Defence/Swedish EU Presidency
Seeking greater flexibility on use of EU battlegroups
By Paul Ames | Thursday 02 July 2009
Sweden may be one of the European Union’s neutral nations, but its defence minister is promising a vigourous approach to security policy during the Scandinavian nation’s six-month Presidency.
Sten Tolgfors wants to rethink the role of the EU’s battlegroups, which were conceived at the beginning of the decade as 1,500-strong rapid reaction units to tackle long-distance crises, but have never been used in action.
The Swedes say they will use their Presidency to launch a debate on how and when the battlegroups should be put to use. Tolgfors is promoting a use-it-don’t-lose-it approach.
“If we continue to allocate money without putting it to use, the taxpayers will begin to wonder,” he has written on the Presidency web site.
The battlegroups concept emerged at a meeting of French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2003. The following year, the rest of the EU signed up to the idea. By 2007, the EU declared the battlegroups had reached “full operational capacity” meaning two such units would be kept on standby ready to deploy for emergency operations at short notice.
However, differences over the role of the units mean that they have never been sent into action. Sweden was keen for the battlegroups to have been deployed during the EU mission to Chad and the Central African Republic last year, but other nations were opposed. In the end, the EU faced criticism as a search for available troops led to delays in the Chad mission to protect vulnerable refugees from Sudan’s Darfur region. Sweden was also among the nations who wanted to use EU battlegroups in response to a UN request for help in the Congo last year. But faced with reluctance from Germany and Britain, the EU did not intervene militarily.
Under the battlegroup concept, nations take turns to provide units to the standby roster on a six-month rotation. For the second semester of 2009 the EU has Czech-Slovak and Franco-Belgian battlegroups on standby. They will be followed by Anglo-Dutch and Polish-led battlegroups in the first half of 2010.
Critics say the rapid reaction nature of the force is undermined by the reluctance of nations with troops on battlegroup standby to bear the costs of their deployment on active duty. Also some nations are reluctant to use the battlegroups for “predictable” humanitarian operations, preferring to keep them in reserve for sudden emergencies.
Tolgfors is expected to put the debate on the battlegroups at the centre of the informal defence ministers’ meeting in Göteborg, on 28-29 September, and a joint meeting of foreign and defence ministers in mid-October in Brussels.
Also high on the Swedish agenda is a drive to promote closer collaboration between civilian and military elements of EU security operations. “Winning the war is not enough to win the peace,” says Tolgfors. “Effective cooperation between civil and military actors is crucial to the success of the mission.”
He will be asking other nations to boost cooperation on maritime surveillance, saying this can increase the efficiency of European operations and save money by eliminating duplication.
Tolgfors was a conscientious objector in his youth, but since taking over as defence minister in 2007, he has stressed the need to modernise and strengthen Swedish armed forces and built closer ties with NATO. After the Russian invasion of Georgia last year, he stated firmly that Sweden would not “remain passive” if other EU nations were attacked, despite its official neutrality.
“If we continue to allocate money without putting it to use, the taxpayers will begin to wonder”