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New French-led Defence Initiative Aims to Address Security Threats to Southern Europe

A new French-led defence project, the European Intervention Initiative (EI2), will bring together a select group of European countries to jointly work on security threats, largely those emanating from North Africa and the Middle East. A letter of intent to develop the initiative was signed by nine European defence ministers at the end of June.

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Ahead of the NATO summit in Brussels this week (July 11-12), nine EU member states – including Spain and Portugal – have signed a letter of intent to develop a new French-led European Intervention Initiative (EI2).

France has long insisted that Europe needs autonomous defence capabilities that complement NATO while allowing for faster response to crises. The EU, for its part, has recently launched several new initiatives aimed at this, including the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). However, France’s efforts are hyper-focused on immediate response solutions, an aspect that is often difficult to execute in larger organisations. Moreover, the EU’s – and NATO’s – focus tends to be on the East, while France’s ideas are centred on addressing security threats to Europe’s southern flank.

In fact, the idea for EI2 is rooted in the French intervention in Mali in 2013, in which France had warned its European partners of the Islamist terror threat in Mali throughout 2012 without much effect. France intervened in Mali at the last minute to prevent an Islamist extremist takeover of the capital. It was only after this that EU partners agreed to collective action.

Fast-forward four years and French President Emmanuel Macron, in his Sorbonne speech in September 2017, introduced his idea of a new European intervention force that would be able to quickly coalesce and assist in missions like the one in Mali and the Central African Republic, where the French intervened from 2013-2016 to stop mass killing after a rebellion ousted the country’s former president.

“I propose … a European intervention initiative aimed at developing a shared strategic culture,” said Macron. “I thus propose to our partners that we host in our national armed forces – and I am opening this initiative in the French forces – service members from all European countries desiring to participate, as far upstream as possible, in our operational anticipation, intelligence, planning and support.”

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After gaining independence from France in 1960, Mali underwent years of political stability until the country’s first democratically elected president came into power in the early 1990s. There was relative peace for a time, until a coup was launched in 2012 by young officers who angry at the military’s failure to stop Islamist insurgents from wreaking havoc on the country. Copyright: ymphotos/Shutterstock.com

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A group of willing and capable members will work together on joint military crisis management in the EU’s neighbourhood, particularly with regard to the southern flank. The letter of intent – signed on June 25 by nine EU defence ministers – in its first paragraph clearly outlines this focus on the South: “Europe is facing a highly unstable and uncertain strategic environment … including an increasing terrorist threat, major migration crises, persistent vulnerabilities in its Southern region, from the Mediterranean to the Sahel-Sahara region …” The letter also mentions enduring destabilisation in the Middle East, an “intimidation strategy” on its eastern flank, and natural disasters.

As NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force already helps bring together a strategic community to address threats from the East, the EI2 could close a leadership gap in the EU’s southern posture toward North Africa and the Sahel. Indeed, the EI2 “should be welcomed for the South ­ as a place to connect members of different organisations into a stronger, more capable European family that will strengthen NATO, the EU, and the security they provide together,” writes foreign policy analyst Ulrik Trolle Smed for the Atlantic Council.

The nine nations that signed on ­ France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Estonia, Denmark, and Britain – all have varying reasons for getting involved. France, Spain, and Portugal have the most to gain on the face of it, as they are the three southern European countries who are directly affected by and would directly benefit from joint coordination on terrorism and conflict in northern Africa, which leads to mass migration to Southern Europe.

Other southern EU countries are contemplating joining, presumably for these benefits. Italy, for example, has not ruled out future involvement (although the country initially supported the initiative, but reconsidered following the election of its new government).

The EI2 is also a way for non-EU and/or non-NATO members to take part in collective European defence, with Britain being the prime example of a soon-to-be non-EU country that stands to benefit from this new European defence initiative.

Despite the fact that Britain will remain a NATO member following its exit from the EU, it is still unclear if the country will be involved in any EU defence projects, such as PESCO.

Overall, the European Intervention Initiative is “a flexible, non-binding forum of European participating states which are able and willing to engage their military capabilities and forces when and where necessary to protect European security interests, without prejudice to the chosen institutional framework (the EU, NATO, the UN or ad hoc coalitions),” according to the EI2 letter of intent.

The fact that France will spearhead EI2 will ensure that its focus remains on the myriad security issues emanating from beyond Europe’s southern border.

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Kaitlin Lavinder

Kaitlin is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. She holds an MA in International Economics and European Studies from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and previously worked as a national security reporter and Europe analyst. She has conducted on the ground research in Germany, Poland, Estonia, Czech Republic, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.

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