17 November 2015

An unprecedented move

As anticipated by President François Hollande in his address to both houses of the French parliament yesterday, France has decided to trigger Article 42(7) of the Treaty on the European Union – commonly known as the EU ‘mutual defence clause’ – in the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris. The decision was unanimously backed by a meeting of EU defence ministers this morning.

Article 42(7) TEU reads,

If a member state is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other member states shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain member states. Commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, for those states which are members of it, remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation.

France’s move is indeed significant – not least because it is the first time this clause is invoked since it was introduced as part of the Lisbon Treaty. However, we should not get ahead of ourselves in terms of what this means for the future of a common European defence policy – especially since it remains to be seen exactly what will materialise out of this request.

France goes intergovernmental

In addition to this ‘mutual defence clause’, the Lisbon Treaty also includes a ‘solidarity clause’ – Article 222 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). One key difference between the two is that the latter explicitly says that “the [European] Union and its members shall act jointly” – therefore envisaging a specific role for the EU institutions – if a member state “is the object of a terrorist attack or the victim of a natural or man-made disaster”. In other words, France has chosen the more intergovernmental of the two options available – in line with the country’s historical preference.

The important implication is that pretty much everything will happen at bilateral level. France will explain to its EU counterparts what types of support it is looking for, and every EU member state will make its own pledge – in line with its possibilities and strategic views. No EU mission will be launched under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). The EU will only act as a ‘facilitator’.

How might the “aid and assistance” look?

In theory, support can come in all kind of different forms – from greater intelligence cooperation to technical/logistic assistance and air strikes. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters in Brussels that France would be happy to either be helped in Syria or in other theatres where it is currently engaged. We will probably know more details after the round of bilateral meetings France is planning to hold with all its EU partners.

One thing is certain: Article 42(7) TEU does not mean EU member states can be forced to carry out air strikes on Syria or deploy troops on the ground against their will. It will be interesting to see how other EU countries will respond when it comes to discussing the details of the “aid and assistance” they are now expected to provide to France.

Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz, for instance, said this morning that Spain is not planning to bomb Syria for the time being. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has told MPs that he is going to set out a “comprehensive strategy” – including extending air strikes on Syria.

Why not NATO?

Questions have also been raised as to why France did not invoke Article 5 of the NATO Treaty instead. Again, we should not rush to the conclusion that France is trying to ‘snub’ NATO and replace it with some sort of common European defence organisation. This is unlikely to be on the cards anytime soon. Furthermore, Article 42(7) TEU makes it clear that NATO “remains the foundation” of the collective defence of those EU member states that are also NATO members.

One can indeed argue that Paris is trying to show that European countries can respond to crises in their neighbourhood by themselves – hardly a surprising message, coming from France, but a potentially important one nonetheless. That said, the US is already involved in Syria – so in that sense France can already count on its support without having to go via the NATO route. Had the US not already been involved, perhaps things would have been different.

There is also a final question as to what more triggering Article 42(7) TEU actually means. Put differently: it seems obvious that all EU member states would have offered to help France in any case. Will the use of Article 42(7) TEU push other EU countries to bring anything more to the table or put any additional pressure on them to take further action? It is hard to say, but given some of the caveats and the many political sensibilities and issues at play (for example around air strikes on Syria) it is not immediately clear that it will.

For the time being, the activation of Article 42(7) TEU throws up more questions than answers. Namely, why did France go down this route and how will other EU member states react? Only time will tell.