For all its economic might, the European Union is still widely seen as a geopolitical lightweight, and that is not likely to change until its 27 member countries figure out how to better muster and coordinate the crude authority of military power.
On Monday, Brussels took a small but significant step to that end. E.U. foreign ministers formally gave the go-ahead for the Union's biggest-ever peacekeeping force outside Europe. A 3,500-strong mission will depart on February 1 for Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR), with the task of protecting refugees fleeing from the neighboring Sudanese province of Darfur and others displaced by internal fighting.
The E.U. has been involved in military engagements beyond its backyard before, but such an ambitious mission so far from Europe is being touted as a turning point in E.U. foreign policy. It is considerably larger that 2003's Operation Artemis, a 1,400-strong E.U. rapid reaction force in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and smaller, mainly humanitarian missions to Georgia, the Aceh region of Indonesia and Ukraine.
But the E.U.'s mandate is more robust in the new mission than it has been in any previous ones. Though there are provisions meant to keep the European troops from intervening in Chad's internal conflict, on this mission the military has "an appropriate mandate allowing the use of armed force if necessary." That makes this the most ambitious mission since the E.U.'s 7,000-strong Operation Althea in Bosnia, which took over from NATO mission in 2004. "It's very significant, and about as big as it gets," said Tomas Valasek, a director at London-based think-tank the Centre for European Reform (CER). "And unlike Bosnia, it not in Europe."
France has promised to deploy at least 1,350 troops and the Irish Defence Forces are to send a further 450. Further contributions are to come from 12 other countries, including Austria, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain and Sweden.
More than 200,000 refugees from Darfur are in camps in the region, along with 178,000 displaced Chadians and 43,000 Central Africans. A one-year budget of $176 million has been earmarked for the mission, although officials say it could cost five times that sum. The troops are meant to support a joint 26,000-member U.N.-African Union (AU) peacekeeping effort in Darfur.
Irish Lieutenant General Pat Nash will command the operation from its headquarters near Paris. But the main impetus for the operation, and the dominant power behind it, is France and a French brigadier general will take charge on the ground.
France's role is critical. It already has around 5,000 soldiers in three permanent bases in Africa: Senegal, Gabon and Djibouti, along with 2,600 soldiers on a peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast, and 1,100 already on the ground in Chad.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has indicated that he wants to loosen Paris's longstanding ties to African nations with dubious political credentials. He has also suggested he wants France to rejoin the NATO integrated military command that President Charles De Gaulle pulled out of in 1966. "Europeanizing" France's military presence in Africa is seen as helping Paris towards both those goals. Sarkozy says he wants to beef up the E.U. defense capacities, and having an E.U. mission in Chad is one way of encouraging that. He also says an independent E.U. defense capability is the price for France rejoining NATO command.
But France is also keen to stress the E.U.'s mission neutrality. "It is a reconstruction mission, a development mission and a humanitarian one," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said, adding that that the aim was solely to protect displaced refugees, not to help Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno. Some Chadian rebels have expressed fears that the E.U. force is meant to help prop up Deby, a longtime ally of Paris, and have even threatened to attack the mission if it interferes with their rumbling insurgency.
Critics will say that the E.U. mission is still modest in numbers and scope compared to U.S.-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the U.N.-AU effort in Darfur. But for the E.U., progress comes in little steps: the mission to Chad and the CAR will be a key test of military resolve in difficult conditions, and a possible precursor to more efforts sending E.U. soldiers to foreign fields. "This is quite unlike anything the E.U. has been involved in ever before," CER's Valasek said. Although he felt Chad was less of a clear E.U. foreign policy priority than, say, Afghanistan, Valasek said the mission would still be remembered as a landmark for the E.U. "It is no walk in park: Chad is by any measure a less stable and more dangerous theatre of operation than Bosnia. But it will be a key test of the E.U.'s military prowess, and if it succeeds, it will give a huge boost to confidence over E.U. missions."