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Unified protector: Europeans alone on board. First Thoughts

(BRUSSELS2 / Analysis) Since Tuesday morning, Europeans have been on the front line in Libya for what we can call the offensive element: strikes as well as respect for the “No Fly Zone”. A paradoxical effect of this operation which leaves the “European pillar” of NATO alone on board an Alliance operation.

A British Tornado GR4 taking off from Gioia Del Colle base, March 28. (Corporal Babbs Robinson RAF, Crown Copyright/MOD 2011)

The Americans have in fact decided, since 22 p.m., to withdraw from the forces present in Libya (no fly zone surveillance, protection of civilians, strikes). A withdrawal which is not a surprise. The Americans did not want, initially, to get too involved in Libya for reasons of foreign policy (not to re-engage in a Muslim land after Iraq and Afghanistan) but also for questions of internal policy ( the approach of the 2012 presidential election). US forces only withdraw from the first line. The Americans continue to provide most of the means of supply, intelligence and observation. And they continue to provide part of a command. The Europeans are also not completely alone on board, since the Canadians are still there.

The operation relies on a small number of States

This American desire – combined with the Turkish absence – not to get too involved in Libya, however, places the Europeans before their own responsibilities. Europeans who are not all present since the countries of central and eastern Europe – like Germany or Poland – have decided to remain on the sidelines.

The burden distribution of risky missions is a bit unbalanced. The first line essentially rested on the Franco-British forces. Certainly they are helped by the Nordics (Denmark, Norway, Sweden), Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, two Arab countries (Qatar and United Arab Emirates) and Canada. Or a small number of States. But most countries only contribute 2 aircraft patrols (4 planes and 2 reserve). And certain States (Qatar, Arab Emirates, Netherlands, Sweden) have indicated that they only intend to participate in defensive operations (No Fly Zone) and not offensive operations (strikes on targets).

The risk is therefore to see a reduction in the number of sorties with ground strikes. According to NATO's report drawn up on Tuesday, 150 sorties were carried out Monday including 58 for strikes, 14 strikes having been carried out with firing on targets. The “top priority” in the coming days being Misrata” according to General Mark van Uhm, head of allied operations at SHAPE (the Allied Headquarters Forces in Europe).

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has already announced the arrival of 4 Tornado GR4 planes as reinforcements which will be deployed at the Italian base of Gioia Del Colle. He also announced the supply of non-lethal equipment as well as communications to opposition forces.

First lessons and reflections

This withdrawal has several consequences at the military and political level, in the short or medium term.

In the short term, find the necessary capacities and budgets…

In the short term, this requires finding available military capabilities. At a delicate moment: when the French are engaged in Côte d'Ivoire and all the others already engaged in Afghanistan. A senior Belgian official confided to me recently: “ today we are at the maximum of our capacities, if another operation intervenes, we will have to make choices… political ". This reflection could be the case for several “small” countries involved in the coalition. Who says military capabilities also says budgetary capabilities. In times of financial restriction, it is not easy for everyone.

…negotiate a way out of the crisis quickly

This military limitation also requires intensifying efforts to find a political solution to the Libyan question. Even if it is not yet clearly visible, this political solution is taking shape with the slow disintegration of the Gaddafi regime. And the various diplomatic initiatives could accelerate on both sides. The use of force – strikes, the no fly zone, the maritime blockade increases, in fact the cost of the war for those leading the offensive in Libya – combined with economic sanctions and political pressure have disorganized power. of Gaddafi who knows very well that he will not be able to reconquer internal positions. A power that was only held together by terror and… business. Pressure on both could force power to bend. This pressure must not be released.

In the medium term, reflections on: engagement in Afghanistan,

In the medium term, this risks inevitably raising the question of the validity of Western commitment in Afghanistan. We can clearly see with “Unified Protector” how much this effort weighs on the capabilities and budgets of European armies and on political action in general. Only a more rapid disengagement than expected could make it possible to find the necessary resources in the face of the various international crises.

…the restructuring of NATO,

At the level of military structures, this unprecedented situation could accentuate reflection on the sharing of burdens between the different partners of the Alliance. The gap is widening between, on the one hand, those who spend and are ready to move forward – French and British – and, on the other hand, the other European partners, those who are sometimes described as “stowaways” of European defense. At a time when the former are in favor of a tightening of NATO's budget, an overhaul of the structures, and a slimming down of the mammoth, it will be even more difficult for the latter to oppose it from now on... even if the NATO's superstructure is counting on this “operation” to replenish its numbers a little, to regain some of the ground lost at the Lisbon summit.

…and European autonomy

Finally, it should lead to reflection on European defense. Whether this is autonomous, within the EU, or within NATO, we can thus observe that the support of the United States is not inevitable when European interests are at stake but when the Americans are – for various reasons – less interested than their allies and reluctant to play an offensive role. This may lead to reflection on the capabilities and gaps to be filled (supply, observation, intelligence). This should also lead to reflection on structures capable of carrying out future operations without having to depend on an external partner.

A beginning of permanent structured cooperation?

Can we thus trace a first circle of countries in favor of moving forward in European defense – by setting up permanent structured cooperation – around the French, British, Belgians, Italians, Spanish, Greeks and Dutch or Swedes. We are no longer very far from the qualified majority if we manage to secure a few Eastern member states (Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, for example). But this is quite risky because putting Germany outside the first circle is risky. And the United Kingdom has never been very supportive of European “adventure”. In permanent structured cooperation, there is “structured” and “permanent”…

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).