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‘We need arms’: Europe’s risky move to project its influence in conflict zones

The battlefield death of the Chadian dictator President Idriss Déby in April sparked a flurry of tributes from Brussels. Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, tweeted mourning for an “ally in the fight against terrorism”. Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, acclaimed a “historic political figure” whose efforts for regional security had been “lasting and solid”.

These were striking laments. The EU is rhetorically committed to democracy and human rights. Déby was a warlord turned kleptocrat who ruled his landlocked central African country brutally for more than 30 years.

The praise was also a harbinger of an important shift in EU foreign and security policy. For the first time, the European bloc is allowed to arm governments like Déby’s in the name of fighting terrorism, protecting civilians and stabilising fragile states. The money will come from a new €5bn fund over seven years known, incongruously to some ears, as the European Peace Facility.

The EPF is the most significant expansion yet in growing EU efforts to project “hard power” to influence international conflicts particularly in regions close to its borders such as eastern Europe and Africa. Borrell defined the logic of weapons as a tool of conflict resolution with characteristic bluntness. He said last year that “in order to silence the guns, unhappily, we need guns”.

“We are not going to stop the terrorists from killing people just by preaching,” he said. “We need arms. We need military capacities and that is what we are going to provide, to help our African friends. Because their security is our security.”

Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, attends the state funeral of Chadian dictator President Idriss Déby, As an advocate of the EU’s efforts to project hard power, Borrell has said ‘in order to silence the guns, unhappily, we need guns’ © Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The move is contentious, despite the EU’s insistence that it aims to “contribute to the reinforcement of democratic and accountable armed forces”. Critics brand the direct supply of weapons via the EPF a dangerous departure and say it threatens to entrench dictatorship and stoke conflict in some of the world’s poorest countries.

Some sceptics further charge that the EU has taken exactly the wrong lesson from decades of destructive western military campaigns, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. They see it as perverse for the EU apparently to have concluded that more armed intervention is the answer.

“There is a growing contradiction in the EU’s approach to conflict and crises,” says Lucia Montanaro, head of the EU office of Saferworld, a non-governmental group focused on conflicts. “Its strong commitments to promoting human rights, gender equality and arms control are increasingly overshadowed by efforts to boost the combat capability of authoritarian partners. This could endanger peace and stability in fragile states — and undermine the EU’s own reputation.”

EU military missions map, mainly in Africa

The Russian threat

The 27-member EU has for years struggled to establish itself as the foreign policy power it wants to be. Its successful role co-ordinating the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement proved a diplomatic high point that it has struggled to match since. As Spain’s foreign minister, Borrell himself lamented in 2019 that his regular monthly gathering with his EU counterparts was a “valley of tears” unable to shape world events. The bloc, winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, has historically cast itself as a conciliator — but many of its members have concluded it also needs a sharper security edge.

The EU’s anxiety has grown as friction between the world’s most powerful countries has increased. The bloc is clashing more frequently with an assertive China and Russia — and is increasingly focused on terrorism after multiple deadly attacks on its soil. It has also been taking ever stronger measures to stop irregular migration across the Mediterranean Sea from Africa, since a 2015-16 influx to the EU. The arrival of 6,000 people last week in Spain’s north African enclave of Ceuta was a reminder of how neuralgic migration has become for many European leaders.

Russian security contractors in the Central African Republic are helping the government fight rebels. The EU is clashing more frequently with an assertive Russia © Florent vergnes/AFP via Getty Images

Other outside pressures have also led the Europeans to conclude they need to expand their military reach. The US has long wanted them to spend more on their armed forces and take more responsibility to help stabilise countries near their borders, such as Ukraine and Georgia. At the same time, the departure of the UK from the EU has removed a historical obstacle to greater military co-operation between member states.

The EU’s emerging new military posture includes the possible revival of a rapid-reaction force to intervene in international crises. In 2007, the bloc created two battle groups ready to be sent to hotspots around the world, but they have never been deployed. Now 14 countries, including France and Germany, have floated proposals for a 5,000-strong unit that could be backed by ships and aircraft.

