By Hylke Dijkstra

The French President François Hollande surprised many observers by invoking, for the first time in the history of the EU, the so-called ‘mutual defence clause’. This obscure Article 42.7 obliges all member states to provide aid and assistance to other member states in the case of an armed attack. Last Monday, the EU agreed unanimously. The question is why Hollande chose this EU-option and not the famous NATO Article 5 (an attack against one is an attack against all). After all, NATO Article 5 was used after the terrorist attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001.

The first point is that France has a complicated relationship with NATO. Until 1966, the NATO headquarters was located in France. But President Charles de Gaulle was not pleased with the American dominance within NATO. He ordered NATO to leave. France also withdraw from the military command structure. After long diplomatic negotiations, France eventually returned to NAVO in 2009. This decision by President Nicolas Sarkozy was, however, contested. Particularly for many of the (traditional) French socialists it remains a topic of debate. And those French socialists are currently in power.

The complicated relationship between France and NATO was also evident during the military intervention in Libya in 2011. This intervention started as an ad hoc coalition of France, the United Kingdom and the United States. The possibility of a handover to NATO was quickly raised, as NATO has the appropriate institutional structures. France was, however, skeptical at the time. It was wary that other NATO allies such as Germany, Poland and Turkey would get an important say over the intervention. France rather preferred to carry out the Libyan operation only with like-minded states in coalition format. After two weeks of intense negotiations, NATO was eventually put in charge of the operation in Libya. Yet France only agreed, if the political decisions concerning the future of Libya would be taken outside the context of NATO. In other words, only the tried-and-tested NATO ‘machinery’ would be used.

Against this background, it is logical that France did not immediately consider NATO after the Paris attacks. With the exception of the United States, few NATO allies actually agree with France on the military actions to be taken against ISIS in Syria. Within NATO, France is thus likely to find even less support than during the Libyan intervention. The United Kingdom, for example, only wants to bomb ISIS in Iraq and not in Syria. This is a politically sensitive matter. Prime Minister David Cameron lost a vote on Syria in the House of Commons back in 2013. With the arrival of a new Labour opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, support for military intervention in Syria is at an all-time low. Canada is also hardly supportive. The new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made clear that Canada will withdraw from the international coalition against ISIS. The Germans furthermore still believe in diplomatic solutions. As if we can open an embassy in Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS.Turkey is also a member of NATO. And Turkey regards the Kurds as the number one enemy. Since the Kurds are actually also fighting against ISIS, Turkey is an inconsistent ally at best. Finally, NATO consists of many Central and Eastern European member states. These countries are worried about Russia; not so much about ISIS terrorists.

NATO Article 5 was thus not an option for France. France, on the other hand, has always been a proponent of military cooperation in the context of the EU. So what does the EU have on offer? Two alternatives.

First, under Article 222, a member state can ask for assistance in the case of a terrorist attack. The problem with this article is that it gives the EU institutions, including the European Commission, a big coordination and implementation role. And in one of the EU institutions, the Council of Ministers, France still has to deal with the Eurosceptic Brits and the pacifist Germans.

France therefore opted for the second option: Article 42.7. While the other member states are required to deliver aid and assistance, the procedure is purely intergovernmental. France remains in charge of the process. The EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini, was very clear on Monday: Article 42.7 does not involve a formal EU decision (or Council conclusions), it results in bilateral consultations between the member states, and the EU can facilitate such coordination (with an emphasis on ‘can’). In other words, the EU gets essentially sidelined.

For France, this is ideal. It provides for solidarity and EU unity. Such symbolism is very important for French and EU citizens and towards the outside world. But in military terms, France will continue its operations as part of the existing international coalition against ISIS. Within this ad hoc coalition, France, the United States and other like-minded countries can essentially do what they want. They can also coordinate relatively easily with Russia, which has become increasingly active in Syria in the last month.

The consequences for the EU will thus be limited. One should, however, not downplay the impact of the French maneuver. In the coming days, French diplomats are likely to start lobbying other EU member states for military assistance. This can be support in the war against ISIS, but also assistance for French military actions elsewhere (e.g. Mali or Central African Republic).

It will be difficult to say ‘no’ to the French. The invocation of Article 42.7 will provide additional pressure. But any such support will be bilateral and go through the appropriate national channels. There is no automatism. The EU is not becoming a military alliance.


Hylke_DijkstraDr. Hylke Dijkstra is Assistant Professor with tenure at Maastricht University, The Netherlands. He is the author of International Organizations and Military Affairs (Routledge, 2016). Follow him on Twitter @DijkstraHylke


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