Under the Radar: Twenty years of EU military missions

A military general wearing a blue cap greets several soldiers from Somalia. They are all wearing green camouflage
General Aherne greets Somali Soldiers as they return from a training mission in Uganda
Josephine Valeske and Niamh Ní Bhriain, Transnational Institute

Among the issues that may sway voters during the upcoming EU parliamentary elections is the Union’s public embrace of war politics, which has been at the forefront of events in Brussels during the previous five-year cycle. Far from public view, however, the EU has, in fact, been driving a war agenda for decades. For the past twenty years, the EU has been deploying military-mandated missions overseas that have gone virtually under the radar and generally evaded public scrutiny. The Transnational Institute’s new report ‘Under the Radar: Twenty years of EU military missions’ sheds light on these missions.

In 2003, the EU deployed its first-ever foreign mission to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. In the 20 years since then it has undertaken more than 40 operations across Europe, Africa and Asia with 24 currently active, 13 of which are civilian, 10 of which are military, as well as one hybrid mission. The number of active military missions has doubled from five to ten since 2018. Similarly, the common costs (roughly 10-15% of the total costs) of these missions have almost doubled since 2019 and stand at €150 million for 2024.

While the official rhetoric suggests that the military missions are aimed at increasing stability in the respective countries, in reality the EU is driven by its own interests and the development of these missions and their deployment exemplifies a colonial logic, focused on controlling access to crucial raw materials, important trade routes, securing profits for the military-industrial complex, and the EU projecting itself as a ‘hard power’.

While the EU’s overseas missions are relatively small in terms of personnel and presented as low-level interventions, their impact over the previous 20 years has, at best, had no impact in resolving conflict, or served to exacerbate it. Our research shows that the EU chooses to prioritise short-term goals over addressing the root causes of violent conflicts. Furthermore, there is no standard methodology to assess the effectiveness of EU missions, and evaluations as well as the decision-making process to launch new missions appear to take place in an ad hoc manner. Even the EU admits that it has achieved few of its stated aims.

The Sahelian region, where the EU has deployed seven military missions over the last two decades, is a case in point. The competition for access to resources and raw materials seems to be the key driving force behind the EU’s focus on the Sahel region. Since the EU began deploying such missions, coups d’état have become commonplace, not only in the countries where there are EU missions but also in neighbouring states. Clearly, the EU presence cannot be held solely responsible for these events but it certainly raises questions about its stated aim of preventing conflict and strengthening security, especially since some of these missions provided financial support to the armed forces involved in the coups. In 2020, the Malian national security forces, which received training and finance from the EU, were responsible for the killing of hundreds of civilians. The military missions in both Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR) have been partially suspended since the end of 2021 – but not because of the well-documented human rights violations perpetrated by state forces, but because it was discovered that the Russian state-sponsored private military Wagner Group was highly active in both countries, raising concerns that soldiers trained by the EU might join the militia and cause reputational damage. The partnership mission in Niger ended less than a year after it started because the new military government ordered European, French and US forces to leave the country.

The EU’s most recent mission in the Red Sea, launched in response to Houthi disruption of shipping lanes to bring pressure to bear on Israel’s assault on Gaza, is a further example of the EU protecting its own interests while projecting itself as a reliable actor in the Western axis of power. It is noteworthy that the only concrete action the EU has taken in relation to Gaza was the deployment of this mission, which has done nothing to address Israel’s genocidal war on the Palestinian people.

Despite its poor track record in bringing about peace and stability, the EU has forged ahead with deploying its missions, eager to defend its economic interests and present itself as a relevant actor on the global stage. The EU’s two Somali-focused missions operating on land and patrolling coastal waters have indeed contributed to exacerbating the problems that they were mandated to alleviate, and culminated in driving people from their livelihood of small-scale fishing directly into the hands of non-state armed groups. This is far from an exceptional case: While ‘terrorism’ is often cited as the justification for US and EU military presence in the Sahel, evidence suggests a reverse causality – military interference provokes non-state armed groups, which in turn is used to justify further militarisation.

The problems that the EU claims to be addressing with its missions – instability, insecurity and violence – are often deeply rooted in the consequences that stem from European countries’ colonisation of Africa. It is often unresolved territorial questions related to borders drawn up by the colonial powers, or power structures that prevailed following the liberation struggles of the 1960s, land and ocean grabs to control natural resources, as well as local economic consequences – such as extreme poverty – of a deeply unequal global trade system that drive insecurity. The EU will never be able to resolve problems on the African continent, or anywhere in the world, by deploying military missions. Claiming that it can do so is a further example of the colonialist mindset which often dominates the corridors of power in Brussels. Were the EU to be genuinely concerned about crisis situations in other countries and eager to deploy peacekeeping troops, it could use its leverage and do so within the UN system rather than acting outside, or on the margins of multilateralism. Moreover, it could address the deeply uneven power dynamics between the EU and the Global South that serve to protect European interests and lead to the impoverishment of these countries.

The profiteers who reap the financial benefits of these missions include the arms companies, which benefit from the contracts for the purchase of weapons, as well as the border and military-industrial complex more broadly that stand to gain much from insecurity and war. Moreover, oil and gas companies, as well as mineral investors and large-scale fishing companies, also saw the opportunity to secure and increase their profits.

The logical conclusion after 20 years of such missions is that the EU should finally bring these to a close, and focus its efforts on diplomacy, strengthening democracy, and working within the existing multilateral structures.

The full report can be found here: https://www.tni.org/en/publication/under-the-radar

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