July 3, 2018

Behind the European Intervention Initiative: An Expeditionary Coalition of the Willing?

Estonian Ministry of Defence

The landscape of European security and defence cooperation has become a busy one. Last year, 25 of the 28 EU Member States signed up to commit to Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), spurring a wide array of specific cooperation projects and investment pledges.

A European Defence Fund (EDF) was launched—supervised by the European Commission—and a Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) was initiated. Taken together, these initiatives form a three-legged system for fostering further European defence cooperation.

On June 25th, nine EU countries, signed the letter of intent creating the European Intervention Initiative. France, who proposed the Initiative, gathered Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom around it. Introduced by President Emmanuel Macron in a speech at the  Sorbonne in September 2017, the Initiative  is intended to bring together willing and able nations in order swiftly to tackle emerging crises in Europe’s neighbourhood. Paris wants its militarily-able European partners to share the crisis-management burden on the continent’s periphery, as its fundamental view  is that France’s European allies are free riders when it comes to instability on the southern flank.

In future, Paris wants to avoid having to go it almost alone as it did in Mali and the Central African Republic in 2013. This was precisely the logic behind France’s push to reawaken the PESCO, the so-called “sleeping beauty” of the Lisbon Treaties. In the intentions of the treaties’ drafters, PESCO was meant to be a mechanism for regular defence cooperation among a small group of willing and able EU members in order to give the Common Security and Defence Policy an autonomous capacity of action. Together with CARD and the EDF, the objective was to create a nucleus for gradual defence integration.

However, since Berlin did not want an exclusive PESCO, Paris settled for an inclusive, loose and open arrangement with little to no capability benefits. French-German negotiations as to the revamping of the PESCO showed that Paris would have preferred a smaller group of countries, willing and able to commit to a meaningful defence capacity-building effort. Instead, Berlin wanted to avoid creating further divides within the EU and favoured a larger PESCO formula, including virtually all EU members except Denmark and the UK.

France looks south, while most European allies continue to looking east while relying on the US as the cornerstone of their security. By contrast, Paris has long conceived of its security as rooted in the projection of force in crisis zones. This is why France’s advocacy of the concept of national strategic autonomy is often loosely endorsed in European circles. In French minds, strategic autonomy refers to the autonomous ability to assess a given situation – relying on intelligence collection and analysis – as well as to act by relying on speedy political decision-making and deployable armed forces. Those requirements however fall at odds with the domestic constraints weighing on a number of France’s key strategic partners – chief among them is Germany. The French armed forces can be deployed under the exclusive decision of the President, while the Parliament (usually politically aligned with the President) gives its consent a posteriori.

At the Sorbonne, President Macron outlined his vision of fostering a European strategic culture and advancing European strategic autonomy in the above sense. In his view, common and integrated planning among joint staff headquarters (a “military Erasmus”) and field cooperation leading ultimately to joint deployments can build a sense of shared military and political culture through action, not through mere words or declarations. Intended to be more substantial than PESCO, the EII is an alternative both to the EU’s overly inclusive PESCO and to NATO’s consensus reaching requirements.

The problem is that European strategic autonomy, a concept that appeared in the 2016 EU Global Strategy most likely due to French insistence, is paid only lip service by France’s partners. Paris is rather isolated when pushing the idea forward, since its European allies continue to believe that NATO needs to work as well as it did for the past 70 years and that the US should remain the pillar of European and global security. Accordingly, while France views the EII as a burden-sharing mechanism for out-of-area and expeditionary missions on the southern flank, a part of the co-signatories rationale is to use it as a way of demonstrating to  Washington that they are committed to taking care of their own security, developing military capabilities and channelling defence spending in a meaningful way.

The signatories to the EII letter of intent expect a number of trade-offs. France, with its emphasis of projection of forces, expect support and burden-sharing from its European allies in expeditionary activities. The UK wants to remain a player that matters in European security debates after Brexit; more importantly, if it had opted out,  the EII would not have made sense in light of the existing French-British Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF, not to be confused with the British-led, mainly Nordic-Baltic, similarly-named Joint Expeditionary Force). The CJEF is a bilateral arrangement providing for joint French-British intervention in a wide range of scenarios. For its part, Estonia intends to show its willingness and capability to be a security provider. Its commitment to helping resolve crises through the projection of forces – through both the JEF and the EII – is expected to offer it more leverage in securing Alliance territorial security guarantees1. In this respect, French-Estonian cooperation is particularly intense: next year, Paris has committed to return to the Enhanced Forward Presence by sending 300 troops to Estonia in 2019, while Tallinn will send about 50 personnel to Mali as a contribution to Operation Barkhane

As a loose initiative, the EII does not create additional institutional layers. Routinely increased contacts among Joint Staff Headquarters are expected to foster speedier decision-making processes in tackling emerging crises in Europe’s neighbourhood. Paris’ short-term goal is to receive more than logistical support when the next crisis requiring intervention arises. Its longer term objective remains the spurring of ideas that would facilitate swifter consensus for “coalitions of the willing” in crisis management. Nevertheless, until it is first tested in action, the EII will remain a paper tiger.


1 The opinion of the author is that while NATO’s Article 5 is considered the cornerstone of collective defence within the Alliance, its wording opens possibilities for interpretations. As any meaningful challenge against NATO is not likely to be a clear-cut armed aggression, the threshold to reach Alliance consensus as to the activation of Article 5 is likely to be high. Similarly, even though the Alliance would reach a consensus on characterizing the attack, every member would have the leverage to “…assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” Article 5 offers NATO members discretion in their respective response.