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The Withdrawal from Afghanistan: a Renewed Push for the Creation of a Common EU force

On the 15th of September 2021, during the annual State of the Union speech in front of the European Parliament (EP) in Strasbourg, the European Commission (EC) President Ursula von der Leyen commented on the recent events in Afghanistan, which culminated in the toppling of the Presidency of Ashraf Ghani after the conquest of Kabul by the Taliban. The crisis was exacerbated by the end of the Western military missions in the country, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (the U.S. mission which replaced the previous Operation Enduring Freedom in 2015) and the NATO-led multinational Resolute Support Mission, which had operated in Afghanistan since 2015 as the successor of the International Security Assistance Force.

During her speech, the EC President highlighted the lack of political will by the EU, more than an actual shortfall of capacity, as the main cause of the current reduced military presence of the EU on the global stage. According to von der Leyen, the EU should thus acquire the will to build its military force to respond more effectively to comparable future crises (European Commission, 2021; Boffey, 2021). Her proposal was echoed by the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, who affirmed that the events in Afghanistan demonstrated the need for a stronger European defence, and the Chairman of the EU Military Committee Claudio Graziano, who asserted the necessity to create a rapid reaction force with a genuine will to act (Wheeldon, 2021).

The proposal of creating a common European armed force is one of the oldest projects associated with post-war European integration. In  1950, then-Prime Minister of France René Pleven proposed a European Defence Community (EDC), a pan-European military with different national components and common budget, arms, and institutions as an alternative to the U.S.-led NATO. The 1952 Treaty of Paris, which gave effect to the EDC, was signed by the six European countries (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany), which were already part of the European Coal and Steel Community. One of the most prominent features of the Treaty is the prohibition for state parties, as affirmed in Article 9, to maintain and recruit national armed forces (save for a short list of exceptions listed in the following Article 10), which were thus almost completely replaced by the EDC. The Treaty, however, never entered into force due to its rejection by France, the lack of its ratification by Italy, and the contemporary acceptance of West Germany into NATO (Joffe, 1984, 70).

The idea of a common European force resurfaced again in the late 1990s after the wars in former Yugoslavia, perceived as an EU failure to prevent and stop conflict at its borders. In the Saint-Malo Declaration of December 1998, then-French President Jacques Chirac and then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair proposed the creation of military forces which could back up the autonomous action of the EU. A year later, at the meeting of the European Council in Helsinki in December 1999, the EU adopted a Headline Goal (Art. 28 of the Presidency Conclusions) with the aim to create a European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF) by 2003, composed by 50,000-60,000 military personnel of the EU Member States (MS) and deployable within 60 days (European Council, 1999).

The ERRF ultimately did not see the light, but, in the following meeting of the European Council in Brussels in May 2004, the setup of EU Battlegroups was agreed on. These were to be deployed by the MS (except Denmark and Malta and the inclusion of North Macedonia, Norway, and Turkey) and composed of 1,500-2,000 personnel each, with a unified command and the capacity to be deployed worldwide within 10 days (Major & Mölling, 2011). The Battlegroups reached full operational capacity in January 2007. However, they have not entered into function as of September 2021.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan has thus revived a long-term project, which could be further developed in the upcoming months during the Presidency of France of the Council of the EU (January-June 2022). The EC President announced the future convening of an EU summit on defence, in cooperation with French President Emmanuel Macron, one of the major proponents of a more autonomous European defence strategy and less reliance on NATO and American protection. In this sense, a joint EU-NATO declaration on defence is expected by the end of 2021, alongside an EU strategy document for a rapid entry force – although the NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, has already warned that the creation of parallel military structures could weaken the joint capability to work together due to issues of duplication and lack of sufficient resources (Posaner, 2021).

In addition, some EU MS are sceptics of European defence projects not involving NATO – in particular the Baltic states and Poland, as affirmed by Polish Defence Minister and Deputy Foreign Minister, Marius Błaszczak and Paweł Jabłoński, in declarations in May 2021 (The First News, 2021). For this reason, a possible model for a common EU military force, at least in its initial phases, is the creation of ad hoc military coalitions, with a limited number of EU MS participating voluntarily. This idea has been backed up by German Defence Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who talked about the possible formation of a “coalition of the willing” (Kramp-Karrenbauer, 2021). According to the Italian Defence Undersecretary Giorgio Mulè, a first group of states could be composed by the same six EU MS who were already part of the EDC project (Barigazzi, 2021).


Written by Luca Vignati 



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