Bar chart of 2013-19 (€m) showing Arms exports from EU member states to Sahel nations

The EPF is at the heart of the EU security plans. Its advocates portray it as an important tool in a zero-sum world where if the European bloc does not intervene, rivals will. Florence Parly, France’s defence minister, has highlighted the Central African Republic — where Russian security contractors are helping the government fight a rebel movement — as a worrying example. The African countries of most security concern to Europe were formerly occupied by France.

“If you want to value what you are doing, you have to put yourself in a position to admit that we are in a difficult world,” Parly said in February, of the reasons why the EPF is necessary. “Otherwise if you leave the room empty, it will be filled immediately by other powers.”

German chancellor Angela Merkel is shown a simulated crime scene at an EU mission in Niger. Germany is one of 14 EU countries in favour of reviving a 5,000 strong rapid reaction force that could be deployed in hotspots such as the Sahel region © picture alliance/dpa

João Gomes Cravinho, Portugal’s defence minister, argues that the EPF will be an “indispensable addition” to the EU’s security “toolbox”. It would allow the bloc to change the “rather absurd situation” where it was training African armed forces but not able to equip them, he says.

Cravinho acknowledges the “negative experiences” of previous western military campaigns, but says the consequences of doing nothing are potentially “devastating”, particularly in zones where Islamist militant groups are active.

“The development of a region of ungovernability in a large part of Africa is for sure going to have very negative repercussions on the security of Europe,” Cravinho adds, referring to an arc of countries from Mauritania on the west coast to Sudan in the east. “This is something that we can’t afford.”

Portugal’s defence minister João Gomes Cravinho says the European Peace Facility will be an ‘indispensable addition’ to the EU’s security ‘toolbox’. © Mario Cruz/EPA-EFE

Selling weapons in conflict zones

A likely main focus of the EPF is the Sahel region sandwiched mainly between west Africa’s tropical coast and desert north. An EU military training mission based in Mali supports a campaign by France and regional forces against Islamist groups. It could eventually involve more than 1,000 EU personnel from 25 countries.

The EU has allocated about €1.3bn to security assistance missions and projects in the Sahel in the past seven years, according to forthcoming research by Saferworld. Activities have ranged from training Malian counterterror forces to reinforcing Chadian border security authorities. Equipment provided has included armoured vehicles, drones, boats, aircraft and crowd control equipment — but not weapons, apart from those exported by member states individually and according to their national rules.

The EU says it dedicated about 80 per cent of its €4.7bn spending on five Sahel countries between 2014 and last year to development and stabilisation.

The EPF is an effort to streamline and expand this EU institutional investment. Diplomats suggest future funds could be used for infrastructure such as small arms storage and biometric ID systems to prevent theft, as well as to purchase weapons themselves.

Malian soldiers are trained at the EU training mission in Koulikoro, Mali. The EU has allocated about €1.3bn to security assistance missions and projects in the Sahel in the past seven years, according to research by Saferworld © Joe Penney/Reuters

A more fundamental concern is the swift-changing dynamics of many conflict zones and the tendency of all sides to commit atrocities. EU weapons could be used for rights abuses by the forces to which they are given — or they could fall into the hands of abusers who overthrow the government. “That would not help the EU’s credibility,” admits a Brussels-based diplomat who broadly supports the EPF.

Mali crystallises many of these fears. The EU put its military mission there on hold in August, when a coup toppled the government. Yet it decided in October to resume its activities, after a transitional government led by a retired colonel was sworn in.

Armed forces from Mali and other countries in the Sahel face the threat of being overrun by militants. Government forces in the region’s countries have also long been accused of human rights violations and extrajudicial killings. Since the Mali coup, multiple additional allegations of abuse by government counterterror forces have emerged. Soldiers killed at least 34 villagers, abducted 16 people and severely mistreated some detainees between October and March, according to testimonies gathered by Human Rights Watch. The EU says it expects an investigation into the allegations and Mali claims it has launched one.

Crowds cheer soldiers in Bamako, Mali after a coup in August 2020. in response, the EU put its military mission there on hold. Yet it decided in October to resume its activities © John Kalapo/Getty Images

The EPF’s potential to reinforce abusive governments has attracted criticism from some civil society groups. “For us in Mali, stabilisation means stabilisation of the military status quo, and this needs to change,” Assitan Diallo, president of the Association of African Women for Research and Development, said in March.

