On Monday, President Hollande invoked the mutual defence and solidarity clause in the European treaty, which commits all member states to respond to armed aggression on the territory of one ‘by all the means in their power’ (code for including military force). Yesterday morning, EU defence ministers met in Brussels. Speaking to the press afterwards, French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian declared himself satisfied. Without exception, his colleagues had pledged their assistance.
But what does that mean in practice? Le Drian did not conceal that this was ‘first and foremost a political act’. He and Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, emphasised that this was the first time the clause had been invoked. As for the details of what the assistance might comprise – that would be worked out by France in follow-up bilateral contacts with other member states. But all had pledged to help according to their means.
No doubt the French would like more Europeans to join the air campaign against IS in Syria. And conceivably the British now might: David Cameron has just told the UK parliament that he will ‘make the case’ for doing so, in the context of a ‘comprehensive strategy’ for dealing with IS. But to be persuasive he will have to suggest smarter ways of using air power than just bombing Raqqa because it is ‘the head of the snake’. Doubts are widespread about the utility of seeking to ‘degrade’ an organisation like IS from the air, embedded as they are in the civilian population of the Euphrates valley. Many fear intensified bombing would actually be counter-productive, feeding the IS narrative of oppression by ‘crusaders’, and delaying the day when the local Sunni tribes decide they have had enough of being run by murderous fanatics. And Cameron’s ‘comprehensive strategy’ will have to make clear how British air strikes in Syria will advance rather than set back the chances, reflected in the Vienna agreement last week, that international community and regional powers may finally be uniting in the desire to see an end to Syria’s long nightmare.
And, after Paris, other European capitals will be weighing the risks of similar attacks on their own territory if they follow France into the air campaign in Syria.
Maybe it was with this in mind that Le Drian emphasised that help could come in many forms. France was militarily stretched even before the new domestic emergency, with forces already deployed in Mali, Lebanon, the Central African Republic and other places. “France cannot do everything by itself”. So material and logistic support would be welcome – but so too would force contributions in some of these other theatres, to ‘back-fill’ for French troops now required elsewhere.
This last point is shrewd, and well-aimed. In recent years, Europe’s pretensions to run a common defence and security policy focussed on crisis-management and peace-keeping missions has looked increasingly threadbare. Crises have come and gone, and other Europeans have sat on their hands, leaving it to France to take the necessary action. (Or indeed the US; despite Obama’s desire to re-focus on the Asia Pacific, it is America which has 300 troops in West Africa helping the fight against Boko Haram, not Europe.) This has not only sold short the European ambition to count for something in the wider world; it has also been woefully short-sighted.
The EU is now in danger of pulling itself apart over the refugee crisis. In recent weeks the focus has understandably been on Syria. But the trans-Mediterranean migration flows remain half of the problem, fuelled by the many African conflicts which the UN has run out of resources to try to control. With Africa’s population set to increase dramatically over coming decades, Europeans need to do everything in their power to ensure local peace and prosperity if those populations are not to keep on coming north.
So France’s crisis, which other Europeans have declared is their crisis too, is also an opportunity: to repair the damage done by all the in-fighting over refugees by a display of real and effective solidarity; and to get European militaries doing what they should have been doing anyway, which is pitching in to help with peace-keeping and conflict prevention tasks south of the Sahara. Everyone knows that addressing problems at source in the ‘countries of origin and transit’ has to be part of the response to the refugee crisis; here is the chance to do it, whist giving France the help it has asked for. It will be sad if this opportunity is buried under an exclusive political focus on whether or not to drop a few bombs on Raqqa.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.