On 30 June 2012, for the first time, the EU completed a six-month Battlegroup rotation with only one Battlegroup on standby. The lack of commitment by member states represents a setback for the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), and more broadly, for the EU’s ambition as an international actor. However, the real and practical consequences of the EU’s failure to mobilise states to form a second EU BG for the first term of 2012 were, in fact, nonexistent. What could be seen as good news—no Battlegroup deployment was necessary during that period—could also be seen as bad news—there doesn’t seem to be a need for EU battlegroups.
The prospect of using EU Battlegroups was only raised once formally over the past six months; it was, indeed, brought up by the Political and Security Committee (PSC) ambassadors in order to support to EUFOR Althea, the EU’s CSDP mission in Bosnia Herzegovina, which had temporarily “lent” its reserve force as reinforcement in Kosovo over the electoral period in Serbia. The rejection by the Military Committee, arguing that EU BGs were not meant to be used as reserve forces, illustrates the lack of common agreement and understanding of what type of operations EU BGs are designed for, but also the difficulties related to their deployment.
The meant-to-be European rapid reaction force is currently experiencing a significant downturn, as there appears to be a clear lack of motivation, commitment and willingness to contribute money and forces. Not only is the financial crisis significantly hampering the EU member states’ ability to take part in BG formations, but the lack of political union, common foreign policy and common identification of security challenges, has, until now, prevented EU BGs from deploying. Although the concept still benefits from widespread support among EU member states, the numerous shortcomings and challenges that they bring forth are increasingly pointed out.
The BG roster of offers and commitments shows that over the next five years, there will be at best one BG on standby per semester (except during the 2nd term of 2012 and of 2014). However, when looking at the (short) history of EU BGs, it seems very likely that the inability to fill the gaps of the roster will not constrain the EU’s action on the international stage. BGs having never been deployed and being under severe pressure for not doing so, EU heads of states (as the Council is the one having the final word on deployment) now seem to be waiting for the “ideal” crisis—regrouping optimal conditions—to arise. Indeed, potential military or political failure related to the Battlegroups would strongly affect the EU and CSDP. Notwithstanding, it seems unlikely that one, let alone two, of these “ideal” crises, which would at the same time constitute a security challenge for all CSDP participating states, and which would be of low to medium intensity over a limited period of time, will arise, simultaneously.
Although EU BGs have partially brought progress with regard to their first goal of acting as an engine of transformation of national armed forces, their willingness to provide the Union with a more rapid and more visible CSDP tool has despairingly failed. From this perspective, if the blanks in the commitment roster do have a significant political dimension, they will not constitute a practical or operational constraint for CSDP, as EU BGs have still not managed to assert their utility and efficiency on the ground.