Is the EU Being Over-Ambitious in its Crisis Management Role?

On Friday, the European Union will begin an ambitious large-scale crisis management exercise. The scenario will see the EU institutions and member states developing civilian and military action plans for handling an escalating internal security incident in "Alisia,” a fictitious East African state.

The topical location of “Alisia” and the scale of the exercise indicate a clear rise of ambition by the new European External Action Service (EEAS), the body now responsible for managing the EU’s foreign affairs policy. Yet this exercise also highlights some major policy challenges and possible limitations of the EU response to crises.

The exercise, known simply as CME 11, will see the EEAS take the lead role for the first time since its creation in 2010. The exercise will take the form of a simulation hosted by the EU’s Situation Centre — a crisis management information hub.

A big issue is that the EEAS will need to coordinate not only separate decision-making bodies in the European Council and Commission, but also specialist capability agencies such as the EU Satellite Center and departments such as DG ECHO, the bloc’s humanitarian aid provider. Throw in the individual foreign affairs departments of member states and military representatives and the EEAS will be heading up one of the most complex structures in international politics.

Indeed, many have speculated that it is frankly too complex. As the crisis in Libya has proven, the EEAS and its head Catherine Ashton were quickly outpaced by individual member states in drawing up plans of action.

The EEAS took a reputation hit over Libya, where EU inaction led many to declare the EU’s crisis management ambitions were “dead.” It has only recently regained some ground, thanks in part to the pro-activity of its foreign diplomats in engaging with the nation’s Transitional National Council. This exercise will test “lessons learned” from this experience.

Another issue will be the political will of member states to put their weight behind EU crisis management. “Alisia’s” location in East Africa and the participation of Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda in the exercise clearly indicate which ongoing crisis CME 11 is intended to mirror - Somalia.

This is all good in terms of simulation - the Situation Center's capacity to synthesize data and inform operational solutions has been well established in past exercises. But Somalia-like crises tend to balloon to include other global actors very quickly. Indeed, in this field, the UN has tried and largely failed to find civilian or military solutions to Mogadishu’s horrific internal conflicts.

So whilst correctly ambitious, there may be an element of over-optimism in the EEAS proposing the EU could tackle such a scenario. Beyond theoretical planning, EU member states would probably never, in real terms, approve any large-scale EU intervention in a situation like Somalia.

This concrete reality could highlight a flaw in EEAS planning. Exercises are good for testing information sharing and procedure, but when a real crisis is unfolding, simultaneous political discussion in each EU member state will quickly muddle the picture.

So whilst the EEAS should be lauded for trying, this upcoming exercise may highlight more limitations than solutions for EU crisis management.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons