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EU mutual assistance is more than defence

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Activating the EU Mutual Assistance Clause has more than just military consequences; it requires strategy, planning, and institutions.

(Photo credit: EEAS, Flickr)



EU mutual assistance is more than defence 

We attacked IS first, launching an air campaign in 2014 with the aim of removing it from the map. It is against the IS counter-attack, by way of terrorism on European soil, that the EU has invoked, at the request of French President François Hollande, Article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union. This so-called mutual assistance clause 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”.

Ideally we, Europeans and Americans, would not have had to launch the air campaign. As it was, some of our allies in the region actually contributed to the rise of IS, and from some of them resources continue to flow to IS until this very day. Yet it remains their primary responsibility to defeat IS, for it is to their very survival that its mere existence constitutes a vital threat. The answer to the 13 November attacks in Paris is not to expand European and American military operations therefore, and certainly not to put boots on the ground. That would lead to precisely the escalation that IS is hoping to provoke. Europe is at war, not since the Paris attacks but since the start of the air campaign, but it is not only, and perhaps not even primarily, our war – which is why it also is a limited war, fought, on our part, mostly from the air. It is crucial therefore to put pressure on the regional players to finally cut off all routes of support to IS and to step up their ground operations, which our air forces can then support all the more effectively. Then will it be crystal clear that this is a war between the states of the region and the self-declared anti-state that threatens them all, rather than a war between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Activating EU mutual assistance need not in the first place make a huge military difference therefore. Military operations are ongoing, through an ad hoc coalition under US command, a structure which there is no need to change. Member States who are not already part of the coalition might now consider joining though. They could also relieve the forces in other theatres (notably on CSDP operations) of those who are in the coalition, or otherwise support them (including financially).

Providing Mutual Assistance Inside and Outside the EU

Hollande’s bold move to request mutual assistance is nevertheless to be lauded.

First, by thus increasing the stakes, Member States cannot but come out with a common foreign policy on the future of the region. Until now, that has been conspicuously absent. All a meeting of Hollande, Angela Merkel and David Cameron on Syria produced was an agreement to disagree. The EU must now go onto the diplomatic offensive and, with the US as well as Russia, forge an agreement between all those fighting IS about who is to succeed IS, in order to agree a cease-fire on all other fronts and start effective ground operations. No country will really join the fight unless it knows that its interests are better served than by the ambiguous stance that many currently maintain. But that means that France will have to revise its stance on the future of Assad, who because of the Russian intervention is bound to at least for now remain part of any power-sharing arrangement for Syria.

Second, Member States are now also under huge pressure to improve cooperation on EU internal security. Invoking mutual assistance has created the momentum to make a quantum in leap in EU intelligence cooperation, which until now has remained bilateral, between individual countries, rather than European. Equally necessary is a mechanism for coordination and mutual assistance with special police operations at a large scale, for which not all Member States have the capacity. This opportunity should not be wasted.

Third, Hollande rightly requested assistance from the EU first, rather than NATO. What is needed first and foremost is not traditional collective defence against an invading army, but a common Middle East strategy and an integrated police and intelligence effort. Neither of these NATO can provide, but the EU can. The formulation of Article 42.7, “all means in their power”, can be read to cover all possible EU and Member State actions. At the same time it is more compelling that NATO’s Article 5, which only obliges each ally to take “such action as it deems necessary”. While NATO remains indispensable to deter armed aggression, notably by other states, it is but one dimension of the broader mutual assistance that the EU is now seen to imply.

The US should welcome this move. As a retired American diplomat and friend put it to me: if the US really wants a strong EU, the best thing to do is to pretend that it exists. That is, to interact with the EU on key strategic issues, rather than with individual Member States, and force the Union to collectively step up to the challenge thus raised.

Structural Consequences of Mutual Assistance

Obviously, the focus is on the crisis at hand. But the first ever invocation of mutual assistance should also have structural implications. Until now, it was but a symbol. To really prove that the EU is more than a market, but a political union and hence a community of fate, Article 42.7 must be translated into strategy, planning, and institutions. The ongoing process of elaborating an EU Global Strategy (EUGS) provides a perfect opportunity to do exactly that.

The EUGS itself ought to formulate which security responsibilities Member States judge so important that they have to be able to assume them, under whichever flag (the EU, NATO, the UN, or a coalition), and if necessary alone. Those responsibilities must include ensuring the internal and border security of the EU, and taking the lead in stabilizing the EU’s own broad neighbourhood, as well as contributing to the freedom of the global commons – any scenario in which mutual assistance is invoked might necessitate operations on this entire spectrum. On that basis, a white book on defence could update Europe’s military requirements (as defined by the 1999 Helsinki Headline Goal) so as to create a capability mix that allows Europeans to contribute to NATO’s collective defence, to undertake expeditionary operations with or without NATO allies, and to assist the internal security services.

But the EUGS should also define the institutional implications of these increased security responsibilities. As already stated, situational awareness must be enhanced by much deeper and systematic intelligence cooperation. But institutional awareness must generate much more benefits than it currently does, by doing away with the bottle-neck between it and the political level that is the result of the meagre planning capacity

The EU needs a civilian-military body in the EEAS that can engage in permanent contingency planning, even before any political mandate is given, to continuously and systematically translate situational awareness into options for EU policy that cover the entire spectrum of diplomatic, economic, intelligence, police and military instruments.

If the EUGS manages to do this, it will answer European citizens’ call for action without falling victim to short-termism. It will be a strategy.


Prof. Dr. Sven Biscop is director of the Europe in the World programme at the Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, and teaches at Ghent University and at the College of Europe in Bruges. He is an Honorary Fellow of the European Security and Defence College.