European military deployment: making sense of the EU member states’ varying military engagements


When looking at the turmoil swirling around Europe’s immediate and wider neighbourhood, one can only conclude that military operations will, in all likelihood, continue to be a necessary instrument to protect the interests of the EU member states. Moreover, as has become blatantly clear after the election of Trump, the United States will be less and less willing to assume a leading role in operations in and around Europe. In consequence, the member states will be more and more required to meet demands for military crisis management themselves. Operations where one member state is willing and able to successfully conduct the operation with minimal support from the rest of the EU will probably not become the standard for European military interventions. In consequence, Europeans will need to collaborate to foster sufficient resources to meet the continuous demand for military crisis management.

The pattern of European military deployments in the post-Cold War period provides both reasons for optimism and concern on whether or not such cooperation will be possible in the near future. On the plus side, the EU member states have been far less reluctant to deploy military force than their image as a civilian[1] or soft[2] power suggests. In fact, between 20,000 and 80,000 European troops have been deployed outside of their home country for most of the last two decades. Moreover, the bulk of the member states’ armed forces was deployed alongside troops from other member states. Almost every EU member made a substantial contribution to three of the most significant operations involving European forces: the NATO-led Stabilisation Force and Kosovo Force that are deployed in the Former Yugoslavia and the ISAF-operation in Afghanistan.

However, other operations revealed strong differences between the member states willingness to deploy military force. The 2003 Iraq War exposed the deepest divisions amongst the EU members. While member states like France, Germany and Belgium vehemently opposed the intervention, Denmark, Poland, the UK and many other member states provided strong military support to the United States. Eight years later, the air campaign over Libya again revealed significant differences between the member states. While France and the UK took the lead of the international coalition that would eventually cause the fall of the Qaddafi regime, other key member states like Poland and Germany did not deploy any military assets in support of the air campaign. Likewise, the majority of troops deployed in the 2006 CSDP operation in Congo was provided by France and Germany, while the UK only participated with two staff officers in this operation. Two years later, both Germany and the UK decided not to contribute to EUFOR Chad, in which small member states Ireland and Austria participated with 400 and 180 troops respectively.

The scholarly literature on military burden sharing, third-party intervention in civil war, peacekeeping operations and democratic peace offers a wide range of plausible explanations for the member states’ varying levels of military engagement. While collective-action-based explanations draw attention to the differing military capabilities of the member states, explanations inspired by realist theories emphasize their varying interests and alliance relations with the United States. Other strands of academic research suggest that member states whose resources are already stretched thin by other deployments will refrain from new military engagements or that whether a state has a tradition of participating in United Nations peacekeeping operations is crucial for their future military commitments. Theories of domestic politics, in turn, highlight the importance of electoral cycles and institutional constraints on decision-makers, such as parliamentary veto power or constitutional restrictions. Lastly, in contrast to the adagio that politics stops at the water’s edge, the ideological composition of the member states’ governments also provides a plausible explanation for their differing military commitments.

An analysis presented in a recent article in CRIA examined which of the aforementioned conditions explain the pattern of member state contributions to five recent military operations: EUFOR Congo, UNIFIL II, EUFOR Chad, the 2011 military intervention in Libya and the air strikes against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The results of this study indicate that the availability of military resources was of crucial importance, but only resulted in actual contributions if a member state either had a high level of trade with the wider region in which the operation took place or a tradition of participating in UN peacekeeping operations and the operation was deployed in support of the UN peacekeeping system. However, the operation against Islamic State deviates from this general pattern. Member states participated in the strike operations if a large number of foreign fighters to the terrorist group and domestic legal rules did not prohibit participation.

More generally, the results of the study show that the pattern of member state participation in military operations is not entirely random, nor determined by unsteady domestic conditions. Instead, varying capabilities and expected benefits explain most of the member states’ differing patterns of military participation in the operations under investigation. This suggests great potential for closer cooperation in the development of military capabilities. Increased cooperation and specialization in capability terms yields benefits in financial and capability terms but comes at the price of reduced national autonomy, since each member states’ ability to conduct operations would depend on its partners’ willingness to grant access to their capabilities.[4] However, the conclusion that military participation is mostly determined by capabilities and relatively stable conditions like peacekeeping tradition and regional trade interests suggests that it should be possible for the member states to find reliable partners for far-reaching cooperation and specialization in security and defence policy.

[1] Moravcsik, Andrew (2009) ‘Europe: The quiet superpower’, French politics, 7:3, 403-22 (URL:

[2] Giegerich, Bastian and Wallace, William (2004) ‘Not such a soft power: the external deployment of European forces’, Survival, 46:2, 163-82 (URL:

[4] Giegerich, Bastian and Nicoll, Alexander (2012) ‘The Struggle for Value in European Defence’, Survival, 54:1, 53-82 (URL:

Dr Tim Haesebrouck is a post-doctoral researcher at Ghent University, Belgium. He finished his PhD on European military operations in 2016. His research interests include military intervention, defence burden sharing, the Responsibility to Protect, and the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. His work has been published in Journal of Conflict Resolution, Foreign Policy Analysis, Journal of European Public Policy and Cambridge Review of International Affairs.

His article ‘EU member state participation in military operations: a configurational comparative analysis’ was published online by CRIA here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *