Military Affairs

Forging a New Path: The EU’s first live military exercise and the future of European defence

Raul Bertoldini

The European Union (EU) conducted its first live military exercise in October. Spearheaded by the Spanish amphibious assault ship Juan Carlos I and the French helicopter carrier Tonnerre, about 2,800 military personnel, 25 aircraft and six vessels were deployed in the south of Spain. This is the first of a series of similar drills and is a milestone reflecting the EU’s strides towards strengthened defence collaboration, attracting participation from multiple member states. The fact that, on this occasion, the operation was led by Spanish and French troops not only holds strategic importance but also symbolises the commitment of two leading countries of the bloc to European strategic autonomy. Yet, this progress also highlights the fledgling stage of EU military cooperation, primarily designed for small-scale operations and support rather than full-scale warfare, emphasising the EU’s continued dependence on NATO for traditional deterrence.

The nascent defence cooperation is constrained by limited budgets and manpower contributions from EU nations. According to the words of its representatives and the EU’s strategic compass, the concept of a compact, highly-trained professional force is intended to equip the bloc with a force able to respond to the increasingly complex global security landscape. However, recent conflicts, like the war in Ukraine, underscore the potential limitations of this approach. Indeed, In terms of aiding Europe’s strategic self-reliance, these troops’ deterrent capacity remains modest. Also interestingly, the alleged inadequacy of NATO training for Ukrainian forces in their conflict context underlines the challenges in establishing a modern, effective military unit.

Another challenge is the ambiguous decision-making framework likely to govern the deployment and use of this joint force. Although numerous EU armies currently enjoy a high level of interoperability due to their NATO memberships, enhancing joint operations significantly, the Brussels-based Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC), tasked with commanding the rapid reaction force, has not yet supervised any actual combat missions. Its ability to “plan and conduct one middle-scale executive operation”, bound by the EU’s consensus-driven decision-making process, could face significant obstacles given the diverse foreign policy views within the bloc. The EU, while mostly unified on the Ukraine issue, showed policy divergences during recent events in Israel and the subsequent war. This situation reiterates the bloc’s difficulty in maintaining a cohesive foreign policy, with state leaders and European institutions often issuing conflicting statements on recent developments.

The utility of this force, given its nature and the political intricacies surrounding it, would, therefore, be questionable without a clearer deployment rationale. The previously mentioned decision-making process, requiring consensus among major powers, may work for smaller countries or humanitarian missions like civilian evacuations from conflict zones, but politically charged actions (as in the recent drill) could meet more resistance and protracted discussions. Additionally, the limited scope and objectives of potential missions might lead major powers to deploy their national forces, prioritising their interests. Notably, in one of its articles, Politico cited France’s 2011 intervention in Libya as an inspiration for the October drill. This instance, where France deployed its troops for national interests, remains a contentious topic among its allies and within the EU.

In conclusion, the EU’s inaugural live fire exercise is a landmark for its defence cooperation, signalling a shift towards greater strategic independence that might prove crucial in today’s global landscape. With the possibility of Donald Trump’s return to the U.S. presidency in 2024, Europe’s pursuit of reduced reliance on the U.S. is more relevant than ever. Furthermore, following the Ukraine invasion, the heightened defence focus within the bloc, especially of key members like Germany and Poland, provides a conducive backdrop for advancing this agenda. However, the challenges ahead, particularly in decision-making and aligning national interests with collective EU objectives, are evident. As the EU seeks to bolster its military capabilities, navigating these complexities to forge a more unified and effective defence framework will be vital, with its success contingent on reconciling internal dynamics with the strategic demands of the current security environment.

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