These (Franco-German) boots are made for walkin’

Wednesday, 19. February 2014     1 comment(s)
Niklas Helwig
Senior Research Fellow - The European Union research programme

The joint brigade is likely to stay a symbol of cooperation rather than becoming an effective military tool.

Today's announcement to deploy the Franco-German brigade for the first time in its existence is an important step. However, it yet again reveals the challenges for closer security cooperation in Europe.

The most significant decision of today’s Franco-German ministerial meeting in Paris is taken in matters of foreign and security policy. Merkel and Holland announce the deployment of 250 troops of the Franco-German Brigade to Mali from June onwards. A historic decision, given that it is the first time that the joint brigade is activated since it was installed in 1989. Only a fraction of the 6000 soldier-strong brigade will be deployed with a mandate focused on training the local force – no combat. But while the actual scope of the mandate is limited, the decision marks a symbolic shift in Franco-German security cooperation.

The main catalyst for the symbolic revival of the Franco-German motor is located in the domestic politics of the two countries. In the past, France was already keen on using the resources of the joint brigade to share the burden of its military engagement. Nicholas Sarkozy wanted to deploy the joint brigade to Afghanistan, but did not get German approval. Troubled Francois Hollande, eager to share the costs of French engagement in Africa, can sell today’s decision as a success of his foreign policy.

Germany sees a bigger shift in the debate under the new grand-coalition government. The old coalition under the leadership of chancellor Angela Merkel and foreign minister Guido Westerwelle highlighted Germany’s culture of military constraint. In the new government, foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) and defense minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) have changed the tone significantly. They both favor a more engaged German foreign policy – not least to underline the importance of their portfolios. In addition, they are both convinced that an active German foreign policy only works in cooperation with European partners. Only recently, Steinmeier and the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius agreed to closer coordination of the foreign policies of their countries and to joint diplomatic visits abroad. Von der Leyen is known as a strong advocate of the European integration project and promotes further progress in Europe’s defence cooperation.

A change of German foreign policy will take time, however. The latest debate revealed strong reservations among the German public and political parties. A poll from late January indicates that 61% of Germans are against increased engagement of the German military abroad. While a speech underlining German responsibility in the world by President Joachim Gauck at the Munich Security conference was well-received abroad, it met with strong opposition from the German Greens as well as the Christian Social Union of Bavaria. The culture of military constraint remains deeply rooted in the German self-conception after the Second World War.

The recent debate on Germany’s role in the world once again highlights the biggest flaw in the concept of multilateral forces, such as the joint Franco-German brigade. They are highly inflexible, as their deployment is always contingent on the approval of all stakeholders. It is impossible that in case of emergency a French President would activate a brigade comprising German soldiers without the explicit approval of the German Bundestag. However, he would probably not have the time to wait for the German members of parliament to cast their vote. The joint brigade is likely to stay a symbol of cooperation rather than becoming an effective military tool. European defense policy is more likely to develop further via pooling & sharing of capabilities, as discussed by the heads of state and government at the European Council meeting last December. Efficiency can be increased by common and compatible military capabilities as well as joint training, rather than by joint deployment of forces.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

Discussion (1 comments)

20.2.2014, Charles Barry

Glad to know the FR-GE brigade is being deployed. Is this a combined FR-GE force or only from one or the other country? Overall this is good news story: Germany is willing to participate more in international security affairs alongside France, including with military forces (even if not in combat per se), and within the context of multinational frameworks like the EU or NATO. Requiring the consent of all stakeholders is not new but the standard used by NATO since its inception, so a normal constraint. What that means in that there must be commonly held interests at stake, hence the motive for sustained political cooperation. Notably the deploying troops are also part of the Eurocorps, and hence a NATO Response Force formation recently on NRF rotation. They should be well prepared to deploy. On return, they will be that much more seasoned and capable of operating in multinational formation at extended distances. France and Germany are already part of the EU led training mission (EUTM) in Mali. Its too bad that more troops will not gain this experience but maybe these are all the forces the commander on the ground needs or the EU politcal leadership asked for. Besides, the Franco-German Brigade is a mechanized brigade of armor and infantry fighting vehicles. Not much call for that in Mali. When the first 250 return, others from the same unit may rotate to Mali, or the first 250 can become the trainers for the rest in stability operations. Again, mainly a good news decision.

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