Sometimes, you just need some hard power. And for the European Union, December is going to be one of those times. There’s a real risk that, in the weeks between now and Christmas, it will face violence in either Kosovo (where 15,000 European troops underwrite security) or Lebanon (where 8,000 of them have made up the backbone of the UN peace force). Or both. On top of that, the Union is meant to start deploying 4,000 soldiers to Chad to try to bring some order to the border with Darfur, backing up the new UN mission there.
This is just the sort of combination of operations that should prove that the EU can be a distinctive military player: a long-term state-building project in the Balkans; a medium-term commitment in the Middle East that has enjoyed both Israeli and Arab support; and a light-weight intervention in Africa handling a humanitarian crisis. In spite the painful debates over NATO’s Afghan mission, Europe can use these cases to project its strength – and to do so in a proportionate fashion, with clear mandates to defend the vulnerable.
But to do that, you need some basic tools like helicopters, essential for mobility. And that seems to be a problem. In his Bruges speech ten days ago, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband pointed out that “EU countries have around 1,200 transport helicopters, yet only about 35 are deployed in Afghanistan.” So one would imagine that it would be possible to find 10 more of them to deploy to Chad, as requested by EU planners at a pledging conference in Brussels last week. But while governments from Ireland to Poland offered up troops, the number of helicopters pledged was less impressive: zero.
There are lots of good reasons a responsible government wouldn’t want to risk their expensive aircraft in a large African country of which it and its voters know little. Like Darfur, eastern Chad (the proposed EU deployment area) suffers from huge sandstorms that make flying hazardous – and it has no shortage of militias that might try to imitate the examples of Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan and shoot down a Western helicopter.
But without air assets, it won’t be possible to mount the Chad operation. Last week, diplomats were reportedly briefing that the mission might have to be called off – in spite of the fact that UN Security Council mandated the EU to deploy as long ago as 25 September, and the UN is starting to send in police officers meant to operate in parallel.
In the last 72 hours, new violence in eastern Chad has shown the urgency of the mission, although it can hardly have increased the enthusiasm of politicians to risk their troops.
But to scrap the proposed mission would reduce the EU’s access to a military asset that it arguably needs even more than helicopters: credibility. Europeans don’t want their troops to use unnecessary force, but when the EU does consider a military option, it must have the assets and will to carry it off. To get a UN mandate for action, wait two months, and then talk about calling the whole thing off? Not exactly the idea behind ESDP.
But then, even when European forces do get on the ground, they can have credibility problems. The troops that deployed to Lebanon last year certainly didn’t suffer from hardware shortages – indeed, they were over-armored. But some units refused to patrol at night and others quickly negotiated with Hezbollah on their safety. In New York, UN officials who had long been arguing that they needed European contributions began asking if they couldn’t have some tough, risk-taking Indian or Pakistani troops instead.
Similarly, some European units lost face in Kosovo in 2004 when they retreated in front of rioters. Now there’s a chance of new violence there as talks on the province’s future grind to a halt, and/or an even worse breakdown in Lebanon as negotiations on a new president run out of time next week. This month, UN commanders in Lebanon had to publicly refute claims of an imminent withdrawal – hardly a good sign credibility-wise.
Full-scale violence is inevitable in neither Kosovo nor Lebanon. And the people with the best chance of averting both crises are not EU troops, but EU diplomats (small wonder that Bernard Kouchner has been very focused on Lebanon of late). Moreover, it may be possible to scrape together helicopters for Chad, or hire commercial ones as the UN does.
But even if the EU gets away with it this time, there’s a lesson. Last week, the European Defense Agency’s budget by 30% to €32 million. In three weeks, EU leaders will sign the Reform Treaty, holding out the hope of “Permanent Structured Cooperation” on defense. These are real steps towards a European defense capability that could, some day over the horizon, establish the EU as a fully-fledged military player. But in the meantime, it has to handle the high-risk trouble spots already on its agenda. And if its credibility is corroded by events in the Balkans, Middle East and Africa then ESDP will almost certainly wither away too. Chad is risky, but so is inaction: find the helicopters.
This article was also published on EU Observer – http://euobserver.com/7/25228
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.