After the Paris Attacks, France Turns to Europe in its Time of Need

2015 seems to be the year of never-ending crisis for the European Union: Greece nearly left the eurozone in July, hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants have and continue to arrive in Europe, Russian forces remain in eastern Ukraine, and Crimea remains annexed. Thankfully, tensions in Ukraine have been reduced due to the imposition of Western sanctions and a diplomatic process through the Minsk II cease-fire agreement. And thus far, Europe has muddled through these crises that have put its unity under great strain.

Now, another great test is before Europe: How to respond with strength and unity to devastating terrorist attacks planned by the Islamic State and carried out by its accomplices in France on November 13?

For the very first time, an EU member has invoked the mutual defense clause in the EU Treaty (Article 42.7), requiring its fellow EU members to come to aid and assistance in case of an armed aggression against one of them. “France is at war,” as all its political leaders repeated these past few days, and Paris wonders if it can count on its European allies or not.

France could have sought to invoke NATO’s Article 5 collective defense clause. Washington had signaled its willingness to support this measure had France sought it. But Paris’s appetite for a potential NATO operation against the Islamic State—which many would anticipate should NATO’s Article 5 clause be activated—was limited due in part to the belief that: it would have had limited added value to the existing 65 nation coalition-of-the-willing led by the United States; and it would have likely increased tensions with Russia if NATO were introduced into the Syrian military theater. President François Hollande will travel to Moscow on November 26 to secure greater Russian cooperation against the Islamic State.

Paris’s decision, however, should not be interpreted narrowly as a sign of France’s dislike/distrust of NATO. Since its reintegration into NATO’s military structure in 2009, France understands the value of strong French engagement with NATO, as NATO’s military operation in Libya in 2011 showed. Paris simply does not believe that NATO is best placed to address this current challenge right now.

Pragmatically, Paris chose to receive the military and intelligence support it required bilaterally from the United States to intensify its airstrikes campaign against the Islamic State and strengthen its counterterrorism efforts at home. And, as expected from a close ally, Washington responded quickly to French requests. Likewise, what France needs is greater European coordination and collective action—not merely political expressions of sympathy and solidarity. This is why France decided to appeal to EU member states. Article 42.7 of the Treaty on the European Union requires all member states—but not EU institutions—to provide “aid and assistance by all means in their power” if a member state is the victim of an “armed aggression on its territory.” On November 17, Defense Minister Jean-Yves le Drian formally invoked the clause, and EU members accepted it unanimously.

France could have theoretically invoked another article of the European Union’s founding treaties, Article 222 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, a solidarity clause calling “the Union and its member states…to act jointly if a member state is the object of a terrorist attack.” Under this article, EU institutions will “mobilize all the instruments at [their] disposal, including the military resources made available by the member states.” Paris likely wanted to avoid this longer EU process to accelerate the assistance it seeks from its EU partners. While both Article 42.7 and Article 222 leave considerable flexibility on how to respond to the crisis, what is politically important is that France invoked European solidarity in the first place.

Paris believes it is time that Europe focuses more efficiently on the terrorism challenge, as well as on security and defense in general. France has been conducting extensive counterterrorism military operations in the Sahel and the Middle East with limited resources—not greater than those of the United Kingdom or Germany from a financial standpoint—and largely on its own, on behalf of and to the benefit of European security. Now France must focus more of its military resources to defend France and to enlarge the military campaign against the Islamic State. There are limits to what it can do in addition to what it is currently doing. It therefore needs assistance from Europe, both to complement its ongoing military operations outside of Europe and to reinforce in Europe collective counterterrorist tools necessary to prevent future attacks.

Europeans leaders have many reasons to enhance their cooperation with France to defeat the Islamic State, as future terrorist attacks will not be limited to French territory. The modus operandi of the Paris attacks, which remain fluid and unclear, have demonstrated that terrorist cells used Europe’s open internal border between France and Belgium to coordinate and plan the attacks. The lack of effective control at Europe’s external border (the Schengen area) undermines the efforts made nationally to monitor the movement of European foreign fighters traveling to and from Iraq or Syria. European leaders have spent countless hours trying to figure out a strategy to take care of the refugees and migrants but have spent very little time coordinating a collective answer to enhanced internal security and addressing the root causes of the migration crisis, specifically the Syrian war.

It is unclear how exactly EU members will assist France. Paris hasn’t been very specific about what it seeks beyond repeating the need for Europe to share the burden of collective defense. President Hollande announced on November 16 that all reductions to the Ministry of Defense’s budget until 2019 will be cancelled. He expects understanding from other European leaders why France will therefore be unable to remain under the budget deficit and debt limits established by EU budgetary rules. Hollande strongly stated this week that “the security pact now prevails over the stability pact.” Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, acknowledged on November 17 that France’s exceptional security expanses would not be accounted for in France’s upcoming budgets. It will be interesting to hear Berlin’s reaction to France’s budgetary request, as Germany has been adamant that EU budgetary rules be followed but much less forthcoming on the contribution of military force to resolve Europe’s ongoing security challenges.

France will also be looking to its partners for enhanced European participation in operations in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State, as Paris deploys its sole aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle, in the Eastern Mediterranean. In order to lessen pressure on the French military, France would also welcome European military forces to alleviate French forces in ongoing military operations in which it is engaged elsewhere, be it in the Central African Republic, the Sahel, or Lebanon.

Unfortunately for France, Europeans do not seem to share the sense that Europe is at war. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has spoken of complete solidarity with France but has been silent on material military support, and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has stated that, “talking about war would constitute a first success for the Islamic State.” Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy has acknowledged that France suffered a “military attack” but underlined that “Italy wasn’t at war,” which contradicts the notion of collective defense. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain—who is up for reelection on December 20—also has rejected the notion of war, although Madrid stands ready to assist France.

EU countries already engaged in airstrikes in Iraq, such as Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands, aren’t necessarily comfortable with France’s tough rhetoric either, but they have offered to support French efforts militarily. Likewise, other EU member states, such as Poland, have publicly supported France but have not made concrete offers of assistance. Eastern European members understand there must be a “two-way street” regarding European solidarity, as their security concerns come from the East via Russia rather than from the South.

Beyond military assistance, France hopes that activating the mutual defense clause could create additional momentum to reinforce several EU counterterrorist tools that could help prevent further attacks. An extraordinary meeting of EU interior ministers to be held on November 20 will review existing proposals to reinforce controls at Schengen external borders, strengthen mechanisms to control firearms across the European Union, and establish an EU sharing mechanism for personal name record (PNR) data.

Europeans don’t agree on the relative contribution of using military force, in comparison to other external action tools at Europe’s disposal, to achieve stabilization in their neighborhood. But they need to acknowledge that France’s long-standing commitment to project military power has benefited the security of European countries—and of the United States for that matter. The logical conclusion they should draw is that they need to assist France in all ways available to them as required by the EU founding treaties. This is in all Europeans’ fundamental interests. The Paris attacks must be a wake-up call, or further nightmares will take place elsewhere in Europe.

Simond de Galbert is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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