Elie Perot, Programme Director, Brussels School of Governance / Vrije Universiteit Brussel
In recent years France has been at the forefront of the debates over the role which should be assigned to Article 42(7) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) – a clause which provides in principle for solidarity between EU member states in the case of armed aggression against one of them. In August 2018, President Emmanuel Macron called in particular for ‘giving more substance’ to this provision, arguing that ‘Europe [could] no longer entrust its security to the United States alone’ and that ‘it [was] up to us to assume our responsibilities and to guarantee European security and thereby sovereignty.’ A few days later, the French head of state further explained that such an initiative should lead, in his view, to ‘a kind of strengthened Article 5 [a reference to NATO’s own collective defence clause] marking a very strong solidarity between EU countries in terms of defence.’
French ambitions regarding Article 42(7) TEU should not come as a surprise. Strengthening this clause is an objective that is indeed very much in line with traditional French thinking regarding EU security and defence policy, which, in the eyes of Paris, should aim for a high level of military ambition while remaining essentially intergovernmental in nature. It should be remembered, moreover, that it was France, together with Germany, that pushed in the first place, during the Intergovernmental Conference preparing the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, for the adoption of a mutual defence clause at the EU level – a provision which eventually entered into force in December 2009, with the Lisbon Treaty.
Yet, beyond these long-standing political and institutional preferences, France’s unique experience with Article 42(7) TEU can also explain why the country today arguably attaches more importance to this provision than most of its EU partners. France indeed remains the first and so far the only EU member state to have invoked this clause, in the wake of the terrorist attacks that took place in and around Paris in November 2015.
At the time, the French authorities did not expect that very concrete results (such as the launching of a new military operation) would follow from their request for assistance. France’s European partners nonetheless made tangible, even if often limited, additional contributions to the fight against terrorism in response. Some, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, did so directly, by stepping up their military actions in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State group, and others indirectly, by increasing their participation in other international missions, for instance in the Sahel or the Levant, so as to free up French military resources for redeployment elsewhere.
But the main effect sought by the French government in invoking Article 42(7) TEU was political, not military. The immediate goal was to raise Europeans’ awareness of the common threat posed by Islamist terrorism, as President François Hollande had argued that ‘the enemy [was] not an enemy of France’ but ‘an enemy of Europe’. At the same time, the invocation of the EU mutual defence clause (rather than NATO’s Article 5 in particular) served to send a broader signal to Europeans that they needed to assume greater responsibility for their own defence. Finally, it was deemed useful to demonstrate, if only symbolically, that the rest of the EU unanimously stood by France in times of need. Thus, as Jean-Yves Le Drian, then the French defence minister, admitted, France’s decision to invoke Article 42(7) of the TEU in November 2015 was ‘a political act above all’.
Since then, Paris has repeatedly stressed that lessons needed to be drawn from this seminal episode. The first invocation of Article 42(7) TEU indeed highlighted the total absence of practical planning at the EU level and, therefore, the risk that the EU mutual defence clause could prove to be an empty commitment in times of crisis – especially in the event of a larger-scale armed aggression or if the next target were to be a smaller member state without enough resources to coordinate the assistance provided by its European partners.
French policymakers have accordingly argued in recent years for the EU mutual defence clause to be made more operational. In addition to President Macron’s calls to strengthen Article 42(7) TEU, the French Senate, for instance, suggested in a report published in July 2019 that one should reflect on the future circumstances in which this provision could be invoked and the possible modalities of assistance, not only on a bilateral basis but also at the EU level, recommending, moreover, to give an information and coordination role to an EU institution, such as the High Representative, in case of a new activation of this provision. In a similar vein, in May 2020 the French defence minister Florence Parly, in a joint letter with her counterparts from Germany, Italy and Spain, stressed ‘the importance of European solidarity to act and react to crises’, indicating that ‘[a] key work, in that regard, will be the operationalisation of the Article 42(7) of the TEU.’ The four defence ministers further stated that ‘[r]egular scenario-based discussions, wargames and exercises could help reach a common perspective on the possible threats and bolster the political interactions among our capitals’, arguing that ‘[s]uch tabletop exercises should cover all possible worst-case scenarios of crisis.’
