A battlegroup for Central Africa? When Cathy says “stop!”

(BRUXELLES2, exclusive – traduction en anglais de l’article paru en français le 13.12) According to our corroborating information, the preparation of the deployment of the European Union Rapid Reaction Force to Central Africa has been stopped dead in its tracks on orders from… the EU High Representative, Catherine Ashton

David Cameron has said “no” to sending a European battlegroup. British Prime at the Vilnius Summit (credit: Lithuanian EU Presidency)

Stop the slaughter? That can wait!

The objective would have been to complement the action of the French troops, which were preparing to perform an “initial entry” and to liaise with the African troops, in order to stop the slaughter and to restore a certain level of security. Alas! The High Representative put an end to it. “I am not opposed in principle”, she is reported to have said in essence. “But it is vital for France to approach the UK at ministerial level on this. It is essential to have a “yes” from the UK before this goes anywhere further”. And she added “it cannot go the fac until we know for sure”.

David Cameron: the Mister No of European defence

The British “no” was in fact expected. In case some soldiers were ready to go. At 10 Downing Street, the residence of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and in the Whitehall, the headquarters of the Ministry of Defence, the answer is clear and straightforward: “no”, “no”, three times “no”. No battlegroup, no military option, not even the slightest idea of a modular approach. In London’s eyes, the cornerstone of European security is NATO. And when it leads the battlegroup, it is not to be deployed. Unless the supreme interests of the Crown are at stake. The European Union’s only objective is “complementary” action, preferably civil.

And if we put in a bit of humanitarianism, wouldn’t that be lovelier?

Shortly after, one of the high officials of the EEAS responsible for CSDP, Maciej Popowski, wrote down his thoughts. In the name of the reality principle, he proposed a solution intended to be consensual. “Merge both papers presenting EU engagement in CAR in a broader context, ie put humanitarian, development and security work strands together”. A “marketing trick”, as he recognized himself. But “could help smoothen the discussion”, he affirmed.

The spirit of Chamberlain…

But everyone knows the truth. Even humanitarian workers and NGOs of all types say so – even Human Rights Watch, which usually is not kind to French troops in Africa: a semblance of order has to be restored. We face a tragedy. The European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid said it too: “the genocide issue is not hypothetical” But to no avail. Dressed in their suits and ties, some officials decided from their offices that it was not even worth trying to intervene and that it was preferable to surrender immediately.

… rather than the European and humanist spirit

This refusal poses a problem. What has happened in Central Africa amounts to massacres and war crimes (as they were committed by armed forces against civilians). Given the intensity of the killing and its targets, it could even be requalified as a crime against humanity or even genocide (history will tell). Letting the French fight alone and suffer losses, refusing to give the “green light” to the EU Rapid Reaction Force, when there was a mandate from the United Nations, is a clear violation of the mandate given to the European authorities by the treaties relating to Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) of “peace-keeping, conflict prevention and strengthening international security in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter”. This action cannot remain without any political responsibility. Conclusions have to be drawn…

NB: two remarks could be added. 1° The Ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs have just recently approved (18th December) a reform of the European battlegroups, which will allow them to be deployed with more flexibility. This development (a British idea by the way) could have been put into practice. 2° No doubt that the High Representative could ask for new options to be studied. This way she would not remain inactive. By doing so, she could protect her country from a stinging repudiation (indeed the British veto has remained very discreet). And she passes the buck to the Greeks, the Romanians and the Cypriots, who will take their turn leading the Rapid Reaction Force from the 1st of January. Everyone in the EEAS knows that this poses a problem. As the battlegroup will be short of money, deploying it to Central Africa would be very difficult (even if part of the cost, i. e. the transport, is paid for)…. This manoeuver is one in the eye for those who argue that Catherine Ashton is not a smart politician!

NB: in fact, the only hope of having European countries taking over from the French rests on… the Benelux and Germany, which will have their “tour of duty” with the battlegroup from the 1st of July 2014!

Nicolas Gros-Verheyde

Rédacteur en chef du site B2. Diplômé en droit européen de l'université Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne et auditeur 65e session IHEDN (Institut des hautes études de la défense nationale. Journaliste depuis 1989, fonde B2 - Bruxelles2 en 2008. Correspondant UE/OTAN à Bruxelles pour Sud-Ouest (auparavant Ouest-France et France-Soir).