“An Obligation of Aid and Assistance” – France, the EU and NATO After the Paris Attacks

Commentary by Kirsten WILLIAMS

In the days following the horrific Paris attacks, whilst the world’s media were scrambling to analyse the dubious ‘facts’ and ‘sources’ trickling through the internet, Europe’s politicians were making EU history. On Tuesday 17th, France invoked Article 42.7 of the Treaty of the European Union for the first time ever.

Article 42.7 is the mutual defence clause of the European Union, and no member state has used it before. It states the following: “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…This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States”.

Because this is the first time the clause has been invoked, the scenarios are myriad. The most certain statement is that it will change the EU’s role in combatting terrorism permanently.

Lights on the Eiffel Tower in Paris those who lost their lives on the night of Friday 13th November - by Kirsten Williams
Views of the Eiffel Tower at dusk in Paris, by Kirsten Williams

Interestingly, however, the EU institutions do not even have to be involved in whatever actions France and its allies take next. This is something the clause explicitly provides for: it does not mention the EU, but rather Member States. France is likely to cooperate more closely with particular states, paving the way for an increasingly ‘multispeed’ EU. This is especially reinforced by the second part of the clause, that “the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States” will not be prejudiced: in other words, neutral EU member states are not required to give up their status. It also raises serious questions about the EU’s non-existant military infrastructure. Invoking Article 42 is, as Federica Mogherini announced, a “political” move, reminding the EU member states of their commitments and perhaps in response to criticisms of France’s unilateral decisions in francophone Africa.

Interestingly, France chose not to invoke Article 222 of the Treaty, which specifically provides for terrorist attacks:  “The Union and its Member States shall act jointly in a spirit of solidarity if a Member State is the object of a terrorist attack or the victim of a natural or man-made disaster. The Union shall mobilise all the instruments at its disposal, including the military resources made available by the Member States”. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, this article was written in order to provide for states unable to cope with an attack. For example, Slovenia toyed with invoking this article at the peak of the migration crisis, arguing that it was a ‘man made disaster’. France’s advanced security provisions mean that demanding to use Article 222 might have met with some resistance. More importantly, this article envisages the heavy involvement of both the Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs. That means lengthy deliberation, whereas Article 42.7 circumvents much of this bureaucratic delay. In addition, the rhetoric of President Hollande is clear: France is “at war”, echoing George’s Bush’s speech in 2001. Of course, there are concerns that this paints IS as an efficient, coordinated army, a knowable enemy – and what we have learnt so far is that it is unlike previous enemies.

France's President François Hollande is having to lead his country through its second terror attack of 2015 - Public domain
France’s President François Hollande is having to lead his country through its second terror attack of 2015 – Public domain

For all his warrior talk, Hollande did not request to activate NATO’s famous Article 5, as the US did after 9/11 to begin the “war on terror” and NATO intervention in Afghanistan? Why use EU legislation at all if France will not involve EU institutions? According to the French Ambassador to the US, NATO does not have the “political legitimacy to handle this crisis”.  When asked to elaborate on this he pointed out that NATO was seen as being “the alliance of the Crusaders…and the enemy of Russia”. Whether we agree with this rather broad brushstroke or not, the mention of Russia is important. In recent weeks, relations between the West and Russia have slowly thawed with both sides showing increasing willingness to cooperate regarding Syria. Bringing NATO into play would likely imply some form of Russian retaliation, and certainly reversing the progress made recently. How could NATO be expected to coordinate with Russia on this crisis, while the entrenched conflict in Ukraine continues to cause misery for thousands in the region? In any case, NATO’s Article 5 states that signatories must “assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, [taking] such action as it deems necessary”. This means that each state could choose the extent and the form of the assistance it provides – which could be counterproductive. NATO members have no coherent answer to ISIS. Involving the Alliance would mean chaos and hostility.

In any case, operating within the loose confines of the EU without having to look to EU institutions will raise questions about the direction of the Union. The decision not to involve NATO has implications for the future of the Treaty Alliance, and for relations with Russia. The attacks on Paris have not only changed the lives of those affected. They will change the international security landscape of the future.

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