In the aftermath of ISIL-claimed attacks that shattered Paris in the night of Friday 13 a common – and immediate – response by the EU Member States to the largest offense since Madrid attacks in 2004 seemed all but an option. The decision by President François Hollande to boost air bombings on ISIL strongholds in Raqqa reinforced the impression of being watching a, much emotive and less concerted, unilateral reaction by a country wounded at its heart. Perspective of getting a serious involvement by European countries that struggled to take their stake in Middle-East context since the very beginning of the Syrian civil war appeared even more unlikely now in the face of retaliation perpetrated on the European soil.
What happened yesterday in Brussels showed this partly wrong, bringing unexpected development in the European defense and security policy.
After President Hollande declared France “a victim of an act of war”, Defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian asked his European colleagues to provide France with “aid and assistance” according to article 42.7 of the Treaty on the European Union, a solidarity provision in case of armed aggression to a Member State. After months spent stuttering on the migration crisis, EU countries agreed to the French request by a unanimous vote, putting into practice this clause for the first time since it was introduced in the Lisbon Treaty.
Long considered by academics as a hidden but useful tool for the EU to be considered a global security actor, article 42.7 leads to unexplored lands: as national officers remarked, it is now up to bilateral negotiations to define what each Member State can provide France with, ranging from military support to logistics and intelligence cooperation.
For instance, France shouldn’t expect any military intervention by German allies, since Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Stenmeier recalled on an hearing at the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee that “military action alone will not be sufficient in overcoming the problem”. He may be right: months of bombings by US-lead coalition on Syria and Iraq may have played a crucial role in avoiding ISIL gaining ground, and even pushing it back, but they are still far from being a game changer. President Obama joined Germans in declaring that he sees no reason for changing strategy and sending boots on the ground. That is enough to explain why French officials decided to raise their demand at EU level instead of NATO.
Although, Hollande seems to have found someone else having his back: recently intervened on the Syrian stage to preserve the stability of Assad regime from supposed Western plots, Putin’s Russia is now deploying fleet in the Mediterranean to support French aerial raids. France and Russia will be “allied”, president Putin said: something unseen since the Franco-Russian alliance enduring from 1892 to 1917.
After all, a look to the past should be well worth to understand yesterday choice and avoid old mistakes. Calling allies to the duty of a “war on terror” sets very little difference between today Hollande and George W. Bush in 2001. As for article 42.7 making its debut, it was 9/11 that leaded US to invoke for the first time the common defense clause under article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. What happened after is well known – even the French refusal to join the coalition in 2003 intervention in Iraq – and has much to do with the context in which ISIL spread out, mainly due to the absence of a long term strategy for stabilization and democratization in conflict areas.
Depriving ISIL from victory at home may be a good way to reduce the influence it is spreading on radicalized islamists around Europe but it is only a battle of a campaign largely set on a European field. Stronger common intelligence networks should be created, on the model of Eurojust and Europe, as proposed by Belgian MEP and former prime minister Guy Verhofstadt. Furthermore, with President Hollande asking to amend Constitution with special transitional powers, much more public debate should be promoted about the balance between security and liberty, in order to avoid those black holes that ended up in surveillance scandal and in a weakening of Western credibility.
…and what should be expected
Article 42.7 will not automatically bring other European countries at war against ISIL, nor it implies a military mission under the EU flag: as said, bilateral negotiation will be setup to discuss the engagement of the allies. Even so, a first outcome has already been achieved: reinstating hope in the ability of the EU of taking at least strong common political decision, that may well prove useful in a war that is battled with strong symbolic means. Interventions will be carried out within the legal basis provided by article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, under which individual or collective self-defense measures are stated, even without the direct involvement of NATO.