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Nov 8, 2010 | 22:05 GMT

5 mins read

France Seeks a Military Leadership Role in Europe

The European Amphibious Initiative (EAI) — comprising France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom — is holding its first "out of area" exercise in Senegal from Nov. 8-20. The EAI is meant to increase the Europeans' interoperability, but it also serves to boost France's profile as a European military leader. Germany is the European economic powerhouse but lags other countries — France included — militarily. Paris wants to increase its military leadership to balance Germany's economic and political weight.
The European Amphibious Initiative (EAI) — an initiative involving France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom — is conducting its first "out of area" exercise in the West African country of Senegal. France, Italy and the Netherlands, along with a small Belgian contingent, are joining Senegalese forces to enhance interoperability between ground and naval forces. The exercise, called Emerald Move 2010 (ERMO10), is organized by France and will involve 3,800 soldiers and six ships from the French, Italian and Dutch navies, including the French navy's advanced Mistral class helicopter carrier Tonnerre (L 9014). The exercise will run from Nov. 8 to 20. The exercise is supposed to increase the Europeans' deployability capabilities outside of the European theater and enhance their interoperability in amphibious assault operations. However, the French-led exercise also has a geopolitical context: Paris is looking to enhance its military leadership of Europe to balance German economic prowess and rising political power in Europe. The five EU countries with amphibious capabilities originally penned the EAI at the December 2000 NATO Council Meeting. However, the EAI is neither a NATO nor an EU initiative; rather, it is intended to serve both depending on need. The model for the initiative was the bilateral cooperation between the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The first serious exercise of the EAI, called NEO TAPON, was held in June 2005 off the coast of Gibraltar, organized and coordinated by Spain. However, ERMO10 is the first exercise outside Europe. Since the purpose of the EAI is to enhance the amphibious deployment of European forces outside the Continent, the current exercise is the first that fulfills the initiative's original mandate. It is no surprise that France, current holder of the EAI's rotating presidency, is coordinating the initiative's first out of area exercise. Paris recently has taken a number of steps to enhance its cooperation with various European militaries, including an expansive military agreement with the United Kingdom signed on Nov. 2 and plans to revive European defense initiatives in conjunction with Poland under Warsaw's EU presidency in the second half of 2011. France remains, along with the United Kingdom, the European Union's most robust military power. Germany, though the EU's unquestioned economic and political leader, remains stunted in terms of military capacity. Its military forces are undergoing post-Cold War era reforms about a decade later than French and British forces, and its military is still largely oriented toward its Cold War task of acting as cannon fodder for the NATO alliance in case of a Warsaw Pact breakthrough via the North European Plain and Fulda Gap. Berlin is undergoing organizational and strategic reforms, as are most European countries, but its capabilities are still lacking in terms of expeditionary combat. Germany is not even part of the EAI precisely because it lacks any serious amphibious capacity. Thus, France wants to retain its unique hold on Europe's "hard power" capacity. It is one of the only European countries to both have expeditionary capacity and not be afraid to use it. Its commandos remain the only Western troops to have gone ashore in Somalia to capture pirates, taking them to France for punishment. It also attempted an (unsuccessful) hostage rescue operation in Mali in April 2010. It retains military installations, albeit at a fraction of its Cold War presence, in West Africa, specifically to protect its political allies and commercial interests in the region (particularly uranium mines in Niger). France recently declared war against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, pledging military and logistical aid to the countries of the Maghreb region, although there is no real evidence that Paris is committed to the fight. And finally, France is one of the few NATO member states — and the only Western European nation besides the United Kingdom — to spend more than 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, as prescribed by NATO. Essentially, France's recent saber rattling and greater interest in military alliances stems from Paris' need to balance Germany's growing power in Europe. France currently enjoys an enviable position as second-in-command of the Franco-German axis that essentially makes all the important decisions within the European Union. However, Paris knows it needs Berlin more than Berlin needs Paris. France understands that Germany largely overshadows it in the EU leadership, but an evolution of Europe's expeditionary military ability could show EU states — as well as non-European states like Russia and the United States — that France provides the "muscle" behind German economic might. If France achieves its goals, it would also be harder for Germany to simply ignore, especially since Germany is still sensitive to asserting itself in the security realm.

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