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EU: Preparations Continue For First Military Operation

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union is already preparing for its first military mission following the signing this week of a formal agreement giving EU military staff access to NATO planning facilities. Prospectively, the first mission will be to take over peacekeeping duties from NATO troops in Macedonia. The EU cannot afford to fail in this task, if its common security policy is to gain credibility.

Prague, 18 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union is about to make its world debut as a military power. Following the 16 December signing of a formal agreement between the EU and NATO, the EU's small military staff will at last have access to the alliance's formidable operational planning facilities.

The agreement follows the resolution at the EU's Copenhagen summit last week of a dispute that has delayed creation of the EU's planned military force for two years. The dispute, between Greece and Turkey, revolved around how much say non-EU member Turkey would have in deployment of the force in the Balkans and Southeastern Europe.

Sources in the EU's military committee in Brussels say contacts are already intensifying with NATO officials aimed at getting the first mission under way. Although it has not been officially announced, that mission is likely to see the EU taking over peacekeeping duties in Macedonia. NATO has had peacekeeping troops in that country since 2001, following a seven-month insurgency by ethnic Albanians in northwest Macedonia.

Military analysts say the Macedonia mission -- a success story in peacekeeping terms -- is an excellent starting point for the EU's fledgling military arm. The area is now quiet and only small numbers of troops are involved -- hundreds rather than thousands -- which makes logistical tasks easier.

In addition, most of the troops already serving in Macedonia are from EU member states. As security analyst Daniel Keohane of the London-based Centre for European Reform put it, the main changes will be to command-and-control structures. "As far as the actual operation on the ground goes, it should be pretty seamless, mainly because I expect many of the same troops to remain there or to be 'recycled,' if you like, in the EU context, since they are already there anyway," Keohane said.

EU military sources say that in accordance with the agreement with NATO, the alliance will assign as many planners as are needed for each specific mission. The EU will also be able to request specific "hardware" -- whether trucks or armaments or logistical equipment -- from NATO-dedicated stocks. In that respect, it's worth remembering that the EU has no standing forces of its own, only a central military staff based in Brussels and consisting of some 135 senior officers under the command of the chairman of the EU military committee, Finnish General Gustav Hagglund.

The EU's envisaged rapid-reaction force, as it is being called, will consist of national units assigned for the duration of the mission at hand.

A condition for Macedonia's becoming an EU mission is, of course, for Macedonian authorities to give their permission for the changeover from NATO.

EU sources say the prospective date for starting deployment is February -- a timetable that they described as "ambitious," meaning it will be difficult to meet. And the EU cannot afford to fail in its first military task. Detractors have made much of the two-year delay in forming the rapid-reaction force, asserting that the EU is not yet focused enough to take on military duties.

As Keohane put it: "If anything were to go wrong in Macedonia, I think people who remain to be convinced about the ESDP [European Security and Defense Policy] will use that as evidence that NATO should be looking after these things and that perhaps the EU is not the most appropriate place to run military missions, and that perhaps the EU should concentrate on the softer sides of security. So it's a test, there is no question about that."

Behind Macedonia stands the possibility of a much larger and more difficult mission, that of peacekeeping in Bosnia-Herzegovina. EU leaders expressed willingness at their Copenhagen summit last week to take over -- at an unspecified date -- from the NATO-led Stabilization Force.

But according to Sarajevo-based analyst Mark Wheeler of the International Crisis Group, such a move would not be popular among locals. "There are continuing doubts about the EU's ability to do any big and positive job as far as Bosnia-Herzegovina is concerned. At least, there are doubts among Bosniaks in particular," Wheeler said.

Wheeler said the local population has more faith in the "interest and capacity" of the United States in the region. He said this attitude stems from the 1992-95 war, in which the Americans were regarded as the rescuers of the Bosniaks, whereas the EU dithered.

He said the key to reassuring these doubts is for the EU to make a success of another security project, namely the scheduled takeover in January of the Bosnian policing operation. At present, the International Police Task Force is run by the United Nations.

Wheeler said, "We are [then] going to have a greater-than-ever demonstration on the ground of the EU's commitment to, and interest in, Bosnia-Herzegovina."

The EU's Copenhagen summit invited the international community's high representative in Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, to open talks on a possible takeover in Bosnia with the EU's foreign-policy and security chief, Javier Solana.

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