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EU: Military Arm Developing More Quickly Than Expected

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union appears to be developing its new military arm rapidly. Its first-ever deployment of peacekeeping troops came earlier this year in Macedonia, and since then it has also sent forces to the Congo. Now the Netherlands, an EU member, has suggested that union troops be sent to Moldova to back a peace settlement there.

Prague, 16 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- France's traditional Bastille Day military parade is always a colorful affair, with the troops swinging down the grand Champs Elysee as jets sweep overhead streaming blue, white, and red smoke.

This year the 14 July commemoration of the revolution was marked by something new. At the head of the rows of infantry, cavalry, and mechanized troops was...a German general. And immediately behind him was a unit of the new European Union military forces, complete with EU shoulder flashes on their national uniforms. This was a moment of symbolism for the embryonic EU military arm, which has recently come into existence after years of frustrating delays.

The EU undertook its first joint military deployment only in March of this year, when it sent a small and lightly armed force of some 300 "peace enhancement" troops to Macedonia.

The troops sent to that former Yugoslav republic are drawn from present and future member states of the EU, and their task is to demonstrate the international community's desire for peace in Macedonia, where there was violence in 2001 between government forces and ethnic Albanian rebels. The original six-month term of the EU soldiers appears likely to be extended by another three months at the request of Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski.

Then in June came an unexpected deployment in a part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where civil war has been raging. In contrast to Macedonia, where tranquillity now reigns, the Congo deployment of the French-led force is to a "hot" area, namely the northeastern town of Bunia.

The EU troops in Bunia have strong rules of engagement, and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana is now pushing the United Nations to strengthen the mandate of the UN peacekeeping force in the Congo, as a means of dampening the violence.

Bunia is also the first occasion on which the EU military has used its own assets. In Macedonia, it has relied on pre-existing NATO equipment and hardware.

Brussels-based military analyst Marc Houben of the Centre for European Policy Studies says, however, the scale of the union's successes so far must be kept in perspective.

"The operation in the Congo, for example, is primarily an operation which is run by the French. It has been given the stamp or the seal of the European Union, but when it comes to operational command and control, it is a French affair to a large extent. The operation in Macedonia meanwhile is modest in scale, but it does have a very important signal value," Houben says.

This week, there's word of a new possible mission, namely a deployment in Moldova. The Netherlands, current head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has suggested sending EU peacekeepers to underpin a settlement between the Moldovan authorities and breakaway Russian speakers in its Transdniestr region.

EU security sources say the matter will be formally discussed at a meeting of the Union's political and security committee on 22 July.

However, committee chairman Maurizio Melani has said no decision on deployment is imminent.

In remarks to reporters, Melani said it's "clear" that Russia has "an interest and a stake" in Moldova. Russia has long had troops in that country, and diplomats say any insertion of EU forces would have to be handled carefully so as not to upset Moscow.

London-based political analyst Heather Grabbe, of the Centre for European Reform, says the importance of such a potential mission can hardly be overestimated.

"It is a really critical development in the EU's neighborhood policy, because it raises two of the biggest, most central issues, of how the EU will deal with its own backyard. One issue is how far does it actually want to get involved -- is it going to get involved in pre-emptive engagement, and basically avoid the mistakes it made over the Balkans?" Grabbe says.

The second issue, Grabbe says, deals with the extent to which the Union is willing to use force. She recalls the deep divisions over the use of force in Iraq, but she says members seem much closer to consensus on the issue when it relates to their own sphere of influence.

Taking a philosophical standpoint, analyst Houben says the EU's joint military efforts, now under way, tend to create the need for what he calls "the synchronizing of political processes at the national level" among EU member states.

But the EU being the type of unique hybrid that it is, this "synchronization" need not be characterized by a gathering of power at the center, leading to an erosion of national sovereignty of EU members. Houben puts it into a historical perspective, referring to the famous political theories of Renaissance-era realist Niccolo Machiavelli.

"All politicians, all diplomats, and scholars have read Machiavelli, and from Machiavelli they have learned that in order to be powerful, in order to be effective in the external domain, you need to concentrate power into a single pair of hands, and we have grown up with that dogma," Houben says.

But Houben does not find the sometimes sinister Machiavellian world the one which is desirable for a union of 25 more modern democratic states.

"I believe that our historic [task] -- perhaps from an academic point of view or an intellectual point of view -- is to prove Machiavelli wrong," Houben says. "The European Union, if it is to be successful, must find ways to lead, and to be effective without actually placing huge amounts of power into a single pair of hands."

On a cautionary note, Houben recalls that the Grand Dukedom of Florence, Machiavelli's stamping grounds, at one stage had a committee of some 30 graybeards running its foreign policy. That experiment, he says, did not go well.