Hurry Up and Wait: EU Battlegroups and a UN Rapid Reaction Force

The basic mission of JTACs/FACs is to provide the commander in the field with advice on the use of air and other types of fire support and to control those operations. Photo by Martina Podkrižnik

Yf Reykers

Throughout its public discourse, the EU keeps expressing a strong commitment toward supporting the UN in maintaining international peace and security. This includes habitually recommitting to deploying the EU Battlegroups.

There have been many calls for the UN to develop a peacekeeping rapid reaction capacity that would allow blue helmets to fly over the horizon and save the day. In the Supplement to an Agenda for Peace of 1995, then UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said its ”time has come”. The 2015 Report of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) suggested a “small UN ‘vanguard capability’ should be considered”. In his response, the Secretary-General called this “an intriguing concept”. Why have we been waiting for so long for such a force to arrive?

Recognizing that the UN moves slowly, the HIPPO and the Secretary-General’s reports proposed a burden-sharing solution. Relying on existing regional rapid response mechanisms could deliver this capability in the case of an emergency in the near future. “In situations of major conflict and mass violations of human rights,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted, “national, multinational and regional responses are often faster to deploy and more capable of combating well-equipped and determined belligerents”. In the response to the HIPPO report, he even welcomed African Union (AU) efforts and “the commitment by the European Union (EU) to engaging European Union Battlegroups”.

The sad track record of the EU’s rapid response capabilities make these promises sound rather hollow. While the EU has been a reliable partner in civilian and security operations, EU members have been far less inclined to offer military capabilities — and certainly not in a rapid fashion. Publicly endorsing commitments to engage EU Battlegroups is more a symbolic expression of hope rather than a credible proposal.

The EU-UN Partnership 

Ever since the 1992 Agenda for Peace called upon regional organizations to assist the UN in maintaining international peace and security, the EU has taken the most prominent position of them all. The EU-UN relationship particularly intensified after Operation Artemis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2003. Authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1484, the EU rapidly deployed 1,800 troops to Bunia (in the Ituri province) for the period May-September 2003. It also assisted the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC) in securing the airport and protecting civilians and internally displaced persons in 2006.

The success of Operation Artemis led to two developments that significantly shaped the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and impacted its relationship with the UN. The first was an awareness in the EU and UN that increased cooperation and the institutionalization of the relationship could be mutually beneficial. This was formalized through the EU-UN Joint Declaration of 2003, wherein the EU stressed “its commitment to contribute to the objectives of the United Nations in crisis management”, and the 2007 Joint Statement on UN-EU cooperation in Crisis Management. In the field this translated to increased EU presence, often in support of UN operations. The EU has since 2003 conducted about 30 peace and security operations, with the large majority of them being deployed in areas where there was also a UN operation underway.

The second development was the creation of the EU Battlegroups, a CSDP rapid response force that strongly reflects the modalities of Operation Artemis. These battlegroups, consisting of a brigade of around 1,500 troops, were designed to be deployed within fifteen days for a period of maximum 120 days, and could be set up for the full range of crisis management tasks, even including intervention in a sudden crisis. Interestingly, these Battlegroups were envisioned to be deployed only under the explicit condition of a request by the UNSC. By doing so, the EU reaffirmed the Council’s role as the primary organ responsible in maintaining international peace and security, while seemingly indicating EU commitment to support the UN anywhere necessary.

A Seemingly Continuous Commitment?

Ever since they reached full operational capacity in 2007, the EU Battlegroups have excelled only in their absence. Throughout its public discourse, however, the EU keeps expressing a strong commitment toward supporting the UN in maintaining international peace and security. This includes habitually recommitting to deploying the EU Battlegroups. In the European Security Strategy of 2003 it was argued that “strengthening the United Nations, equipping it to fulfil its responsibilities and to act effectively, is a European priority”. Five years later in 2008, the Report on the Implementation of the European Security Strategy stressed “everything the EU has done in the field of security has been linked to UN objectives”. At the European Council of 19/20 December 2013, it was even explicitly concluded that there was a “need to improve the EU rapid response capabilities, including through more flexible and deployable Battle groups”. At the Peacekeeping Summit of 28 September 2015, the EU again committed itself to “strengthen cooperation on rapid response”.

True commitment of the EU Battlegroups to the UN’s crisis management efforts is not only an expectation created by the EU’s public discourse. It is also a desire that is to some extent present in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). A reliable EU Battlegroup mechanism might offer a chance to “reverse the decline in contributions from many high-capability countries”, as it was called in the HIPPO report, although they are mainly created for short-termed deployment in sudden crisis situations. In addition, it would also (finally) provide active and material backing to the EU member states’ moral support for UN peacekeeping. In that sense, an EU Battlegroup commitment would clearly serve the UN’s interests.

A Contradictio in Terminis

In his response to the HIPPO report, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emphasized that “[t]he Panel’s call for stronger global-regional partnerships is central to effective international peace and security engagements.” However, he also noted that “Chapter VIII of the Charter provides the foundation, but its operationalization depends on our collective will and ability to put in place predictable and efficient responses from diverse partners.” While the number of EU peace and security operations suggests that the EU is a reliable partner, its rapid response record has been patchy and EU Battlegroup deployment remains a distant dream.

