Forging a European resolve

In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris, Hollande has redoubled attempts to break ISIS, but how should the EU as a whole respond while maintaining its core values?

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What happened in Paris was done by terrorists equipped and trained for war. Indeed, a fragmentary war has now arrived in Europe.

It is of course an unconventional war, where the goal is to gain the psychological upper hand by spreading terror through carnage. France was likely targeted for its (sometimes lone) determination to act militarily against Islamic State (IS) – as with al-Qaeda, from Afghanistan and Mali to Iraq and now Syria.  But rather than its strategic assets, it was its football stadium, cafés and concert halls – all symbols of French social life, youth and ethnic diversity – which were targeted.

Our response will have to include military action. Containing IS has failed, not in a territorial sense but because it is too easy to move back and forth from its strongholds. IS’s ability to plot, fund and carry out attacks on civilians, whether in Europe or in the Middle East, must be targeted.  

Our goals should be concrete and limited. There is no easy solution to a regional crisis that is destroying states, pitting faiths against one another and rewarding the cruellest actors.  But Europeans should end the delusion that non-intervention is a viable posture when Yazidis and Christians are being mass murdered, when terrorist attacks are committed against civilians in Beirut or on Russian civilian airplanes. Without forward defence, there is a risk that a battle without end will be fought at home.

Yet there can be no successful military action without a calibration of its means, its diplomatic aspects, and a strategic vision of what we want to achieve – and what is unnecessary. Air strikes can wear down an enemy, but they cannot defeat it by themselves. To go further – and that means a ground action with UN approval – necessitates a regional convergence. Isolating IS also requires political compromise with the regional backers of the uprising against Assad, that is, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, as well as with Iran and Russia, who until now provided Assad with a political cover for waging his war on civilians.  

There is no political solution to the problem that IS poses. But there is no viable military intervention without a regional compromise involving the Syrian people and the backers of various contenders for power in Syria.

If we want to avoid regressive solutions like moving towards a surveillance state or “closing borders”, we need policies that meet the challenge at the European level.

The regional actors – from Iran to Saudi Arabia, via Turkey and the Kurds – are bitterly opposed and cannot reach a compromise. The United States has infinitely larger military means than Europe, but raises the suspicions of many. Russia has interests in one camp, and a more finite military capacity. Europeans must step into the diplomatic breach.  Those of us who have the military means and political will should be part of a military coalition, while others should support a diplomatic process aiming to reach a compromise in Syria. The opportunity should be seized with Russia and Iran, who may be realising the limitations of military action and the price of feeding the terrorist threat by suppressing any political perspective.

Much of the secular and educated elements of the region’s population are now on the run – towards Europe. Their coming reveals our failure to prevent the catastrophic fall of the Middle East. The refugee crisis originates in the region, but it is now Europe’s problem too. We can take a million refugees – into a population of more than 500 million – and we need to do a better job at supporting countries like Lebanon that are hosting a million refugees with a population of only four million. By doing so, we will also be in a better position to pressure the rich regional actors and persuade global partners to step up to the crisis.

The challenge for Europe is also domestic, because psychological warfare relies on European recruits. The terrorist challenge may have been taken seriously at the national level, but it has been seriously underestimated at the collective European level. We are still discussing a passenger registration system (PNR) that was formally agreed on in 2004 after the Madrid bomb attacks – but never implemented. Frontex’s response to the refugee crisis – which requires, at the minimum, the expansion of identity checks and separation of those with questionable identities – has yet to be set up. Curtailing trading in small – and not so small – arms in Europe has not been prioritised. Strictly enforcing European laws and regulations against the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons that are proliferating on European territory must be a key dimension of the European response.

Exchange of information at the European level, agreed on after the January attack in Paris, is still pending. Bilateral cooperation is the next best option, but the inability of Europe to agree, much less to implement an agreement, is politically destabilising.

It has been said that this attack is a war on our values. Yes, IS makes use of alienation within our societies. But it attacks anything that differs from its own views, whether it is our values, or Erdoğan’s and Putin’s slow moves towards action. That’s why we need a coalition. We should welcome asylum seekers and sustain a major humanitarian effort as per our international responsibilities. We need to make clear that the Gulf’s military adventure in Yemen or Egypt’s brutal crackdown on its civil society do not play well in the fight against terrorism. Europe’s solidarity, even if it is requested by treaty, will only become significant through force of political will. At home, we must tackle the exclusion of certain communities and de facto job discrimination as decisively as we fight hate-mongers and terror recruiters.

If we want to avoid regressive solutions like moving towards a surveillance state or “closing borders”, we need policies that meet the challenge at the European level.  Accepting refugees and redistributing their flow requires efficient external borders and security cooperation, and diplomatic investment in a Syrian solution that ends the refugee outflow requires a military drive to defeat IS. Time is short, because in democracies voters are the judges.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Deputy Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Paris
Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Paris
Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Programme Coordinator and Policy Fellow

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