Ursula von der Leyen on cusp of militarising blocs EU battlegroups: Could see it soon

Ursula von der Leyen details Next Generation EU recovery plan

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Ms von der Leyen has enjoyed great influence and support from her fellow Christian Democrat, Chancellor Angela Merkel. The German leader will next week officially step down from her role as the country heads to the polls. While she could stay on for an extended period if a new coalition government takes time to form, the idea of Mrs Merkel being the face of Germany will be over after 16 years in power.

Many have looked to the EU and questioned what role the country might now play in Brussels given Mrs Merkel’s influence over bloc policy for nearly two decades.

They suggest an election victory for the frontrunner Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) may spell trouble for Ms von der Leyen, as the two were former political rivals.

Ms von der Leyen took over the role of European Commission President from Jean-Claude Juncker in December 2019 — just as the coronavirus pandemic swept the world and the UK’s official departure from the EU was imminent.

In recent weeks, Ms von der Leyen has ramped up her rhetoric around the EU’s battlegroups — a military unit adhering to the bloc’s Common Security and Defence Policy.

She has long since urged Brussels to seriously consider bolstering its military capabilities, increasing these calls in light of the failures of the Kabul evacuation after the Taliban took over Afghanistan.

Reflecting on the debacle, she said the EU must learn its lessons and acquire the “political will” to build its own military force to deploy in future crises.

Dr Alim Baluch, a professor who specialises in German politics at the University of Bath, suggested that the EU’s defence project may now go further as Mrs Merkel departs her role.

He told Express.co.uk: “You have these EU battlegroups that Ursula von der Leyen seems quite impatient with.

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“She says, ‘These EU battlegroups, we’ve never really used them, they’re always on paper, and when trouble comes we send NATO troops but nobody is talking about the battlegroups — I want these battlegroups to be taken seriously.’

“She’s really big on them, and maybe we’ll see them entering the fore very soon.

“France and Germany seem interested in pursuing it and we now see how France is really angry at the US and Australia and the UK — maybe that will create more motivation to create these things.

“The defence policy question was always about whether to duplicate structures, finding out what the point was of EU structures if we have NATO.

“Most of the EU member states are EU member countries and the ones that are not are NATO friendly — now we see a big push towards more pronounced EU structures that can be used in a NATO context but could also be used independently.”

Currently, the EU relies on NATO’s planning and force capabilities for its own military operations.

While the bloc does have a common and control structure, it has no standing permanent military outfit like NATO’s.

This is why during her State of the Union speech in September, Ms von der Leyen said the EU must “step up to the next level” and send soldiers to the world’s conflict zones.

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She announced a defence summit with French President Emmanuel Macron next year, and urged member states to rouse up long-dormant powers to create a “Defence Union” and put boots on the ground.

In the speech, she said: “There will be missions where NATO or the United Nations will not be present but where Europe should be.

“Europe can and clearly should be able and willing to do more on its own,” she said, before warning of “an era of regional rivalries and major powers refocusing their attention towards each other.”

She added: “Recent events in Afghanistan are not the cause of this change — but they are a symptom of it.”

The EU’s battlegroups currently consist of around 1,500 soldiers who have stood by since 2007, but have never been used.

This is something that particularly frustrates Ms von der Leyen, as she said: “You can have the most advanced forces in the world, but if you’re never prepared to use them, of what use are they?

“That is what has held us back until now.

“It’s not just a shortfall of capacity, it’s the lack of political will.”

While Ms von der Leyen appears resolute in creating a permanent force, many have voiced concern about the repercussions it might entail.

Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s Secretary General and former Norwegian Prime Minister, recently suggested it would divide Europe.

Speaking to The Telegraph, he said: “I welcome more European efforts on defence but that can never replace NATO and we need to make sure that Europe and North America band together.

“Any attempt to weaken the bond between North America and Europe will not only weaken NATO, it will divide Europe.

“This is partly about money – 80 percent of our defence expenditure comes from non-EU allies… but it’s also about politics, because any weakening of the transatlantic bond will also divide Europe.”

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