What does France's invocation of Article 42.7 - the EU's mutual defence provision - mean for the EU and its member states
On Tuesday 17 November, France formally invoked Article 42.7 of the Treaty of European Union. ECFR experts explain what this means.
What is Article 42.7?
Article 42.7 is the mutual defence clause of the Treaty of the European Union. It derives from the Article 5 of the Brussels Treaty that created the Western European Union, a mutual defence organisation which was incorporated in the EU in 2011.
It states that:
“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, in accordance with article 51 of the United Nations charter”
By naming “Member States” as opposed to the EU institutions, it provides for direct country-to-country dialogue and support, rather than involving potentially cumbersome EU institutions.
It was introduced into the Lisbon Treaty at the instigation of those member states who supported a bigger role for the EU on defence matters. Particularly prominent amongst those advocating such an approach was Greece which, although protected by NATO’s similar Article 5 mutual defence clause, wanted an additional level of defence against long-standing rival Turkey, which belongs to NATO but not the EU.
Article 42.7 differs from Article 222 of the Treaty of the EU which pledges solidarity in the face of terrorism, and from Article 5 of NATO.
What does it require member states to do?
At the simplest level, member states are required to provide aid and assistance, although the provisions don’t apply equally to all countries. The article contains the provision that it:
“shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States”
This means that countries with long-standing traditions of neutrality, like Ireland or Sweden, are not required to break these.
The article has never before been invoked so there is little precedent. However, the bilateral nature of the support means that the requirements placed on member states will not be uniform, and will reflect the individual deals struck between Paris and their counterparts.
Why has France chosen to use it?
At his press conference after the EU defence ministers meeting in Brussels on 17 November, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian insisted that France’s invocation of the clause was, more than anything else, a political act. For France, it was a convenient way to call on European solidarity and a framework for this solidarity to be expressed, when Paris had faced domestic criticisms for acting alone in its interventions in Mali (2013) and the CAR (2014). It may also be a way to confront its EU partners with their military responsibilities.
In Europe and even more in the US, some have noted with regret that France opted for this EU mechanism rather than the NATO collective defence clause. There may be several reasons for this. The current coalition against Islamic State (IS) is an ad hoc group of member states, outside formal NATO frameworks. In this sense, invoking Article 42.7, which calls for member states’ individual action, rather than Article 5, which would involve NATO, is consistent with this. In addition, France is not only seeking help in the fight against IS (see below). Also, Paris may have thought that involving NATO could be counter-productive to its current diplomatic efforts with Arab partners and with Russia. Last, if NATO is a military alliance, Article 42.7 specifies “aid and assistance by all the means” in the power of member states, which could prove useful if France makes a choice to call for civilian forms of support with a view to internal security and not only overseas military operations.
What does France want?
France wants support and assistance from its EU partners, and has set out clearly a number of ways in which member states can provide this.
The first is through joining French military action against IS in Syria and Iraq. France is the only EU member state currently taking part to military strikes against IS over Syria. It probably wants to prod others to join this effort, whether directly (through strikes) or not (support i.e. intelligence sharing, logistics).
The other major area that France wants support in is lightening the load on French military forces elsewhere, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where France has ongoing military commitments, mostly in Mali and the CAR.
The French military, while not yet overstretched, does have a number of different deployments, including a major domestic deployment in the face of the terrorist threat. So-called “back-filling” would ease the burden on Paris. This could take several forms: Member states could substitute for French troops currently deployed under the EU flag within Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operations (such as the EU Training Mission in Mali), or alleviate the need for French troops to remain deployed by strengthening UN peacekeeping operations such as MINUSMA in Mali or MINUSCA in the CAR, or provide direct support to French operations oversea (though intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, transport, support, or even maybe combat troops).
How have other member states responded?
Though the invocation of Article 42.7 was unanimously approved in a meeting of EU defence ministers, there remain differences of opinion and interpretation between member states. Among the smaller and/or newer member states, at least, there is a certain amount of head-scratching about what is and will be required of them. France will have to tackle this confusion by addressing its demands directly to its EU partners.
In the UK, traditionally the EU’s other big military player alongside France, Prime Minister David Cameron has once again re-opened the question of expanded British military involvement against IS in Syria, though the domestic politics of intervention remain in a state of deep confusion, with splits in both government and opposition. While domestic politics make a contribution to a CSDP operation unlikely, the UK has recently augmented its troop contribution to UN peacekeeping operations.
While fully signed up to the need for solidarity, Germany awaits more details with trepidation. Following the conflict in Afghanistan, both German public opinion and its political class view with caution the prospect of signing up as a follower to the military intervention in Syria. But Paris is likely to ask for German support in other ways (lately, German engagement in Mali was strengthened).
Spain is traditionally a strong contributor to CSDP operations, with a growing interest in sub-Saharan Africa, and Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo has emphasised its peacekeeping commitments. But, with a looming general election, Spain has clearly communicated that bombing Syria is not an option.
Italy has, so far, been prudent in avoiding use of the word “war”, and a merely military response without further political and diplomatic engagement is unattractive for an Italy keen to avoid a new Libya scenario. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has declared that Italy will not participate directly in armed attacks in Syria but will provide logistic and military support while also reiterating the necessity of the US and Russian engagement.
For Poland, sending troops to Syria or Iraq is a no-go, but whether it will contribute to France’s efforts in Mali or in the Sahel remains open. The recent election of the Law and Justice government, however, seems only to strengthen the pre-existing Polish movement towards territorial defence, rather than expeditionary capacity.
Other countries with significant military capabilities and/or a traditional interest in taking part in CSDP or UN operations – such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden – will also be a priority for engagement by Paris.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.