What has happened to the rapid reaction force ?

Article published on March 25, 2003
community published
Article published on March 25, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Is it an autonomous European army in gestation or an American auxiliary force? The rapid reaction force has been set up, but it is neither rapid nor permanent...

Initially set for March 2003, the European Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) has become the most notably absent subject in the European media. However, at a time when the governments of the EU are so divided over the Iraqi question, a consensus to avoid the issue of the rapid reaction force has proudly been displayed. According to the Commission's press service, the EU's advances regarding defence will have "surpassed hopes", given that since 1st January 2003 a police force of 450 men has been deployed, and another 12000 will be ready between now and 2004 to replace SFOR [The Stabilisation Force deployed in Bosnia-Herzegovina by NATO]. What is more, during the last European Council Meeting in 2002, the EU confirmed the replacement of NATO troops in Macedonia by a force of 700 soldiers, which was to be the first operation brought about under the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). For the first time, the EU has at its disposal a contingent of soldiers under exclusively European command, allowing autonomous humanitarian action, conflict prevention and peacekeeping (Petersberg tasks).

From Saint-Malo to Copenhagen

It is certain that the progress made at European level in the past five years to further a nascent foreign policy has been commendable. Let us remember that up until December 1998, the idea of an autonomous European force similar to NATO was systematically rejected by London. It was the Franco-English meeting of St. Malo in December 1998 which gave fresh impetus to European efforts, as the French and English were able to agree on the necessity to "provide the EU with the capacity for autonomous action reliant upon credible forces, who will be ready to be deployed in order to respond to international crises." This rapprochement between the two principal European military powers, which had previously seemed inconceivable, gave the green light to the Rapid Reaction Force project. After the European council meeting in Helsinki 1999, between now and March 2003, the EU should now have an independent capacity for defence, allowing to deploy during one year, and within a period of 60 days, military forces of around 50 000 to 60 000 men, capable of undertaking the co-ordination of these so-called Petersberg tasks. The overall objective of the Helsinki meeting was to make provision for the EU to be able to launch and conduct military operations under European control, where NATO is not involved.

In the space of two years, institutional progress has been significant, as, since the European Council in Nice 2000 the EU has created permanent structures in order to allow the European force to work efficiently. In December 2001, at the European Council in Laeken, the European Rapid Reaction Force was declared operational, and in spring 2002 in Barcelona, the Council decided to relieve NATO troops in Macedonia from the end of March 2003. It was only after a co-operation agreement between the EU and NATO had been signed that the European Council in Copenhagen of December 2002 announced that the EU was willing to replace SFOR, and to undertake a military operation in Bosnia.

Washington's Supporting Force

If we are to believe the European Commission and the declarations from the successive European Councils, the overall objective of Helsinki will have been achieved, and even 'largely surpassed.' If it is true to say that the English and the French succeeded in agreeing on the necessity to provide the Union with sufficient force to undertake peacekeeping interventions and conflict prevention, it is also true that the central question of the independence of European forces with regard to the Atlantic Alliance has largely been silent. In actual fact, there are two interpretations of this matter: An Atlanticist position seeking to make sure all European Union action comes under the strict guidelines of NATO, and a Europeanist attitude, which seeks to give the Rapid Reaction Force a European structure, which is independent of the Atlantic Alliance. In any case, it is necessary to state that the independence of the Force is all relative since it is subject to the goodwill of NATO, and consequently the US, to delegate to the EU operations which Washington judges to be either too difficult or that do not concern American interests. In this respect, and to the great displeasure of Europeans, a distribution of tasks has begun to emerge, and the US seems to reserve the large scale operations for themselves, and giving the EU the unattractive tasks of putting up with the problems following conflicts. Washington, therefore, has the right of veto over all action undertaken under the CFSP, which would be contrary to American interests. In the same fashion, and because of European dependence on the US for arms, the ability to project force and intelligence, Europe will remain dependent as long as it does not have its own military means. The lively opposition (which included the American administration) to the European construction of the A400M Military transport plane, allowing the EU to launch its own military force, and the virulent opposition from the Pentagon to the Satellite Imaging programme Galileo, which would give Europe its own Intelligence resources, serves to prove Washington's hostility to the idea of a Europe with its own means.

A Simple Peace-Keeping Force

Furthermore, the reluctance of Europeans to allocate sufficient defence costs renders this situation difficult to resolve: whereas the US grants nearly 3.5% of its GDP to defence, Europeans only sacrifice 2% of their budget, with the exception of France and England, who both allocate around 2.5% a year, and have done so for the past ten years. The European paradox is that, whereas the great majority of European public opinion is in favour of a greater role of Europe in Foreign Policy, the militarisation of the EU seems all the more unacceptable for a great number of Europeans. What with the traditionally neutral or pacifist countries, and the countries which are attached to the comfort offered by the American military 'umbrella' framework of NATO, the idea of European defence seems to have a long way to go in spirit as well as reality.

In summation, if we also consider that the supply of national contingents to the Rapid Reaction Force depends on the goodwill of member states, we can quickly see that we are far from having a 'European Army', or a real European intervention force able to respond to situations threatening European interests. The current state of affairs is that the Force seems more like a peacekeeping reserve force than a real intervention force "allowing Europe to respond to international crises." Moreover, as Nicolas Kerleroux, (the delegate of the Council press service in charge of questions of defence) has excused the lack of communication from the Union, "we have had a lack of communication with regards to the Rapid Reaction Force. In actual fact, it is not a permanent force, and it is not designed to be especially rapid."