A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

A Military Workshop


Thereʼve been many misconceptions around the European Intervention Initaitve (E2I), launched in 2017. Amid a promising start, sticking points are mostly tests for Franco-German cooperation.

© REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

When French President Emmanuel Macron announced the European Intervention Initiative (E2I) in his September 2017 Sorbonne speech, many were quick to put it in line with recent European projects such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) or the European Defense Fund (EDF). But E2I is not meant for headlines or the creation of big institutions. It’s a non-EU, military-to-military strategic workshop with a more modest perspective. Contrary to initial speculation, E2I does not aim at being a flagship project for European integration, but an operational get-together for partner militaries. Its results will only be seen when the next crisis arises and its participants decide to move into action together.

With nine signatory countries—Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom, and Finland expected to soon become the tenth—E2I has already gained traction beyond France. Although the rationale behind the signature may differ from one country to another, all participating countries now share a common understanding of its structure and purpose, even if they are not always good at explaining them. The next few years will be crucial for demonstrating if this peculiar format works, co-exists well with other EU-wide projects, and delivers results. The most pressing challenges lie in the role and approach that both France and Germany will embrace as part of the initiative, and whether these two countries will find compromises in the implementation process.

French Origins

Although E2I was officially presented by President Macron in September 2017, it is the result of strategic analyses that preceded his mandate. The 2013 French intervention in Mali highlighted that France and its European partners did not share the same understanding of Europe’s security environment—which led to both disappointment in Paris and frustration in some European capitals regarding what they saw as French unilateralism. In Paris, one of the lessons learned from this experience was the crucial need for better intelligence sharing and common contingency planning.

During the Hollande presidency (2012–2017), the French Ministry of Armed Forces undertook the mapping of European defense actors in terms of their capabilities, budget, and actual contributions to operations. Following the 2015 Paris attacks, France’s invocation of article 42.7 of the EU Treaty—the mutual defense clause—also helped to assess concrete acts of solidarity from EU countries and calibrate France’s expectations towards its partners. Through this mapping exercise, the French Ministry of Armed Forces identified a small group of countries considered “able and willing,” a core of which were approached to form the original members of E2I.

E21 is defined in the 2017 French Strategic Review of Defense as an “ambitious cooperative framework.” It also marks the French preference for flexible and non-institutionalized formats of cooperation. It’s aimed at providing a political mandate for the military to consider and analyze potential crises of high-intensity, but E2I can only deliver results if unhindered by EU bureaucracy. From the French perspective, this absence of institutional constraints is one of the key strengths of the initiative. This is why Paris places it at the heart of its European defense strategy and goal of strategic autonomy.   

Debunking the Myths

Macron’s Sorbonne speech included a plethora of new ideas and proposals for the European project. Yet the context of the presentation of E2I, as well as the confusing wording used, led to several misunderstandings that continue to affect discussions around the initiative.

The most problematic of these misconceptions is that E2I would imply the creation of a new standing military force and involve military exercises. In fact, E2I is not an “intervention force” in the making but a military-to-military platform aimed at preparing in advance a series of generic scenarios, in order to better anticipate crises and coordinate military operations. The overall endeavor is therefore modest in its form and will primarily rely on liaison officers already in post in Paris.

E2I has also been portrayed as undermining efforts to improve integration in European defense. France has argued, however, that the initiative complements the EU toolkit, while PESCO and the EDF deal with capabilities. There will be no institutional link between PESCO and E2I, and no official joint project between the two frameworks either. Nevertheless, E2I could influence the design of projects, which could advance into a PESCO project format. For instance, “co-basing”—meant to improve the use and sharing of European military bases outside Europe—was discussed and developed in E2I meetings and will be announced on November 20 among the second batch of PESCO projects.

Beyond this, a further conceptual distinction has to be made: the recent EU effort in the domain of defense is meant to improve both the EU’s capability to act and to show a successful side to the European project; E2I’s immediate goal, by contrast, is to answer specific military issues. Its political significance is limited and it should not be viewed through the same lens as major EU initiatives. Unlike PESCO, E2I is not an achievement in itself but a means to an end.

Calibrating France’s Role

Paris is well aware that the success of E2I will depend on France’s ability to listen to partners and prevent the initiative from being perceived purely as a French endeavor. This openness will have to be showcased in both style and content: the next Military European Strategic Talks (MEST), which will set the political guidance and technical processes for E2I, will take place in different capitals, and the working groups will be headed by different countries. On the substance, high-intensity crises in West Africa and the Sahel region—traditional areas of French interest and involvement—cannot appear as the only matters of discussion, as many in Europe suspect. The fact that the first working session was dedicated to a natural disaster crisis in the Caribbean—a scenario presented by the Dutch—came as a welcomed opportunity to prove that all E2I countries can bring their own security concerns to the table.

