlegroups and Nato missions, some MEPs noted.

"Co-operation with Nato is fundamental to the functioning of the battle groups," Socialist MEP and former Romanian defence minister Ioan Mircea Pascu said. "The same troops are used for the Nato reaction force and the EU battle groups, so it would be a nightmare for military planners if they didn't know what troops they are counting on."

British Conservative MEP Geoffrey van Orden called the EU battlegroups, as well as the whole European security and defence policy "a distraction from Nato and what is really meaningful" and deplored the Europeans' lack of interest in Afghanistan.

Coat of arms

Last year, Stockholm co-ordinated the set-up of the Nordic battle group in the first half of last year, comprising 2,800 soldiers mostly from Sweden and also from Finland, Norway, Ireland and Estonia. The endeavour cost Sweden more than €100 million.

"We made the investment in order for the battlegroup to be used," he said, noting that not all member states saw this in the same way.

Back then, Sweden had hoped to see the Nordic battlegroup deployed in the context of the Darfur crisis, but the EU countries could not agree on sending it. Instead, the EU took months to deploy the EUFOR mission to Chad and the Central African Republic.

Meanwhile, the Nordic battlegroup made headlines when its commander decided to 'castrate' the lion on the coat of arms. With civilian women often falling victim to sexual abuse in the war zones of the world, the commander explained, he did not consider the penis an appropriate symbol for his troops to wear into battle.

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