Can Macron’s European intervention initiative make the Europeans battle-ready?

European defense ministers had better not be superstitious. As they sat around the table in the Dutch town of Hilversum on September 20, the members of the European Intervention Initiative now numbered 13.

Having served as a staffer for Florence Parly, the French minister of defense, I would have loved to be in the room that day. Although not as flashy as the parade of Initiative members on Bastille Day, this second ministerial meeting was a significant moment. It was the first time a country other than France organized a European Intervention Initiative event — let alone a major one — and the ten-member strong Initiative saw its first major enlargement with three new participants (Norway, Sweden, and Italy).

Two years after French President Emmanuel Macron laid out his vision at the Sorbonne, the Initiative is gathering speed and members. But can it succeed at making Europeans ready for operations? Can it lead them to shoulder a greater part of their strategic responsibility?

But Why is the Initiative Not in NATO or the Permanent Structured Cooperation?

Conceived in September 2017 and launched by defense ministers in June 2018, the Initiative aims at bringing the “strategic culture” of Europeans closer together. It is not a standing force, has no earmarked troops, and no institutional structure beside a small, mostly double-hatted secretariat. It is tied neither to the European Union nor NATO, though supports both. It is more akin to a club whose participants meet to exchange threat assessments and foresight, plan together, facilitate support to operations, and share lessons learned. In practice, participants jointly set up recurring expert-level workshops on a given topic. Twice a year, those forums report to the chiefs of defense assembled in the Military European Strategic Talks. Policy directors then convene yearly to prepare the annual ministerial meeting, which provides political guidance to the Initiative.

The European Intervention Initiative is not the French answer to the inclusive Permanent Structured Cooperation — as is often believed. It is true that, in 2017, some in Paris grew skeptical of the direction the Permanent Structured Cooperation was taking, fearing ambition would be traded for political unity. I must concur that the Cooperation as it was launched is indeed something quite different from what the treaties had envisioned, largely as the result of an effort to update and adapt Protocol 10 of the Treaty on the European Union. It is, however, a powerful catalyst for projects and a key instrument to foster convergence through its set of legally binding commitments that deal with all aspects of defense policy, from budgetary considerations to industrial cooperation and forces deployment.

Paris sought to do something complementary but different with the European Intervention Initiative. Although the Initiative was announced as the Permanent Structured Cooperation was taking shape, it was the product of longer trends meeting the newly elected Macron’s agenda to energize Europe. Throughout 2016, the French Ministry of Defense conducted a year-long, in-depth study assessing how best to mobilize Europeans. It drew on experiences, such as France’s invocation of Article 42.7 of the E.U. Treaty following the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks as well as the 2013 intervention in Mali. The study looked at evidence such as operational track-record and capabilities. One of the conclusions was that, despite the existence of “able and willing” European forces, differences in threat perceptions and strategic culture delayed joint responses to crises by requiring extensive consultations.

The Initiative was designed to fix that, to allow “able and willing” countries to share intelligence and expertise, plan together, and be more prepared when the next crisis hits. If Europeans have to talk extensively before aligning their perceptions and taking action, why not start those discussions before the crisis?

Paris therefore chose to lodge the Intervention outside of institutional frameworks because the issue it addressed was not specific to any of them. Moreover, France wanted to keep options open as to the channel of intervention downstream — be they through E.U. or U.N. missions, NATO, or even an ad hoc coalition — as that would depend on the nature of the crisis and of the instruments required. For instance, members could rapidly set up a coalition of the willing before handing operations over to international organizations or they could facilitate decision-making within the United Nations, NATO, or the European Union. Paris also favored a flexible structure that required little commitment from its members. Given the peculiar nature of the exercise, it was felt best to open membership first to those whose strategic cultures was the closest. In addition, bringing the Initiative within the E.U. framework would have meant excluding Denmark and, at least in the short run, the United Kingdom.

I am always a bit taken aback by the amount of confusion at play here and in particular by the insistence that the Initiative must by necessity fall under a NATO or E.U. umbrella (though I take solace in the fact I am not alone). Yet ad hoc European defense projects that reinforce both NATO and the European Union are nothing new, from London’s Joint Expeditionary Force to the Eurocorps. I am a big fan of the Netherlands-based European Air Transport Command and the Movement Coordination Center for Europe precisely for those reasons: they are light-footprint, output-oriented structures that support NATO, E.U., and national operations, and thereby enable Europeans to be better security providers.

Cruise-Speed Challenges

The second ministerial meeting marked the end sof the launch phase and the entry into a cruise-speed mature rhythm: the Initiative reached a critical mass of participants, it played through a “test” annual cycle, and it now rests on clear terms of reference. The Hilversum meeting also laid to rest heated internal debates about the degree of flexibility and commitment required, through an explicit communiqué wording, describing the Initiative as “a flexible, resource-neutral and non-binding forum, where all the Participants are equal.”

Now, the challenges for the Initiative are twofold: fostering ownership and ensuring focus in an increasingly diverse group.