Perhaps more important though is France’s ability to compromise on entry and participation criteria. For Paris, E2I is meant to remain a “private club” of a limited number of countries—13 to 14 maximum—and the entry process has remained intentionally unclear. As it is neither a capability nor a procurement project, setting quantitative criteria to enter may not be pertinent, and the most important factor should remain a country’s political willingness to address complex operational issues. Finland seems close to signing the Letter of Intent. Other countries may follow, and their integration will constitute a test for the initiative. Indeed, some members such as the United Kingdom and Germany have clearly stated that they wish to have a say on the future constitution of E2I. Other members of E2I have pushed to set more objective rules, and current discussions surrounding the governing principles of the initiative will have to provide clarifications.

The German Question

Germany has been uncomfortable with E2I from the beginning. Whereas the rest of the participating states have accepted the exclusive and non-institutionalized logic of E2I, these adjectives remain an almost philosophical problem for Germany. Wary of causing tensions with countries not party to the initiative and undermining European unity, German officials—especially among the diplomatic corps—are reluctant to multiply the formats outside the EU institutions which they see as crucial to sustaining political momentum. The date of the signature of the Letter of Intent has been postponed several times due to German hesitations, and officials still criticize certain aspects of the initiative while actively slowing its implementation. Yet the participation of Germany in this initiative is crucial for its success and legitimacy in Europe.

For the French, involving the German military in E2I is also a way to influence the German strategic culture. There is support for the project at the highest political level from Chancellor Angela Merkel and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, for the sake of the Franco-German partnership and to avoid sending a negative signal to Germany’s European partners. At the military level, there is a clear understanding of the operational value and modest scope of E2I. Still, the German diplomatic corps and policy-making establishment are reluctant to let the Bundeswehr do military-to-military cooperation without diplomatic supervision.

By empowering the military and giving them arguments to convince the diplomatic corps and political leadership, E2I could contribute to the ongoing debate on Germany’s operational role for European defense. This evolution, however, will only be possible if the larger German strategic community embraces this initiative.

Success without Deliverables

All participating countries agree that the success of E2I is about creating a dynamic rather than quantifiable results. Despite Macron’s original grand rhetoric, E2I is not meant to be revolutionary, but it does have the potential to shake things up at the working-level. Part of a small-step policy, its success will not be measured on the same scale as flagship projects for Europe, but rather as useful for a working group for professionals. At the same time, it holds the potential to become a motor for more strategic convergence between European militaries in practice.

In Paris, E2I will be deemed a success if the core group of Europeans tackle the next crisis together better than Mali in 2013. The outcome will be seen in practice, be it during the 2019 hurricane season in the Caribbean – purpose of the Dutch-led working group – or during the next armed conflict in a region where European interests are at stake. Better intelligence and situational awareness exchange, alongside a raised level of preparedness based on better knowledge of one another’s procedures and contingency planning could become a game changer in the next few years. Thanks to its flexible and light structure, E2I will not require much time to be established, and several participating countries noted that the intensified exchanges between liaison officers have already been useful.

A successful E2I would also contribute to the French pursuit of European strategic autonomy. The dynamic created by the initiative is meant to trickle down to other European and transatlantic defense cooperation frameworks. It will notably make Europeans more aware of how much they still rely on the United States operationally for the defense of their own interests. To that end, the exercise of contingency planning in a small group and without American assets should be an eye-opener.

Expectations, however, do need to be managed. Europe does not need another project that, if it fails, risks hindering the current European defense momentum and reinforcing US discontent with the state of transatlantic burden-sharing.

As a platform for strategic discussions and intelligence sharing, the success of E2I may be difficult to sell politically. Results in both the short and long-term will often remain unknown to the public, and communication is likely to remain minimal. As such, a key effort should be made to better explain the initiative to the German and US policy-making communities, as well as to members of both the EU and NATO. A large part of the transatlantic defense community is still unaware of its purpose and may be suspicious to see an additional project competing with existing ones or simply using scarce resources.

Several officials argue that there is no risk of E2I not working because there is “nothing at stake.” Regarding quantifiable goals that is true, as there is nothing tangible at stake in terms of capabilities not developed or deadlines missed—so Paris could get away with some symbolic proof of success. But the success of E2I takes an obvious political significance, as President Macron will need to show that he can deliver on the European stage. A lot is thus at stake in terms of political and strategic credibility: France’s role as bridge-builder to the UK and natural leader of post-Brexit European defense efforts, and Germany’s operational role in European defense.

A short article based on this research was published on the BPJ website on October 15, 2018.