In Afghanistan aftermath, EU calls for more military autonomy

3 September 2021

As US forces hand over the keys to Afghanistan to the Taliban after a tumultuous and rapid retreat, its European allies continue to grapple with their over-reliance on the United States for security and defence operations. With EU defence ministers meeting in Slovenia on Thursday, the discussion returned to well-debated topics of strategic autonomy and autonomous European military capabilities and capacities. 

A topic almost as old as the European project itself, in its almost 65-year-old history, no debate has proven as controversial as the pooling of national European security and defence capabilities at the EU-level. In fact, since the French rejected the creation of the European Defence Community in 1954, very little happened on the matter until the creation of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (1993) and the Common Security and Defence Policy (1999) in the aftermath of the Cold War and the Balkan Wars, respectively. 

While still limited in its institutional, policy and effective capacity remit, these developments have brought along significant developments such as closer EU-wide cooperation on security and defence matters and EU-sponsored operational deployments. 

In addition, with a view towards establishing some EU-level military capacity autonomous from NATO and the United States military, they established a collection of so-called rapid reaction forces managed by the EU, but under the control of individual Member States. Chief among these, are the 18 rapid reaction Battle Groups which, technically, stand under the direct control of the Council of the EU. 

Despite the numerous violent conflicts on Europe’s doorstep in recent years, however, so far, they have never been used. Instead, EU Member States heavily relied on US military assistance for their missions during the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, and now the desperate evacuations from Kabul airport. 

The latter, especially, has badly highlighted European country’s reliance on the will of the US military and domestic policy priorities of the US Presidency, once again reviving the EU’s military sovereignty debate. 

In a New York Times Op-Ed on 1 September, Josep Borrell, European Commission Vice-President for Foreign Affairs, pushed for a new “European Strategic Compass” and an EU rapid response force of up to 5.000 soldiers that are “more ready to be activated and operational” that the current Battle Groups. It’s a proposal generally supported by the EU’s two powerhouses Germany and France, as well as most southern European capitals. It is, however, a proposal seriously controversial, if not all out rejected in eastern European countries who insist on the pre-eminence of NATO or northern European Member States such as Sweden and Ireland who are militarily neutral. 

However, all in all, in their discussion on the subject at their informal meeting on Thursday, EU defence ministers once again only managed to agree on an initial capacity stocktake and continue working on building new capabilities. Yet, it has not been a shortage in capabilities that have prevented any meaningful security and defence developments in the last decades, it’s been a lack of serious political will on behalf of EU Member States. The question now is whether Afghanistan has changed this political will.