For our weekly ‘Ideas on Europe’ editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we have the pleasure to welcome Laura Chappell, from the University of Surrey, in England.
Your research focuses on the EU’s military capabilities – a highly technical issue that the public does not know much about.
What we know is that the EU has the ambition, set out in the 2022 Strategic Compass, to create a modular force of 5000 troops, built on the already existing “Battlegroups”. This Rapid Deployment Capacity – the acronym is “RDC” – was proposed by 14 member states and was subsequently discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council on Defence Issues on 6 May 2021. It gained additional traction after the EU member states had to rely on the US to facilitate the evacuation of their citizens from Afghanistan. And one year later, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has focused minds in Brussels on EU member state military capabilities.
How credible is this ambition?
The question is whether the Rapid Deployment Capacity really provides the EU with enhanced rapid reaction capabilities. The “EU Battlegroups”, on which it is based, have never been deployed despite being fully operational since 2007.
The fundamental issues with these Battlegroups come down to three key elements: funding, composition and political will. Regarding funding, it is the participating member states that have to pick up the tab for most of the operation costs. Concerning composition, the battlegroups are small in size, just 1500 troops, and this puts limits to what they can do. Whilst the EU has deployed several operations, these were actually too large for a Battlegroup.
And the political will you mentioned?
It’s lacking! Member states have diverse views on when military force should be deployed, including being able to sustain different levels of risk, particularly as the primary location for Battlegroup deployments is largely focused on the African continent, which is not in every state’s interests.
The lack of political willingness is particularly evident in the rotation of the Battlegroups. In principle, two Battlegroups are on standby and rotated every six months, but there are no Battlegroups scheduled for the second half of 2023.
On the other hand, there are advantages to the Battlegroups as they can facilitate military cooperation and training, the reorganisation of national armed forces, and interoperability. This explains why they continue to exist despite not being used.
In comparison to these battlegroups, what is actually new in the Rapid Deployment Capacity?
In terms of funding, the strategic compass explicitly stated an extension of common costs, based on member states GDP. However, no agreement has been reached beyond financing the first live exercise for the Rapid Deployment Capacity this year.
Structurally the RDC is larger, however it is still based on two Battlegroups plus so-called “strategic enablers”, such transport, medical assets, etc., which really questions whether it represents a genuine increase in capability. Importantly, though, it is modular, so the RDC can be tailored to the crisis where it is needed.
Finally, the duration has increased to one year. To ensure that the Rapid Deployment Capacity is relevant, two operational scenarios based on rescue and evacuation with an African focus and the initial stabilisation phase have been created, with further scenarios in the pipeline. This will ensure that the RDC is tailored to the types of tasks that the EU envisages conducting. Not to forget the live exercises I mentioned, the first of which will take place in Spain this year.
But you still don’t sound optimistic about the political will behind it…
It’s the key sticking point. Fundamentally, countries still have different visions for European security.
Ukraine is particularly important as some countries’ focus is on deterring Russia rather than contributing to the RDC. NATO has also announced a new force model of 300,000 troops and EU member states only have a single set of forces. This really begs the question as to who is willing to contribute to the RDC, whether in terms of strategic enablers, or in filling up the Battlegroup rotation.
Fundamentally, even if common costs are expanded and a suitable scenario comes up, it will still depend on whose Battlegroups are on standby. Whilst the core idea is to make the RDC more attractive to member states, such that they are less likely to say “no” to deploying it, fundamental questions still need be resolved.
Thank you very much, Laura, for sharing your insight on this very complicated but increasingly important policy with our audience. I recall that you are based at the University of Surrey and that you are co-editor of the reputed academic journal European Security.
Interview by Sophie Girstmair.