UN Peace Operations and European Security: New Strategic Dynamics

Europe faces a worsening security situation on many fronts and needs tools – new and old – to stabilize its neighbourhood

Senior Policy Fellow

This piece was written as a background paper for consultations by the UN High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations with EU members in Brussels on 20 February.

Europe faces a worsening security situation on many fronts. The Ukraine crisis threatens to upset the post-Cold War order on the continent. Violence in the Middle East and North Africa presents multiple challenges to European policy-makers. Security officials fear an influx of Islamist extremists radicalized by the wars in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Those conflicts have also contributed to the growing numbers of migrants attempting to reach the EU’s shores across the Mediterranean – thousands have died trying. Europe needs new tools to stabilize its neighbourhood.

Europe needs new tools to stabilize its neighbourhood.

European decision-makers have turned with striking frequency to the United Nations, and specifically UN peace operations, to help manage these threats.[1] Since 2011, the UN has launched political missions and mediation efforts in cases including Libya, Yemen and Syria. It also established a small political presence in Ukraine in 2014. The Security Council has sent a short-lived peacekeeping mission to Syria and a far larger force to Mali after the French-African intervention there.

Older UN peace operations, such as those in Lebanon and on the Golan Heights, have also been on the frontline of this turmoil. And there is talk of increasing the UN’s presence on Europe’s southern flank even further by sending peacekeepers to Libya.

This series of peace operations adds up to a major increase in the UN’s relevance to immediate European security concerns. After the Bosnian war, few members of NATO or the EU believed that the UN would take a major role in the continent’s security again. They offered considerable numbers of personnel for the UN missions in Kosovo (1999) and Lebanon (2006), but these still appeared to be exceptional cases. European governments provided funds – and sometimes short-term military assistance – to blue helmet operations in Africa and cases such as Haiti. But they neither expected nor wished to see the UN take a much greater role closer to home. 

After the Bosnian war, few believed that the UN would take a major role in the continent’s security again.

The current disorder in North Africa and the Middle East changes all that. The success or failure of the UN peace operations in these regions is of direct relevance to European security. European governments also have significant interests in the UN’s activities further afield, whether in combating Ebola in West Africa or sustaining a political settlement in Afghanistan. But the crises on Europe’s southern flank, and their potential spillover effects, represent even higher strategic priorities.

European contributions to UN operations: A new model?

European governments’ willingness to back a significant UN role in these crises arguably stems from three factors. Firstly, the Afghan campaign has created a healthy scepticism about deploying large-scale and long-term Western-flagged missions in the Muslim world. Secondly, the financial crisis has made such deployments financially difficult. Finally, European governments see that future interventions in Africa and the Middle East need to involve non-Western partners, whether that is Chad in Mali or Jordan and the UAE in the war on the Islamic State.

The UN provides a framework to address these issues. It ostensibly offers a neutral political brand and relatively cheap mechanism for political and military actions. It is the natural mechanism for combining European and non-Western personnel and assets, as has long been the case in Lebanon. The EU has developed productive “plug-and-play” arrangements with UN missions, deploying small and medium-sized missions to handle specific tasks (such as military training in Mali or initial stabilization in the Central African Republic [CAR]) alongside or in advance of UN forces. In other cases, such as Somalia, UN political missions and European training operations deploy in parallel with troops from organizations like the African Union.

UN officials appreciate that European governments have specialized assets – ranging from engineers to drones – that many other troop and police contributors cannot easily generate. In some cases these can operate most effectively outside UN command. In others, they can be integrated into UN structures. This has recently been the case in Mali, where the Netherlands, Germany and the Nordic countries have deployed helicopters, transport aircraft, intelligence experts and special forces.

European governments see that future interventions in Africa and the Middle East need to involve non-Western partners.

Inserting these assets into a UN force that initially relied on less advanced units created inevitable day-to-day frictions. The European presence has also not been enough to deter groups targeting the UN, inflicting regular casualties on African peacekeepers. Nonetheless, the Mali mission and to some extent the EU-UN co-deployment in CAR offer positive examples of a new model for European military support to the UN, with a strong emphasis on enabling assets and force multipliers.

