Readers of serious European newspapers – admittedly a dwindling breed – should know where to find Kabul, Kandahar, and Kunduz on a map. NATO’s fight against the Taliban has given us a passable knowledge of Afghanistan’s major towns and cities.
But what about Bunia and Goz Beïda? Asked to identify these places, many Europeans might guess they could be found in the Star Wars universe. But they are real – located in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and eastern Chad, respectively – and they feature significantly in the recent military history of Europe.
In 2003, French troops were deployed to Bunia under the European Union’s flag of Congo to fend off militias. In 2008, Irish troops were flying the EU flag in Goz Beïda, tasked with protecting supplies to refugees from Darfur. A Chadian rebel group attacked. The Irish escaped with no casualties, although some aid workers complained that the soldiers failed to fight back.
If anyone ever builds an EU War Museum to rival the Imperial War Museum in London, it will include displays on these engagements. But museum guides may have to explain that, after the Chad mission ended in 2009, EU soldiers never returned to Africa.
Over the last six months, Europe’s governments have been falling over each other to announce defence cuts. This potentially means the end of a short era of EU-flagged interventions, during which the Union deployed troops not only to Bosnia (where a small force remains) but also to African trouble-spots like the DRC, to assist UN peacekeepers.
France, with its long military history in Africa, often bore the brunt of these operations. But it was not alone. Germany sent troops to patrol Kinshasa during elections. In Chad, there were not only Irish troops but Poles, Austrians, Finns, and Swedes, among others.
The EU’s African missions were usually relatively small – the largest, in Chad, had just under 4,000 in the field. Yet, along with more numerous UN and African Union peacekeepers, they were a real contribution to efforts to end Africa’s bitter post-Cold War conflicts.
Now, an increasing number of European governments – under the strain of both budget cuts and the Afghan campaign – are questioning the value of these missions. Last week, France and the U.K. announced a 50-year defence treaty, which included provisions for a 10,000-strong expeditionary force. A lot of commentators saw this as a sign of Franco-British frustration with other EU governments’ declining interest in military adventures.
But it’s also pretty hard to imagine the newly proposed 10,000-soldier force being deployed to manage a nasty but localised crisis in a place like Goz Beïda. British and French commanders will want to keep their powder dry and troops fresh for direct challenges on Europe’s immediate periphery, like a crisis in the Balkans or the Middle East.
Public opinion in Europe has turned against interventionism. While Canadian strategists have responded to the imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan by debating whether to send more troops to UN missions, there has been little comparable discussion in Europe.
Ireland did float a paper this summer calling for EU countries to send more troops, but this gained little traction in Brussels. There are still significant numbers of European troops in the UN mission in Lebanon, but even this commitment is shrinking.
Asked whether the EU is deserting Africa, European officials like to point out that there is an EU naval force involved in anti-piracy operations off the Somali coast. An EU training mission based in Uganda is also trying to build up a Somali army. But in downtown Mogadishu, African Union forces are locked in a running battle with Islamist insurgents. No European government has seriously considered sending forces to help.
It’s possible that a new crisis in Africa – perhaps major violence in South Sudan – may force EU governments to deploy a new force on the continent. But it is more likely that the EU will leave African crisis management to the UN and the African Union. It may even place limits on what the UN can achieve: EU member-states pay 40 per cent of the organisation’s peacekeeping budget, and some are arguing that this must be cut for austerity’s sake.
This may pave the way for new humanitarian disasters. It’s understandable if most Europeans haven’t heard of African crises like the one in Bunia, but it’s worrisome that their leaders have – but no longer want to do anything to help.
This article first appeared in The Mark.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.