Patience is virtue wrote Flaubert. The European Union (EU) has launched two new operations, a month after having validated another one. For the many, healing many critics who lamented the lack of new operations within the EU Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), salve these news should bring some relief. Yet, it would still prove premature. The EU may be in charge of new civilian and military operations, but the existential rationale that led people to advocate for new operations undervalued the actual lack of strategy within CSDP. Unless fresh political impetus emerges to steer the ship, arguments to bolster CSDP will fall on deaf ear.
It would be absurd to hide the shrinking political will that hampers CSDP. Since its inception, it has been incapable to find its place within the EU or vis-à-vis NATO. Too few countries have invested political resources in bringing it forward and the EU has failed to offer a convincing concept of employment. The 2000s saw a burst of operations with no apparent overarching agenda other than the fact that most of them were sponsored by a specific country (France for EUFOR Chad, Germany for EUPOL Afghanistan, Portugal for EU SSR Guinea Bissau etc.). By and large, at the end of the 2000s, it was accepted that the EU defense policy had taken off, yet operations could not be the panacea.
France has always been the key member state to promote and steer CSDP forward. A strong “Europe de la défense” is in line with French design to build an “Europe puissance”. For Paris, leading the process was the best guarantee that a more robust global role for the EU would mirror French interests. The Sarkozy presidency marked a shift in that respect. The complementarity that the former President sought between CSDP and NATO, and the subsequent reintegration within NATO’s integrated military structures in 2009 meant that France was allocating already limited resources away from CSDP. As no other EU member state was as adamant as France to support a strong CSDP, this French pullback consequently caused EU defense policy to fall into torpor for the past few years: an EU overwhelming focus on economic and financial issues, no new operations, a difficult post-Lisbon treaty period with very little political attention, and a delicate institutional reorganization within the nascent European External Action Service (EEAS).
François Hollande and his Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian have promised to strengthen the “Europe de la défense”. The White Paper on Defense and National Security that is currently under work, will serve as a major test to testify of this commitment and to see how the new government will weigh the balance between CSDP and NATO. NATO has the potential to be more European than ever at a time when the U.S. is redeploying resources to Asia-Pacific. France is likely to take advantage of this window of opportunity to try to bring CSDP and NATO closer to each other.
In this context, three new operations look like attempts to keep the operational part of CSDP on life support. EUCAP SAHEL Niger will be a small civilian operation designed to strengthen Niger’s counterterrorism capabilities in light of the growing instability in its neighborhood. EUAVSEC South Sudan will train South Sudanese authorities to reinforce their aviation security. Finally, EUCAP Nestor will reinforce regional capabilities in the Horn of Africa to fight against maritime piracy, both in terms of naval capabilities as well as in providing judicial and operational assistance. This operation will act as a complement to Operation Atalanta. It had been in negotiations for some time and is the most ambitious of the three. Critics will point out that those operations display little ambition following the legacy of previous operations. Others will say that those operations demonstrate a willingness to do something, which is as good as it can get today.
The core issue is elsewhere. Those operations will not help CSDP in its lack of strategic direction. What this policy is craving today is investment from both member states and the EEAS. CSDP has two components: capacity building and operations. In the EU, the capacity-building and -sharing debate has focused on the idea of “pooling and sharing”. Despite its vagueness, its difficulties, and reluctance from certain member states, the European Defense Agency and some member states have been developing approaches with a reasonably clear end-goal.
On the other hand, the operational dimension remains suboptimal. Fundamental questions need answers: what do we want out of CSDP? Is it useful to conduct CSDP operations? Do we need to commit political and financial resources to it and how much if so? What kind of institutional organization would we need (mostly the issue of opening an EU standing Operational Headquarters)? What relations do we want between CSDP and NATO? In fairness, it is far easier to be negative on most of those questions. The operational outcome of CSDP has been unimpressive – aside from a few exceptions, such as Operation Atalanta. In the end, CSDP comes down to a political question: do we want the EU to benefit from autonomous operational and planning capabilities or not? This question requires a candid exchange among Europeans, and this is what the French committee on the new White Paper should delve into.