6th Dec 2023

Why won't EU forces fight together, von der Leyen asks?

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The European Commission has called for EU "political will" to send joint forces into combat in a "hyper-competitive" world.

EU countries have redoubled interest in fielding joint "battlegroups" after the US recently made Europe look impotent in the Afghanistan crisis.

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But EU battlegroups have existed on paper for 16 years without ever being sent into action, commission chief Ursula von der Leyen noted in Strasbourg on Wednesday (15 September).

"In the last weeks, there have been many discussions on expeditionary forces. On what type and how many we need," she said in a state-of-the-union speech to MEPs.

"But the more fundamental issue is why this has not worked in the past," she added.

"You can have the most advanced forces in the world - but if you are never prepared to use them - of what use are they?," the former German defence minister said.

"What has held us back until now is not just a shortfall of capacity - it is the lack of political will," she said.

The old battlegroups saw three or four EU states pool forces of 1,500 or more men, which were, in theory, capable of rapid amphibious and air assaults.

And von der Leyen envisaged an EU reaction force that could "provide stability in our neighbourhood", referring to North Africa, the Middle East, and eastern Europe.

"Because of ... geography, Europe knows better than anyone that if you don't deal in time with the crisis abroad, the crisis comes to you," she said.

She also called for the creation of an EU "Joint Situational Awareness Centre", with which capitals shared classified intelligence.

She spoke after EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell voiced a similar vision in Slovakia last week.

The EU needed an "autonomous" force of 5,000 or more men in future, Borrell said after meeting defence ministers.

Paris has been one of the most vocal EU capitals in favour of a "European army".

It is also the only EU country with a sizeable force fighting abroad - a 5,000-man counter-terrorist operation in the Sahel.

And the EU commission chief proposed to call a special "Summit on European defence" with French president Emmanuel Macron under the French EU presidency next year.

Witnessing Afghanistan was "painful" and it had caused "deeply troubling questions" for Nato allies, von der Leyen said on Wednesday.

Belarus' irregular attack on the EU in revenge for sanctions had also caused alarm, she added.

"They [Belarusian authorities] have put people [Iraqi and Afghan refugees] on planes and literally pushed them towards Europe's borders [in Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland] ... let's call it what it is: this is a hybrid attack to destabilise Europe," she said.

For their part, some French soldiers say nations are better at war-fighting than intergovernmental bodies.

"The EU doesn't know how to wage war. It's not prepared to launch military operations of this type [Mali]," a French colonel, Michel Goya, previously told EUobserver.

"If we do it alone, it's more efficient in military terms ... [EU] battlegroups are fine if there is no combat," he said.

But for von der Leyen, "there is simply no security and defence issue where less [EU] cooperation is the answer," she said on Wednesday.

The commission chief pledged allegiance to America, the EU's "closest" ally, despite the fall-of-Kabul fiasco.

"The EU and the US will always be stronger together," she said.

And she promised a good-will trip to the Western Balkans to show Europe was still doing enlargement, despite a long lull in the project.

"Before the end of the month, I will travel to the region to send a strong signal of our commitment to the accession process," von der Leyen said on Wednesday.

Rough world

Zooming out, the commission president said Afghanistan was a "symptom" of "a wider shift in world affairs" and a "transition towards a new international order".

"We are entering a new era of hyper-competitiveness. An era in which some stop at nothing to gain influence," she said, referring to malign actors who used "missiles and disinformation".

It was "an era of regional rivalries and major powers [China, Russia, and the US] refocusing their attention towards each other," she added.

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