Europe vs. the Pirates

It may be a quixotic mission, but the European Union’s naval expedition against Somalia’s high-seas troublemakers could be its crucial first step toward becoming an independent military power.


Just as the Barbary pirates hamstrung European monarchs in the early 19th century, their Somali counterparts are proving maddeningly difficult to defeat today. This is a thorny problem, and an intriguing new European initiative may well fail to bring the pirates to heel. Yet it just might bring Europe one step closer to becoming a real military power.

On Dec. 8, the European Union will launch Operation Atalanta, designed to protect shipping from piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Up to six warships from several European countries, along with numerous maritime aircraft, will be involved. The deployment may or may not deter pirates, but it already has Euroskeptics worried. Atalanta represents the latest salvo in the fight over an independent European Union military capabilityand for the moment it appears the French are winning.

The European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) is what amounts to the EUs military wing. Security and defense have historically represented the weakest links in the EU fabric, but in recent years the scope of the ESDP has grown substantially. The EU is currently involved in 14 missions abroad, including the deployment of 3,000 troops to Chad and various other, smaller deployments in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The EU has also created 15 battlegroups, mostly multinational in composition, each consisting of 1,500 soldiers.

Generally speaking, France has consistently pursued a more assertive military role for the EU, while Britain has tried to limit EU-sponsored military cooperation. France sees an independent European military capability as an alternative to NATO, and thus a counterweight to U.S. influence. The British place a strong value on their relationship with the United States, and consequently prefer NATO. At stake in this debate is not only the political balance of power within Europe, but also the character of Europes contribution to international order.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the French have taken a leading role in the fight against piracy. In April, French commandos operating from the helicopter carrier Jeanne d’Arc seized several Somali pirates after paying a ransom. The French arrested more pirates in October, later turning them over to authorities in Puntland.

The French undoubtedly see the fight against piracy as an ideal venue for the application of EU military force. To put it crudely, nobody likes pirates, and nobodylegal niceties asidereally minds too much if you shoot them. Pirates represent a classic enemy of humanity, such that few of the messy questions associated with peacekeeping and peace enforcement (whos the bad guy, are we doing more harm than good, and so forth) arise. Pirates excepted, everyone benefits from cracking down on piracy. And though pirates do shoot back, they present no serious challenge to a modern naval warship, meaning that the EU pays no price in blood. If the EU can conduct successful antipiracy operations, the military prestige of the organization will grow both inside and outside Europe.

Hence, some Euroskeptics are fretting. In the December edition of Warships: International Fleet Review, a British maritime magazine, Conservative MEP and defense spokesman Geoffrey Van Orden challenged the decision to deploy warships under the aegis of the EU, arguing that it will draw from the same navies that are already contributing ships to operations in the area, it will add no value, and cause unnecessary complication, confusion, and duplicationall so that the EU can nail its flag to another military operation and add to the plausibility of its narrative on EU defense policy. Van Orden went on to bemoan the fact that the French Navy has grown larger than the Royal Navy and that the latter no longer has the power to unilaterally sweep the seas of pirates.

Perhaps in response to British concerns, Operation Atalanta will be commanded by a vice admiral from the Royal Navy, Philip Jones. French Defense Minister Herv Morin made the connection between naming a British commander and earning British cooperation on European defense explicit, saying on Nov. 10, Britain is a great maritime power. It is a nice symbol that this operation be commanded by a British officer and from a British headquarters. It is a good symbol of the evolution in European defense, and I would say, of its coming of age.

Both Van Orden and Morin have a point. Its unclear what effect Europes deployment will have on the problem of piracy off the Horn of Africa. Even if the EU contingent significantly increases the number of ships available for fighting pirates, the patrols may not suffice. More ships help, but narrow rules of engagement limit the ability of warships to respond to pirate attacks and to apprehend pirates who have successfully seized ships. Moreover, NATO might have otherwise extended and expanded its Somali mission in the absence of the EU, or the individual states of Europe might have stepped up.

The deployment does, however, reinforce the idea that the European Union is interested in becoming a serious regional security player. Contrary to what the Euroskeptics argue, this might be a good thing. Although the EUs antipiracy efforts could ultimately fail, Operation Atalanta helps put the EU in the useful habit of contributing to international order outside the structure of NATO. The distinction is not merely about substituting one acronym for another: For European domestic constituencies and international audiences, the EU presents a less menacing profile than the U.S.-led NATO, increasing its likelihood of success.

The fight for freedom of the seas also carries a symbolic implication for the maintenance of the international system. Great powers from Rome to the British Empire took action against pirates; the EU stakes a claim to being an international player of consequence by continuing the struggle.

Dr. Robert Farley (@drfarls) is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination.