France’s decision to trigger the EU’s mutual defence clause after the Paris attacks may persuade European partners to provide military aid in Iraq and peacekeepers in Africa, but is not likely to coax many to join Paris in an air war over Syria.
Paris invoked article 42.7 of the EU’s Lisbon treaty on Tuesday for the first time since it came into force in 2009, requiring all 28 countries to provide “aid and assistance” when a member state suffers an armed aggression on its territory.
It was seen more as a symbolic political gesture than a plea for operational help, since the NATO alliance is the normal vehicle for coordinating military support and the French have not triggered its mutual defence clause.
“The enemy is not just an enemy of France but an enemy of Europe,” President Francois Hollande said after Islamic State gunmen and bombers killed 129 people in attacks on restaurants, a music hall and a sports stadium in Paris last Friday.
Belgium, Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands as well as France have already been flying combat missions against Islamic State targets in Iraq for more than a year, as part of the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve which also includes Arab states.
Two months ago France became the first European country to extend its participation in those strikes from Iraq to Syria. While strikes in Iraq are carried out at the express request of the Baghdad government, in Syria the legal justification is more obscure, the U.S.-led coalition lacks strong allies on the ground and the end of a 4-year-old civil war is nowhere in sight, making Europeans more reluctant to join.
Since Friday’s attacks in Paris, Hollande has stepped up French air raids against the IS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria and vowed to wage a “merciless” war against the organisation, urging others to follow suit. Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Paris would approach EU partners bilaterally for help.
Britain and Denmark have suggested they could follow Paris in extending their air strikes from Iraq to Syria.
British Prime Minister David Cameron made clear he would try to convince a hitherto reluctant parliament – still traumatised by British participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq – to authorise an air campaign in Syria.
Cameron underlined his solidarity with Paris by personally attending an England-France soccer international in London on Tuesday, joining the crowd in singing the “Marseillaise” French national anthem.
Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen told parliament in Copenhagen that Denmark backed France and was “in principle open for bombing Syria from the air” if a mandate was agreed.
But other EU partners have spoken mainly of non-combat military assistance in Iraq, and a willingness to send more peacekeepers to Mali, which would free up French forces who intervened against Islamist fighters there in 2013.
Germany and Italy are helping train Kurdish security forces in Iraq, but have not participated in bombing and are unlikely to join.
German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the Social Democratic junior coalition partners, said talk of war against Islamic State helped the militants by contributing to spreading anxiety in western societies.
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen noted in Brussels on Tuesday that Berlin was also planning to increase its military presence in Mali, joining a U.N. peacekeeping mission after helping train Malian security forces.
Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti said after EU defence ministers met on Tuesday in Brussels that she ruled out an intervention in Syria but did not exclude stepping up support operations in Iraq.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said he understood Hollande’s use of the word “war” to describe the Paris attacks, but he would not use it himself. He warned against any replay of events in Libya, which has descended into chaos after the 2011 NATO air campaign helped overthrow dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
“Italy is not hiding. We need to maintain our typical position – more soft power than hard power,” Renzi said.
Spain, facing a general election next month, sent a strong message that it would not be prepared to bomb Syria. But Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said Madrid was helping to keep peace in Mali, Afghanistan, Libya, Lebanon and Somalia.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven summed up the politically supportive but cautious line of many EU partners when he told TT news agency: “We are not in war, but we will stand with France and the EU.”
Neutral Ireland was one of several smaller EU countries that expressed a willingness to send more peacekeepers to Mali. Dublin has 850 soldiers earmarked for U.N. duty of whom only 500 are serving abroad at present.
Defence Minister Simon Coveney told broadcaster RTE that the EU’s mutual aid clause wasn’t “about a collective response from the European Union, which I think a lot of people might be uncomfortable with. This is about countries working with France on a bilateral basis to see what other countries can do that is consistent with their foreign policy and defence policy.”
“PRINCIPAL SECURITY POWER”
Diplomats in Brussels said the United States and Britain had discouraged France from invoking NATO’s mutual defence clause in the wake of the Paris attacks, to avoid derailing international diplomatic efforts in Syria that require Russia’s cooperation.
French sources said Paris had chosen the EU route rather than appealing to NATO to avoid both alienating Moscow and creating potential complications with NATO-member Turkey, which was slow to join the U.S.-led coalition and has reservations about its support for Syrian Kurds.
Appealing to the EU could also help Paris justify additional French security spending likely to breach EU budget deficit limits.
“France is positioning itself as the principal security power in Europe also to balance out Germany’s position as the leading economic power and the centre of the refugee crisis,” said a French source familiar with government thinking, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The Germans have been pressing us to do more to support them with the refugees. Now we are pressing them in a friendly way to help us more on international security and to get off our backs on the deficit,” the source said.