On November 17, France asked the European Union member states for aid and assistance after the November 13 armed aggression by the self-proclaimed Islamic State group (ISIS) on its territory — and all agreed. The invocation of the EU’s “mutual defense clause” is remarkable in many respects. It is enshrined in Article 42.7 of the EU Treaty, but has never been invoked before. Governments have now committed themselves to comprehensive support.
However, the clause gives leeway as to what exactly counts as support, and it is unclear to what extent governments are legally bound. As in other cases when parts of the EU legal framework are first invoked — such as during the fiscal crisis — what follows is a process of learning on the job with regards to interpretation and political feasibility.
The defense clause does not mean that governments have to choose between the EU and NATO. By invoking it, France consciously chose the EU option that combines the smallest possible role for its supranational institutions with the biggest possible role for EU member states. Article 42.7 is dedicated to defense against armed aggression. Article 222, the so-called “solidarity clause,” is dedicated explicitly to respond to terrorist attack, but French President François Hollande chose not to invoke it. The solidarity clause involves the EU institutions, especially the EU high representative for foreign and security policy. The defense clause, by contrast, centers on interaction among EU member states. Put simply, France had the choice between giving the lead to the EU or to the individual countries, and it opted for the latter, which was reinforced by French statements that further implementation will take place on a bilateral basis with the EU solely acting as facilitator.
Choosing the defense clause demonstrates the classical French approach to European Defense, which Paris traditionally considers to be an intergovernmental affair. By agreeing to 42.7, EU member states also accepted the French interpretation that the November 13 attacks are an act of armed aggression. Moreover, it allows Paris to deal with all governments on a bilateral basis.
This does not mean that France has turned its back on NATO or the United States. Yet, it clearly shows where France thinks it needs support. On issues like internal security, border controls, and civilian counterterrorism measures, the EU and cooperation among EU countries is needed — NATO is limited to military tools. Invoking the EU clause serves as a wake-up call : all EU countries are now forced to pay attention to a problem that some of them preferred to talk down or neglect. If France had invoked NATO’s Article 5, the non-military dimension and the focus of EU attention would not have been as strong.
Moreover, Paris has already secured U.S. military support for the fight against ISIS ; it seeks to forge a grand coalition with support from various countries. NATO would be too small and not appropriate for the task against ISIS. France wants the EU member states to play a role in the wider strategy it is designing : a bigger coalition against ISIS that includes the United States, Russia, and players from the region. Additionally, NATO and the EU institutions are considered too onerous in terms of slowing speedy decision-making and the number of political caveats that would come from capitals.
However, the consequences on the political level are much more important than the nitty gritty of the treaty wording and potential defense commitments. The French call has created a political test case for the Union. In an hour of a serious crisis, France calls not for NATO but for EU support, thus sending a clear signal for national capitals to stand up and defend the political project of the European Union. This happens at a time when the EU is in dire straits as common positions and coordinated action on the euro crisis and the refugee crisis have not been achievable, raising questions about the Union’s political viability.
This initiative presents a challenge to either further desintegrate the Union or to give it the kind of push toward closer cooperation that only a real crisis can create. Europe is only able to deal with its security problems jointly. If in a situation such as this members of the Union do not defend what was originally designed as a defense-related project, this may signal that the EU has lost its value.
Therefore, governments are pressed to deliver. If they deliver along the lines sketched out by France, this could create more solid and institutionalized cooperation among governments. This would not exactly equal deeper integration, since it sidelines EU institutions, but any meaningful gesture of solidarity will be a boon for Europe at the moment.