Semi-Mutual Defense: Europe’s Patchwork Response to Paris Attacks
The offer of active military support to France in Syria or in the Sahel by several European member states is likely to overshadow the absence of meaningful commitment from others. On balance, the picture will not be too disheartening for supporters of the EU: its foreign and security policy apparatus will not come out damaged, but only because it has not been properly tested.
As well as producing an outpouring of grief and increased security, November’s Paris terrorist attacks raised significant questions about European Union foreign policy. This was reflected in last week’s complicated debate in the United Kingdom on whether or not to bomb targets of Daesh [also known as ISIS] inside Syria. The UK’s eventual affirmative vote made it the only EU member to join full-scale French-led efforts against Daesh so far. What does this reveal about the level of cohesiveness in the bloc?
When France began bombing Syria earlier this year, fellow EU governments offered little support. The situation has remained broadly the same after the Paris attacks, with the notable UK exception. France appealed for direct help from London even though the domestic British debate has not previously been conducive to providing it. While the UK has long been a member of the anti-Daesh coalition in Iraq, Prime Minister David Cameron was cautious in expanding efforts into Syria. In 2013, he suffered a political blow when the House of Commons rejected a targeted air campaign against the Bashar al-Assad regime, following reports it was employing chemical weapons against opponents.
While concerns about a complicated and uncertain military involvement have persisted in light of the ongoing repercussions of the British-supported Iraq War, the Paris attacks appear to be a turning point. The 10-hour debate in the House of Commons showed that previous arguments remain prominent, though there was ultimately little doubt that members of parliament would back Cameron’s position.
In addition to the UK, France also had some measured expectations for help from Germany, even though it has long been frustrated by Berlin’s disinclination to use force in addressing conflicts. Early signs were that the German government would not go beyond providing a further presence in Mali, where French troops are also serving, and bolstering training of the Daesh-opposing Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq. It therefore came as a welcome surprise to Paris when Berlin announced it would send a frigate to escort a French aircraft carrier in Syria, conduct surveillance over the country, and provide air-to-air refueling. Though not constituting a direct show of military strength, these are significant moves from Germany.