The EU at War: CAR Mission Highlights Internal Tensions

The EU at War: CAR Mission Highlights Internal Tensions

They're supposed to work together. So why do they leave so much to France?

The European Union (EU) has finally decided to act in order to provide assistance to the Central African Republic (CAR). The EU wants to avoid having the country fall into complete state failure as the political conditions in CAR are serious, with over a million people displaced, a thousand killed in the capital Bangui alone, and an estimated one hundred thousand people located in camps around Bangui’s airport. On January 20, the Council of the EU approved the launch of a military EU mission, EUFOR RCA Bangui, in order to bring assistance to the French troops present in the CAR since the fall of 2013. This will be the first military mission falling under the framework of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) for the EU since 2008, and the ninth military mission overall. The purpose of this CSDP mission is to provide a stabilization role and crisis management in Africa. The EU mission will work in parallel with the French forces (1,600 soldiers) under Operation Sangaris and the African Union’s MISCA forces (4,400 forces). But which lessons can be learned from the politics behind the making of the EUFOR RCA Bangui mission for the future of the CSDP?

As it was agreed during the Council meeting of Foreign Affairs on January 20, 2014, the EUFOR mission is “to contribute to providing a safe and secure environment in the Bangui area.” According to the Council decision, the mission would take place for a period of six months starting late February and would include between 400 and 600 troops for stabilization purposes. The endgame is to transfer its competencies to the African Union (AU). The EUFOR mandate consists of securing the capital and its airport in order to provide stable conditions for humanitarian aid. The EUFOR mission will allow the French troops to leave Bangui and secure the rest of the country.

Despite a unanimous Council decision, the main problems for this CSDP mission, as with any previous ones, consists of EU Member States’ participation and contribution to its force. This CSDP mission is no exception to the European rule of the capability-expectation gap, entailing that national expectations are rarely met with the appropriate support to the CSDP mission. So far only a few Member States are willing to send troops to such a risky mission, which may force France to complement the needed soldiers. So far only small and medium EU countries—Estonia (as illustrated in Gowan’s article), Lithuania, Slovenia, Finland, Belgium, Poland and Sweden—are considering sending soldiers under the EU flag to Bangui. When it comes to big EU countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy, they have all refused pooling men for the mission, but may provide some military capabilities.

Britain’s reluctance to send troops under the EU flag comes at an awkward moment as Paris and London are currently exchanging fire. London has been criticizing the economic model implemented by Paris in order to turn the French economy around. London claimed just recently that the Hollande government has put the country “into the sand.” However, President Hollande is hoping that the crisis will not jeopardize the usually strong military link and vision between the two sides of the English Channel. Historically, Britain and France have been the engine behind the European defense project as illustrated by the 1998 Saint Malo declaration—which set up the CSDP—and the more recent 2010 Bilateral defense agreement. Traditionally, they have been aligned when it comes to deploying force abroad (with the exception of the 2003 war in Iraq, of course). However, if in recent times Britain has been inward looking, France is taking risky initiatives in strategic regions by filling the security vacuum. France is trying to avoid a series of state-failure in the region by strengthening security and stability to countries in Africa. The region of the Sahel is unstable with the high level of smuggling of weapons and drugs, as well as extremist groups. If CAR does fail, it could spread to neighboring countries.

Four elements need to be reflected upon concerning the CSDP and CAR. First, despite the rapid European reactions to create a military mission, approved by the UN Security Council on January 29 of this year, the EU failed to use the EU Battlegroup concept, even though during the 2013 December defense summit the EU promised to do precisely that. The concept—a rapid-reaction force up to 1,500 strong, deployable anywhere needed for up to 120 days, offering the Union the ability to respond to crisis with a rapid and robust military instrument—was created in 2007 with the purpose of dealing with the type of mission and challenges present in CAR. The Battlegroup will instead remain in Europe.

Second, the gap between the Council declaration and member states’ commitment has put the EU and its member states in contradiction with their strategic desires and actions. In recent times, it appears that the French Army has become what the CSDP was envisioned to be. During the December 2013 defense summit, member states declared “defense matters” and only verbally reinforced their commitment to the CSDP. The limited CSDP military mission in CAR and especially the lack of contribution by large member states send the wrong message two months after European commitments to defense integration.

Third, what is Britain’s endgame? What role does David Cameron envision for Britain within the EU? Britain has been reluctant to act since the 2011 Libyan mission. The House of Commons’ refusal to intervene in Syria and the limited contributions to the EU missions in Mali and CAR demonstrate a shift in British foreign policy. Britain, under Cameron, appears to avoid overshadowing NATO by not contributing to CSDP missions.

Fourth, maybe it is time to pull the plug on the CSDP and instead invest into the French army or even merge the CSDP with NATO. The French army has been at the fore in Libya (with the assistance of the US and Britain), Mali, and now the Central African Republic. France certainly has deep interests in reaffirming its power in the region, but so do other European countries. On paper, the EU is concerned with rising instability throughout Africa. Yet its members act as if they do not realize the threat that their inaction represents to ‘fortress Europe.’

Maxime H.A. Larivé, Ph.D., is a Research Associate at the European Union Center of Excellence at the University of Miami.