EU mulls formation of 5,000-man 'rapid response' military unit

Events in Afghanistan spark reckoning with limits of European hard power

  European Commission foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told EU ministers: ‘Sometimes there are events that catalyse history, that create a breakthrough, and I think that Afghanistan is one of these cases.’ Photograph:  Jure Makovec/AFP

European Commission foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told EU ministers: ‘Sometimes there are events that catalyse history, that create a breakthrough, and I think that Afghanistan is one of these cases.’ Photograph: Jure Makovec/AFP

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EU defence ministers have discussed forming a “rapid response” force of 5,000 troops to increase the bloc’s ability to act independently of the United States as they digest the lessons of Afghanistan.

The chaotic evacuation at Kabul airport, in which European countries were not able to extract all the people they wanted to before a deadline set by the Taliban and the United States, has galvanised discussions of EU defence capabilities that have been stalled for years.

Proposals for a 5,000-person rapid response force are to be included in a “strategic compass” review due to be set out in November for the consideration of member states, it emerged as defence ministers met for talks in Slovenia.

“Sometimes there are events that catalyse history, that create a breakthrough, and I think that Afghanistan is one of these cases,” said European Commission foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell.

A rapid response force “would have helped us to provide a security perimeter for the evacuation of EU citizens in Kabul”, he said following the meeting. “I think it’s clear for all member states, or almost all member states, that we need to improve our capacity to be able to act autonomously when and where necessary, and there is no alternative to it.”

The strategic implications of the messy US retreat from Afghanistan and its longer-term disengagement with overseas military ventures dominated talks among the EU ministers.

Rapid responses

There was discussion on how to speed up political decision-making in order to facilitate rapid responses to events, and how to enable coalitions of some member states to undertake operations together, while those that do not wish to take part opt out.

Germany, a relatively strong military power in the EU that has been reluctant to use its forces in the past, set out proposals to allow for ad-hoc military coalitions among willing member states. This would mean that “coalitions of the willing could act after a joint decision of all”, German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said in a tweet.

Some eastern European states are wary of such EU defence proposals as they are fiercely protective of their alliances with the US and Nato, and fear duplicating or undermining aspects of the transatlantic alliance.

But Slovenia, which hosted the meeting as it currently holds the rotating EU presidency, suggested that in some circumstances EU decisions should require only a qualified majority instead of unanimity, to speed up decision-making.

“Especially for small nations like Slovenia, consensus is a very strong tool. But sometimes, we have to decide what is more important: to act fast, or to still stick to a consensus,” said Slovenian defence minister Matej Tonin.

“I think that’s the main point that nations will deal with and we have to discuss in the future: if we are willing to go from the consensus principle to a majority principle. So when the majority decides that it is time for an action, we can go, and those who are willing will participate in such operations.”

‘Bitter experience’

Events in Afghanistan had been a “bitter experience” and it was necessary to learn from it, Mr Tonin said.

“This debacle in Afghanistan also showed that unfortunately the EU doesn’t have the necessary capability for operations in extreme circumstances, and it also showed that we were, whether we want to admit it or not, dependent on the United States.”

The EU is bracing for the potential impact of the Taliban’s sweep to power on security and migration.

Earlier on Thursday, the chair of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, David McAllister, said the EU was facing “hybrid warfare” on its border with Belarus, which is accused of flying in plane loads of people including Afghans, sending them to cross the borders of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania as a tactic to exert political pressure.