Why France turned to the EU for help, and not NATO

France looks to Europe.
France looks to Europe.
Image: Reuters/Charles Platiau
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France, subject to the worst terror attack in Europe in ten years, has called on its European neighbors for assistance, becoming the first country to invoke the European Union’s mutual defense clause. The clause is found in the Lisbon Treaty, known as EU’s article 42.7 and states:

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.

President François Hollande described Friday’s attacks in Paris as “an act of war,” vowing to respond swiftly and destroy ISIL. He called on his defense minister to begin consultation with other national legislators on how the rest of the EU can come to its defense. France’s request for help was unanimously backed during the meeting of EU defense ministers in Brussels on Tuesday (Nov 18).

But what does this mean? Prof. Jolyon Howorth, an expert in European security and defense from Yale University, tells Quartz that the mutual defense clause dates back to the Brussels treaty of 1948 and has been redrafted over the years through various guises and conventions. ”It’s a largely symbolic form of political solidarity,” he explains. “It doesn’t oblige anyone to do anything.”

France will therefore have to negotiate concrete plans with other member states on how the mutual defense clause would be implemented. EU member states that have traditionally remained neutral, such as Ireland, Austria and Sweden, will not be roped into any subsequent military action as the article has a clear stipulation:

This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defense policy of certain member states.

Howorth notes there were a number of clauses France could have triggered, but it may have specifically chosen to invoke EU’s article 42.7, and not, say, article 222—known as the “solidarity clause”and that states the “union and its member states shall act jointly in a spirit of solidarity if a member state is the object of a terrorist attack or the victim of a natural or man-made disaster”—because the latter gives a lot more power to the European Commission.

It is interesting that France triggered the EU’s mutual defense clause, and not article V in the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO), which states an attack against a NATO member “shall be considered an attack against them all.” Article V was first used by the US following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks and has yet to be invoked again.

Howorth suggests it would be a ”disaster” for France to invoke NATO’s article V, adding that if France is “serious in wanting to create an international coalition that goes beyond Europe and the United States,” it would have to work hard to involve partners outside of NATO.