Evolution of EU Battlegroups

In January 2007 the concept of EU Battlegroups had reached its full operational capacity with 2 separate groups on standby for every half a year. However, the concept was not used in action to this day even if there were situations in the sphere of interest of the EU that urged its utilization. Therefore, there is a debate about its functionality.

EU Battlegroups are rapid reaction forces. They are compact military units based on contributions from a coalition of member states or other allies that are quickly deployable, easy to manoeuvre and sustain. They are capable to operate on its own or as a part of bigger operations (Lindstorm 2007). They should be able to put their troops in the area of operation 15 days after the decision of the Council of the EU and hold their ground for 30 days or up to 120 days with additional logistical support (Šmaguc 2013).

The main problem of the concept is the system of financing, for it may appear as unfair because of the unequal sharing of costs. Especially the states with their Battlegroups on standby show little or no interest to use them in fear that the costs will outweigh the benefits. That could hurt the governments economically and politically on their domestic scenes (Nováky 2016). This is important in context with different strategic cultures and national interests of individual states, as this leads to an unwillingness to pay for operations in foreign spheres of influence and to promote foreign interests in general (Koenig 2012).

Another obstacle is a complicated decision-making process that is necessary for activating a mission of EU Battlegroups. The decision is dependent not only on individual governments but sometimes also on parliaments because many countries require parliaments‘ approval for abroad deployment of military forces that can last up to 120 days (Claudia a Mölling 2011). France and Germany are opposite poles in this matter. While France gives emphasis on the effectivity of military solutions and quick decision Germany understands democratic control of the military as a matter of highest importance. In the Czech Republic, parliament must approve the deployment in case it will last for more than 60 days. Prime minister Andrej Babiš would like to push for an exception in urgent cases but there is not enough support for this idea (ČTK 2019). A different point of view says that EU Battlegroups are insufficient in its operational capabilities. Its military and structural shortcomings limit them in terms of suitability of the concept to solving security crises of the modern world. Limited capabilities in unit protection and firepower arouse concern about the efficiency of the Battlegroups face to face with often well-equipped enemy forces (Reykers 2016). 

Exercise Brave Warrior on Aviano Air Base, Italy, Sept. 16, 2015. (Source: Defense.gov)

The new impulse in the CSDP

In 2016 there was a new impulse for the security of the EU on the Bratislava Summit. Leaders of the EU had decided that there was an urgent need for better structured Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) and deepening cooperation between the EU and NATO. In 2017 were implemented European Defense Fund (EDF), Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC), and Coordinated Annual Review on Defense (CARD) was launched on a test basis. In 2018 was implemented Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) – the „sleeping beauty of CSDP.“ It was first introduced in 2009 as a part of the Treaty of Lisbon but voluntary implemented 9 years later in 25 member states. Together they form a new comprehensive defense structure package for the EU (EEAS 2019).

But what about the EU Battlegroups? Despite their shortcomings, it was decided that they have a future in the new plan. According to the Implementation Plan on Security and Defense from 2016, there is a need to strengthen the rapid response capabilities including civilian capabilities and the EU Battlegroups concept (Council of EU 2019a). It is clear, however, that there is a need not only for strengthening but also for a reformation.

The main problem of the financing of the missions was partially addressed by further development of the Athena mechanism, which is responsible for sharing costs of military operations, but there is still a push for a broadening of the costs that would be borne in common by member states (EEAS 2017). The PESCO initiative is at least in theory effective in long-term capacity building. Council of the EU had stated that member states of PESCO reached advancement in defense expenditures of 3,3 % in 2018 and 4,6 % in the ongoing year 2019. They also tend to utilize other instruments of CSDP more even in case of national defense planning (Council of EU 2019b).

There is still the problem of the decision-making process. It is quite possible to upgrade the process on the level of the Council but that is not the main issue. Rules for deploying military forces to foreign countries are dependent on every individual nation-state. Many of the nations that supply the troops need parliamentary approval for such assignments and the very short timeline between the approval of the Council, the political decision to launch the operation and the troops to be projected on the ground frequently doesn’t converge on (Xavier 2013). The Members States should unify their decision-making process and make sure that the procedure would run smoothly by means of intense diplomatic cooperation. This is, however, hard to achieve on the EU level and there are also states that want to contribute to EU Battlegroup but are not members of the Union such as Norway, Turkey, Ukraine, North Macedonia and Serbia.

Finally, there is a complication in different national interests. States tend to refuse spending money and risking the lives of their soldiers in military operations when they do not identify the threat as crucial. In this case, it is important that every Battlegroup is composed of nations with similar strategic culture, economic situation, and political orientation. Similar perception of threats and opportunities on the global scene would lead to a more coherent approach toward using military force to address them.

Czech Republic Army soldiers from 1st and 2nd Platoon Field Artillery. (Source: Flickr)

V4 model

In 2016 there was the first V4 Battlegroup that had laid down a foundation for future cooperation. We will see it on standby this July 2019 and again in the first semester of 2023 (ČTK 2018). This development is in accordance with the Budapest Declaration from 2014 about continual cooperation in the field of military industry and exploration of possibility of forming common permanent modular military force that should represent contribution to collective defense of NATO and a part of rapid reaction force of EU and which is based on experience and knowledge gained through the preparation of the V4 Battlegroup (Visegradgroup.eu 2014).

Quite a bold statement but that is not the point right now. The important thing is that Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia took the problematic EU Battlegroups concept and made it into one of the main points of their cooperation. The crucial factor here is a similarity in the strategic culture and political reality of the said countries. It is not only geographical proximity but also shared history and common goals on the international field that identifies them. A recent migrant crisis is a good example. All 4 countries had identified it as a major threat but there was also understanding that it is important to act outside the EU borders – to bring stability to war zones and improve the living conditions of local people (Kubát, Klang 2015). It is only logical to expect the support of V4 Battlegroup utilization in such a situation that could prevent further immigration.

The main sticking point in the V4 cooperation is an approach towards Russia. While Poland sees Russia as a threat, Hungary treats it as an ally, with Czechia and Slovakia hanging in between. It is, however, a question if the relationship between Hungarian and Russian government is stronger than Hungarian commitments to NATO. I argue that it is not. Viktor Orbán is a pragmatic and his affection towards Vladimir Putin reflects energy dependency of his country on Russia rather than anything else. Low energy prices mean more popularity to Fidesz. Hungarians are not oriented on Russia. In fact, only 6 % of the population said that Hungary should be Eastern-oriented while 32 % said it should be part of the West. Most Hungarians think that from the cultural and geopolitical point of view their country belongs somewhere in between (Euractiv.com 2017).

It is not the ambition of this article to predict the future of rapid reaction forces of the EU but in the case of EU Battlegroups, it is crucial to address all listed problems. Not just the financing and capacity building. Permanent Battlegroups based on cultural similarity and common interests would increase the chance of their deployment in the future. It is, however, still a question if this is what the member states want or if the concept is just a paper tiger. It is true that the EU can rely on Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) of NATO for now but even if both 2 concepts are tools of crisis management, they are not the same. EU Battlegroups are composed of approximately 1500 to 3000 personnel – in case of V4 Battlegroup that was on standby in 2016 of 3 700 men (Havelka 2016) – while the VJTF is composed of up to 30 000 men (NATO 2015). It would be wise to treat them as complementary (rather than incompatible) while sharing command and control capabilities and knowledge. However, the capability of smaller states to contribute men to both concepts at the same time remains a problem to solve.

Sources and Literature


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