The “return of Europe” to UN operations: Enduring constraints…

An emphasis on the positive aspects of specialized European contributions to UN missions cannot entirely obscure continued problems in the relationship, however.

The first is that, despite their presence in Mali, the overall number of European troops in UN peace operations has declined in recent years. In 2007, there were 13,000 troops from EU members in blue helmet missions, primarily in Lebanon. Today, there are fewer than 6,000. Counting soldiers does not, of course, give a sense of their skills and capabilities. It is better to have relatively few, highly capable European troops somewhere like Mali than an infantry battalion. But there may be limits to the “return of Europe” to blue helmets that some UN officials hope to see.

Three factors are liable to reinforce those limits. One is the continued financial pressure on European defence budgets. Another is the fact that, after Ukraine, EU and NATO members will devote more of their limited resources to military steps to counter potential threats on their eastern front. The third is that, like troop contributors in other regions, Europeans worry about rising threats to UN missions.

Like troop contributors in other regions, Europeans worry about rising threats to UN missions.

The current wave of violence in the Middle East and North Africa has put UN personnel (including European personnel) under increased threat, and not only in Mali. Some EU members withdrew their contingents from the once-sleepy force on the Golan Heights in 2013 after an Islamist militia group kidnapped Filipino peacekeepers. Last year an Irish unit rushed to the rescue of a Fijian company besieged by the Islamists on the Golan. And only last month, a Spanish peacekeeper in southern Lebanon tragically lost his life in a clash between Israel and Hezbollah.

If UN peace operations continue to play a significant role in the Middle East and North Africa, such incidents are likely to be repeated – and European governments, like all troop contributors, will have to decide how many fatalities they can accept. 

In past cases, notably during the Balkan wars, European peacekeepers remained in place despite incurring considerable casualties. But it is not clear that there is a strong political will among many EU members to absorb any major losses in the future – at the very least, there will be hard debates about the military limits of UN missions.

If this will depress the number of European troops available to the UN, it is also liable to limit the number of police officers on offer. In past cases including Kosovo and Timor-Leste, European police contingents played a crucial part in UN missions. But today, a mere 200 of the 12,500 UN police personnel worldwide are EU citizens.

Some of the [UN's] most sensitive missions in Europe’s neighbourhood are political and civilian in nature.

A focus on European contributions of uniformed personnel to blue helmet missions also fails to capture important elements of the UN’s peacemaking role. As noted at the outset, some of the organization’s most sensitive missions in Europe’s neighbourhood are political and civilian in nature: This is the case in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Ukraine. The UN’s political missions and envoys have faced serious security threats in these countries. They have also struggled to contain upsurges of violence in all of them. 

UN officials frequently underline that their political efforts are systematically under-resourced. European governments are the leading contributors of voluntary funding to the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA), which backstops these efforts. But if the level of violence continues to intensify in the Middle East and North Africa, the UN’s ability to sustain its political engagement in these regions will be sorely tested.

… and strategic surprises

Yet, despite all these reasons for caution, continued conflict on Europe’s southern flank could also result in an unexpectedly rapid and sizeable “return of Europe” to UN peace operations, eclipsing positive but limited deployments like that in Mali.

If current UN proposals for a force of about 6,000 troops in Libya ever come to fruition, it will almost certainly have to rest on a major European troop contribution and long-range support by NATO forces. The same is true of any potential major UN presence in Syria, although the chances of such a deployment now seem very low. But further strategic surprises in the Middle East, such as a crisis in Lebanon, could compel European governments to risk a new rapid deployment under UN command.

This is speculation. The UN’s prominence in Europe’s neighbourhood may prove to be temporary. But European policy-makers would be unwise to rule out the possibility that they may have to work through the UN to an even greater degree.


[1] This paper draws on the author’s paper with Nick Witney, Why Europe must stop outsourcing its security (ECFR, December 2014).

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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Senior Policy Fellow