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Why EU's military mission to Africa could prove bigger than CAR

While the EU's first joint operation in six years is modest – neither Britain nor Germany is likely to join – it is a potential milestone for European military coordination.

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African Union (AU) peacekeeping soldiers take position after hearing repeated gun shots in a street of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, on Sunday. The European Union has announced it will send a multi-national mission to the violence-stricken country, the EU's first joint, full-scale military operation in six years.

Siegfried Modola/Reuters

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In its first joint, full-scale military operation in six years, the European Union has agreed to dispatch hundreds of troops to Central African Republic to quell sectarian violence and mass killings that have led to warnings of an imminent genocide.

The decision to send a European-wide force signals a move toward broader intra-European defense cooperation. Their mission will shine on a spotlight on the complexities facing CAR, where chaotic fighting between Muslim and Christian militias has displaced nearly one million people. 

The EU mission will be modest – smaller than 1,600 French soldiers currently there – and, aside from France, is unlikely to include Europe's biggest militaries. It comes on the heels of a European Council summit in December that put European defense coordination on the top of the agenda for the first time in years.

France, the former colonial ruler in CAR, initially dispatched troops there in December alongside African Union forces, while also calling for European partners to lend support. 

EU diplomats told Reuters that Estonia, Slovenia, Belgium, and Sweden could send troops to CAR, while the major militaries, including Germany and Britain, will only provide logistical support.

“In the past CAR would have been seen as a French interest rather than a European interest,” says Daniel Keohane, head of Strategic Affairs at Spanish think-tank FRIDE in Brussels. “But there is an increasing understanding that these conflicts are not just French problems or British problems but European problems. We are moving from national to European approaches.”

Violence flared in CAR in March 2013, after Muslim rebels seized power in the Christian-majority country. An estimated 1,000 died in fighting last month. The EU in a statement has warned that 60 percent of the nation, of 4.6 million, of whom half are children, is currently in “dire need of aid.”

The CAR National Assembly on Monday elected a new interim president – Catherine Samba-Panza, mayor of the capital Bangui – after a former rebel-turned-president stepped down amid international pressure. At a conference in Brussels held Monday, donors pledged $496 million in new aid for CAR. 

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But humanitarian access is restricted by insecurity. “The country, which previously has already been characterized as an archetype of a 'fragile state,' is now confronted with a total breakdown of law and order,” the EU said in a statement.

The EU military mission, which could seek a UN mandate this week, would focus on securing the capital Bangui and handing over military control to AU forces after six months.

The decision was hailed on Monday by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, as France under President François Hollande has renewed pushes to “Europeanize” foreign intervention in Africa.

“This means that in cooperation with the UN and with the African forces, Europe will militarily support Central African Republic, as we asked,” Mr. Fabius told reporters.

The details of the operation, which could begin at the end of next month, still need to be worked out, including which countries will partake in it and its size, expected to number between 500 and 1,000 personnel. 

This is not the first time that Europe has sent troops overseas on joint missions. Last January it sent troops to Mali, where France had intervened, but their brief was limited to training Malian forces. European militaries have cooperated on anti-piracy missions off Africa's coast. And while it was technically NATO-run, the 2011 mission in Libya was led by French and British militaries. The last time European powers dispatched a major joint ground force was to Chad in 2008.

While the EU counts a non-standing rapid reaction force, as well as battle groups that are small multinational units on "stand-by," the CAR mission would be voluntary. 

The US has signaled that Europe needs to safeguard itself and its neighborhood as it refocuses attention on Asia. But for all Europe's declarations of joint security initiatives, the reality is that nations face budget cuts for defense and differing cultural attitudes on military use. This is underscored by the apparent opt-out by Germany and Britain of the proposed CAR mission. Without these heavyweight powers, the EU's hands appear to be tied. 

“France is often leading these operations because Germany and the UK are reluctant. Germany is reluctant to use force and the UK is reluctant to act with the EU,” says Mr. Keohane.


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