Somalia, where poorly equipped troops sometimes train with wooden rifles and in flip flops, highlights other potential difficulties. Forces trained there by the EU and other powers are supposed to battle insurgent groups such as al-Shabaab, but they also risk becoming part of a deepening domestic power struggle. Somali government troops and opposition supporters exchanged gunfire during street protests in Mogadishu in February.

The EU training mission there has struggled to establish good oversight mechanisms or overcome the country’s clan-based dynamics, say Somalia experts. Omar Mahmood, a senior analyst for Somalia at the International Crisis Group, says the EU has found it hard to train any cross-clan battalions. Paul Williams, a George Washington University professor, says the EU mission provided “solid training for several light infantry companies” but failed to monitor the fate of its former students or support them. The EU says it is working to improve the monitoring.

The worries over accountability are familiar from previous EU work with security forces in conflict zones, some of which may be a focus for the EPF. EU-trained Libyan coastguards have been accused of human rights abuses in their operations to stop migrants crossing the Mediterranean to the EU. In 2018, the UN security council imposed sanctions for alleged people trafficking on Abd al-Rahman al-Milad, head of a Libyan regional coastguard unit. The EU has said it did not train Milad — but it has not provided information on whether it trained other personnel in his unit.

In Myanmar, the EU halted its police training programme in February after the military coup against Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. It acknowledged that some members of the police took part in the brutal crackdown against peaceful anti-coup protesters. The EU said it was not possible to say if any of the 300 crowd management trainers it had taught had been involved. “At no point in time did the EU deliver any type of equipment for armed policing to Myanmar or its police force,” it added.

A coastguard keeps watch on a boat off the coast of Libya during the rescue of 147 migrants attempting to reach Europe. EU-trained Libyan coastguards have been accused of human rights abuses in their operations to stop migrants crossing the Mediterranean to the EU © Taha Jawashi/AFP via Getty Images

Abstention concerns

There are also questions around the EPF over decision-making and governance at the EU level. The detailed controls on using it have not been published because they include “sensitive questions of a military and defence nature”, the EU says. However, any support to partner armed forces, will involve safeguard commitments by the beneficiary government to make sure it is not misused, the bloc adds.

A particular concern is the likely use by member states of a special procedure to sidestep EU requirements for unanimity on foreign policy matters. This is to cater in part for countries including Austria, Sweden and Ireland that either have concerns about human rights or traditions of military neutrality.

The process would exploit a long-existing but rarely used device in the EU treaty known as “constructive abstention”. Nations that don’t want to be associated with a particular EPF proposal can opt out rather than veto it. They will make no financial contribution to the proposed initiative and so will be able to argue they did not participate.

Another EU member state diplomat frames abstention as looking the other way while the decision is made. “We may think it’s a bad idea, but it’s not so bad we want to prevent the EU doing this,” the official says.

Critics argue this workaround would greatly weaken safeguards against ill-conceived arms shipments. If an EU member state, particularly a powerful one, proposes an intervention that they see as important, other countries may be reluctant to confront them. Ideas would only be blocked if at least a third of member states representing a third of the bloc’s population abstained.

The abstention scenario exemplifies a wider lack of accountability in the EPF’s design, says Hannah Neumann, a German Green MEP. A member of the EU parliament’s security and defence subcommittee, Neumann says she is not opposed to the EPF in principle. But she fears that a lack of conflict analysis expertise and democratic oversight at an EU level mean there will be a lack of control over how it operates.

“By shifting it to the European level you have a diffusion of responsibility: it’s like everyone is in charge and no one is in charge,” Neumann says. “It’s a hybrid that is missing transparency, parliamentary oversight and adequate staffing.”

The EU says the worries about the EPF are overblown and that the governance of it is accountable. One senior official insists the bloc will not become “trigger-happy”.

“There are a lot of people in member states who are worried about the political, security and reputational damage that one wrong step can do,” he says. “The risk is that we handle it with too much caution precisely because we know the risk of getting involved on the ground.”

In Chad, a military dictatorship led by Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno took power immediately after his father’s death. The takeover sparked protests and a security force crackdown that reportedly left six people dead and 700 in detention.

Days after attending Déby senior’s funeral along with France’s President Emmanuel Macron on April 23, Borrell was forced to issue a statement condemning repression launched under the late president’s son. It was a swift reminder of the fine line the EU is treading in its search for influence.

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