In the period 2003-2008, the EU-UN cooperation in crisis management looked somewhat promising. Not only was the EU a reliable provider for civilian and policing missions, it also deployed a series of military operations in support of the UN — some even rapidly. Examples are the temporary deployments of Artemis in 2003 (authorized by UNSC Resolution 1484), EUFOR RD Congo in 2006 (UNSC Resolution 1671) and EUFOR Tchad/RCA in 2008 (UNSC Resolution 1778).

Since 2008, however, EU military support to the UN has become rather the exception than the rule. This is largely a result of financial constraints and a lacking interest in committing troops to the African continent, where the majority of the crises take place. The most widely cited example is the case of the DR Congo in late 2008. When Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was confronted with increased violence in eastern Congo, he requested the EU to send military reinforcements to support MONUC. EU member states were unable to reach agreement on any form of military deployment. Commentators repeatedly stressed the thwarting of the EU Battlegroup deployment by the UK and Germany, the two countries leading the Battlegroups that were on standby.

Even in those few occasions where EU member states were able to reach agreement on deploying a military operation, they neither made use of the EU Battlegroups nor were they capable of rapidly deploying these troops. Most recently, this was illustrated in the response to the quickly escalating crisis that broke out in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2013. Having received UNSC authorization to deploy troops to the CAR through Resolution 2134 at the end of January 2014, the EU Council on 10 February reached agreement on deploying the military operation called EUFOR RCA. But EUFOR RCA made little use of the EU Battlegroups, nor could it be described as a rapid response: it was deployed in April and it took until June to reach full operational capacity.

The commitments made by the EU member states during the UN Peacekeeping Summit of 28 September 2015 might at first sight look promising. However, these are at best scattered. Some EU members did pledge to upgrade their commitment toward specific operations, such as the Netherlands and Nordic pledges to reinforce MINUSMA. But overall, EU member states remain at the lower end of supporting UN peacekeeping and are mainly committed to providing personnel for training purposes. The EU’s shifting focus is to niche capabilities such as training missions like the one in Mali (EUTM). The idea of building a rapid response capability by relying on the EU Battlegroups sounds like a contradictio in terminis.

Learning from the EU Battlegroups

Does this mean that the suggestions made by the High-Level Panel and the Secretary-General are completely futile? Maybe not. First, they express a hope, indicating that the idea of the EU Battlegroups is still supported by the UN’s Secretariat, even if chances for actual deployment are remote. Second, and moving beyond wishful thinking, the patchy history of the EU’s rapid response and the absence of EU Battlegroup deployments can also be constructively used in discussions on developing a UN rapid reaction force.

Any analysis of the reasons why these EU Battlegroups have not been deployed identifies three key obstacles. The first is the principle of ‘costs lie where they fall’, meaning that those countries that equip the EU Battlegroup are also expected to carry the costs. Obviously, this seriously impedes actual deployment. The UN Secretariat should consider if and how such a UN rapid response force could be funded through the UN’s existing financial system, as it is exploring doing for the AU’s contributions. Keeping troops on standby is a more expensive endeavour than providing peacekeepers on an ad hoc basis. This principle has led to a fear among EU members of creating a precedent, making them resort to ad hoc solutions. A UN rapid reaction force should be wary of creating future obligations that may scare away potential (European) contributors.

Second, EU national interests do not match conflicts where the UN is deploying. The EU Battlegroups are provided through a rotation scheme whereby every six months a new pair of Battlegroups is put on standby. As a result, actual deployment is dependent on whether or not the member state involved at the time sees any benefit in committing military troops (and financial resources) to that particular conflict. National interests seriously impede the chances of actual deployment. While there was enthusiasm over the Chinese pledge at the Peacekeeping Summit to deliver 8000 standby troops to the UN, their deployment could face the same problem. An expression of a commitment does not guarantee that these troops will be made available for any conflict in just any region. Ideally, the creation of a UN rapid reaction force should be accompanied by a serious discussion on how to guarantee that troops put on standby will also actually be deployed when required. A clear analysis is needed regarding which commitments can be used for what purposes, based upon the national stakes that drive these commitments. That starts with an analysis of the China’s interests.

Third, discussions of EU military deployments have all too often been bogged down in a disagreement over the use of force. Commentators have in that regard frequently pointed toward the German reluctance to use military force. Germany’s position in the Libyan conflict in 2011 is an often-cited illustration. As UN peace operations are increasingly deployed to hazardous environments, discussions on providing an authorization to use force will undoubtedly arise. In order to convince member states to commit troops to this UN rapid reaction force, a clear vision should already be in place on both the extent to which these forces would be allowed to use force, and on the modalities under which such force would be allowed.


In the words of the 1995 Supplement to an Agenda for Peace, “the value of this arrangement would of course depend on how far the Security Council could be sure that the force would actually be available in an emergency.” The history of the EU Battlegroups is an indispensable guide to the pitfalls confronting a rapid response force from any region or country. Realism regarding the expectations of EU contributions is equally essential. We have waited more than twenty years for an actual UN rapid response capability. Unless problems are resolved in paying for it, aligning national interests, and agreeing on how much force it will use, we may be waiting another two decades — if not longer — before we see it deployed.

Yf Reykers is a PhD fellow of the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO). He has been conducting his research at the Leuven International and European Studies (LINES) Institute since October 2013. His research focuses on the relationship between the United Nations Security Council and regional organisations in peace and security related dossiers. | Twitter: @YfReykers