The concerns highlighted by France and its partners regarding the lack of operationalisation of Article 42(7) TEU have begun to be addressed at the EU level. Various table-top exercises and scenario-based policy discussions have thus been organised in recent months to generate a better common understanding among EU member states of the role that Article. 42(7) TEU could play in addressing future contingencies.
The French Presidency of the Council in the first half of 2022 could also constitute an important milestone in this respect. It is indeed during that period that EU member states are expected to adopt the ‘Strategic Compass’, a politico-military strategy which should provide guidance, inter alia, on the issue of Article 42(7) TEU, as part of the EU’s objective to improve its resilience to future threats. There has been talk, in addition, of the possibility of adopting a separate declaration during the French Presidency that would be specifically devoted to Article 42(7) TEU. The possible content of this declaration as well as its relation with the Strategic Compass remain rather vague to date, however, since almost nothing has been officially disclosed in this regard – even on the part of France, which is said to be the origin of this initiative.
In any case, it is unlikely that the French Presidency of the Council will mark the end of the debate surrounding Article 42(7) TEU between France and its European partners.
There is, first of all, the difficult question of the division of labour to be achieved with NATO. Should the EU mutual defence clause indeed focus solely on terrorist, cyber or hybrid attacks, thereby leaving de facto more serious scenarios to NATO? Or should Article 42(7) TEU also be geared towards responding to situations in which the Atlantic Alliance cannot play a role, for example in the event of armed aggression against non-NATO EU members such as Finland or Cyprus or in the case of a deadlock within NATO, bearing in mind that such an orientation could logically lead the EU to have to prepare for high-intensity warfare? While France may be willing to explore both options, it is likely that many of its European partners are, by contrast, only comfortable at present with the first option, either because they consider that ‘real’ collective defence should only be discussed within NATO, or because they wish to preserve their tradition of military neutrality.
Even more controversial, however, is the question of what should be done in case of an intra-NATO conflict between an EU member state and a non-member. Such a situation may seem far-fetched, but this is precisely the scenario that arose in the summer of 2020, when Greece and Turkey were on the brink of war in the Eastern Mediterranean. In these tense circumstances, the Greek government explicitly referred to Article 42(7) TEU. Yet, with the exception of France, which sent warships and fighter aircraft to the region, few EU member states seemed prepared at the time to defend Athens against Ankara if push came to shove. This, in turn, probably goes some way to explaining why France and Greece decided to sign a ‘strategic partnership’ in September 2021 which, quite remarkably, includes a bilateral collective defence clause. Although such a clause can be presented, as Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and President Macron have done, as paving the way for stronger solidarity among European countries in the realm of collective defence, this can also be seen as a way for Greece and France to circumvent Article 42(7) TEU because of the difficulties that would almost certainly arise in mobilising other European countries in the event of conflict with Turkey.
Finally, it is important to realise that Article 42(7) TEU, beyond its technical aspects, may also serve in France as a catalyst for a broader debate about the finalité of the European Union.
President Macron, in particular, seems to consider that the EU will only be complete as a political project once strong mechanisms of solidarity in the defence domain will have been established as well. In August 2018 the French head of state indeed justified his proposal to strengthen the EU mutual defence clause by stating that this represented in his opinion ‘what we owe to each other and what we owe to Europe to make it a reality for each member state and each of our citizens’. Likewise, during a trip to the Baltic states and Poland in February 2020, the French leader argued that he would ‘be happy the day when Poles say to themselves: “the day I am attacked, I know that Europe will protect me”, because then the attachment to Europe [le sentiment européen] will be indestructible.’
It is true that European integration has so far moved forward by carefully avoiding any clear-cut answer as to its final purpose. When it comes to defence, however, one should count on the French to keep putting the issue on the table.