First, for the Initiative to be a success, it must be truly European. It cannot remain a French endeavor and must instead encompass the wide range of security interests that underpin European solidarity. On that front, two developments are quite positive. The Hague’s willingness to host the second ministerial meeting shows that there is a desire to pick up the baton. The diversity of the working groups, from the Sahel and terrorism to the Baltic, and from disaster relief operations in the Caribbean to Indian Ocean security, means that each country is able to share expertise, raise awareness, or even take the lead about security issues close to its heart.

Second, a balance needs to be found between enlargement and consolidation. The European Intervention Initiative is meant to serve as an informal club of those countries “able and willing” to increase operational involvement. The nine original participants (France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, and Estonia) were soon after joined by Finland. Now Norway and Sweden are on board. Italy, which had been initially invited but delayed its decision, just saw its application approved. There is talk of a Greek candidacy and other countries have shown various level of interest.

This is a positive development. It is good news that a greater number of Europeans are seeking to join a group promoting enhanced response to “future threats and crisis” through deeper strategic awareness. Diversifying the Initiative’s membership also expands the pool of expertise, from the High North to the Mediterranean.

However, this diversification of membership may also run the risk of making the Initiative lose focus. Some forms of threat assessment or joint planning are best performed, at first, within smaller, exclusive, circles. Geographical balance, particularly within an Initiative that now encompasses all of the Nordic countries, will also be a challenge. Furthermore, participants do still have different strategic cultures and priorities, which will take time to reconcile. The communiqué “acknowledge[ing] the need to focus on consolidation of current achievements” suggests that this is understood, and that enlargement has moved down on the list of priorities. But can the Initiative resist political pressure from potential applicants and their sponsors within?

Check Against Delivery

Meeting those challenges will be critical to ensure that the European Intervention Initiative delivers. Now that it has reached cruise speed, observers should move from questioning its motives to probing its real-world output. Aside from ministers setting up governance rules, what has the Initiative achieved? How has it increased the readiness of Europeans?

I believe it is misplaced to use defense expenditure as a yardstick for the Initiative’s success. NATO’s Defense Investment Pledge tackles that issue. The Permanent Structured Cooperation addresses it (by way of additional and anecdotal evidence, I also remember a high-level official from an Eastern European country telling me that the legally-binding Cooperation implementation plan provides the defense ministry with leverage against its finance counterpart). So does the European Defence Fund. The Initiative, on the other hand, is not about acquiring capabilities, but about using them — though joint exercises in planning and increased operational involvement might enlighten Europeans to their gaps.

A fair evaluation of the Intervention Initiative would also keep in mind the difficulties in showcasing clear and public deliverables, partly owning to the classified nature of the intelligence sharing and planning activities and partly because measuring something as intangible as strategic culture is an arduous exercise.

In the long run, the litmus test will be the degree of strategic convergence. When Europeans are involved in a major crisis, in the North or in the South, how united are they? How ready are they? The European Intervention Initiative’s bottom-up approach, starting with threat perception, is arguably the right way to go about convergence because it transforms and aligns the strategic socialization of decision makers. It is, however, a lengthy process.

In the short run, I would recommend looking for telltale signs that the European Intervention Initiative is taking root among its members, such as growing alignment in political messaging, willingness to showcase the Initiative domestically, and military staff satisfaction.

If the 2018-19 “test year” is any indication, the Initiative is on good tracks. According to sources in Europe, military and policy staffs do find the workshops useful, helping them establish tighter connections and share expertise. The willingness to explore new topics, such as the recently added Indian Ocean security work strand, shows that there is a demand for more. As a byproduct, it has helped flag and plug some bilateral gaps in the European web of classified information sharing.

I would also recommend tracking European efforts on the ground, as indicators of strategic convergence and growing solidarity.

Here, Hurricane Dorian provided a first taste of what the Initiative could bring. Following Hurricane Irma, the Dutch-led working group focused on sharing lessons learned on Caribbean disaster relief operations. Joint exercises where held — one of which turned at the last minute into a live operation involving Dutch, German and French assets. According to European defense sources, connections established through the working group meant that the armed forces of those three countries were able to integrate more rapidly.

This fits in an overall positive trend of European involvement in crisis management. Take the case of Africa and, especially, the Sahel. The E.U. training mission in Mali is now lead by Austria with 22 other Member States participating, while 17 European countries contribute to the U.N. mission there.  Following bilateral support to its Barkhane operation, France is now putting on the table European special forces cooperation. This also holds true in the East, where NATO’s enhanced forward presence gathers European allies. And it could one day be the case in the Indian Ocean and Asia. Those developments hold the potential to unlock a positive feedback loop whereby the European Intervention Initiative facilitates joint deployments, which in turn fosters a closer strategic culture through shared experiences on the ground.

The European Intervention Initiative is taking shape and early feedback is quite encouraging. As it enters its second year of existence, I would advise following how it grapples with the twin challenges of fostering ownership and focus among its increasingly large and diverse membership. If it succeeds in tackling these challenges, it might just make the Europeans more able and willing to face their strategic responsibilities. And that would be a concrete and useful step towards better burden-sharing.