This is How Europe Needs to Stand up to Terrorism

December 3, 2015

“France is at war”: the first words of President François Hollande’s address to the French parliament illustrated the country’s determination to fight terrorism globally, and to “eradicate” the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Accordingly, France ramped up strikes against ISIL’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, Syria. While maintaining a strong line on the necessity of removing Assad from power, France started directly striking ISIL in September following precise information regarding attacks being prepared against French soil. However, France, stretched on other fronts like the Sahel and facing a complex threat, both regionally and domestically, can’t go it alone. “There is a true necessity to unite all those who can fight ISIL in a large and unique coalition,” Hollande emphasized in his address.

Hollande announced two diplomatic steps. First, he met during the week of November 23 with David Cameron, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin in order to make the case for the formation of a vast international coalition against ISIL, supported by a UN Security Council resolution. While not getting any radical change of strategy from Washington, French authorities at least can point to increased intelligence-sharing between France and the United States since the attacks. However, different views on the fate of Assad and the necessity to work with the non-radical opposition to the regime hinder the opportunities for cooperation with Moscow. Hollande and Putin agreed on better coordination in strikes against ISIL but still differ on strategic objectives in Syria.

The second announcement was to invoke for the first time the European “mutual defense clause” (article 42.7 of the Lisbon treaty), which 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.” After some speculation that France would invoke article V of the NATO Charter, Hollande’s decision sends a clear signal: France needs its European allies in the fight at home and abroad.

Spontaneous messages of solidarity from European leaders have been strong and clearly assuaging for the French population. But words of condolences need to translate into action. Over the last years, France has largely shouldered Europe’s load in the fight against jihadism. It is telling that in his speech declaring war on ISIL, the only country Hollande mentioned positively was the United States. Hollande specifically thanked the United States for its “support” in carrying out airstrikes against ISIL positions in Raqqa during the weekend of November 14.

France Far Out in Front

France is already fighting Al-Qaeda affiliates (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Mourabitoun) and a menagerie of other jihadist groups in the Sahel. More than 3,000 French troops deployed as part of Operation Barkhane are stationed in Mali and Chad. The French intervention, which began in 2013, halted the jihadists’ progress toward Bamako in Northern Mali. The recent attack on the Radisson Blu hotel that left at least 21dead is another reminder that the front remains far from pacified. Other fronts such as Libya — where ISIL, filling the post-Gaddhafi vacuum, controls the coast town of Sirte — could soon necessitate more robust European involvement. While other countries have joined operations in Mali, French soldiers are still the only ones from Europe doing the fighting. In the Middle East, France and Great Britain are the only two European countries engaged militarily against ISIL in Iraq. France has been so far the only European nation carrying out airstrikes across the border in Syria.

Let’s be frank. The arrival of the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in the Persian Gulf, while significantly enhancing France’s capability to carry out air attacks against ISIL positions (tripling airstrike capabilities), represents the last ace up France’s sleeve. Besides, as is often forgotten, 10,000 troops have been deployed within France itself since the Charlie Hebdo attacks to protect sensitive sites (especially religious ones) in operation Sentinel. France’s army, not helped by years of budgetary cuts, is on the verge of being overstretched. Far from heeding the idea floated by the new Polish foreign minister to create an “army of migrants” that “can fight to liberate their country,” France, more than ever, needs a united Europe to get into the fight against terrorism with resolve and certainty.

Other European countries are at risk, as the events that just followed the November 13 attacks attest to. The last-minute cancelation of a Germany–Netherlands soccer game and the lockdown of Brussels in the context of an imminent threat for six days testify to this fact. ISIL is the major threat today. With homegrown recruits and the expansion to other fronts (Libya or Yemen), it is also a harbinger of things to come. Over the long term, Europe must improve its ability to provide decisive responses to the major geopolitical trends that shape our century, especially in its own periphery. Even more than that, if the EU experiment is to succeed, then European countries must show solidarity to defend a shared way of life. In not, others will seize the moment. Already, populist movements at home advocate closing national borders and rejecting liberalism and immigration. Abroad, Russia appears as a dangerously attractive alternative in the face of European powerlessness and American power vacuum in the Middle East. Both options, the mirror image of each other, would significantly alter the face of Europe.

For years, European countries have been bickering in endless debates over the divisions between security focuses on the southern and eastern fronts. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has rightly led to reassurances for European allies within NATO, most notably the Baltic countries and Poland. France has taken part in these operations and, alongside EU partners, the United States, and Canada, adopted sanctions against Russia. Paris even went further in canceling the delivery of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers, a 1.2-billion-euro contract. This was a necessary step to ensure a united response to Russian attempts to destabilize Europe by playing countries against each other. But it was not without cost to France.

The division between southern and eastern flanks doesn’t make much sense anymore. Eastern European countries are as concerned by the flow of refugees fleeing the Syrian war as they should be by the transnational threat of terrorism. In fact, the threats on both flanks are converging. Russia’s intervention to support Assad’s regime in Syria has made Putin a powerbroker in the Middle East, in the vacuum left by the lack of U.S. leadership. Russian support for Assad will only extend the length of the Syrian tragedy and accelerate the flow of refugees, most of them fleeing Assad’s barrel bombings of his own citizens. Putin will obviously try to use his role as leverage to pressure Europeans into forgetting about Ukraine, raising serious risks for European solidarity in the coming months. Also, the rise of populist parties feeding off increased insecurity will pave the way for Russia-friendly parties, such as the French National Front, to shape the conversation on the European decision-making process.

What Comes Next?

The Paris attacks exposed the shortcomings of security cooperation at the European level. The attackers lived in Belgium and crossed the border numerous times into France. Abdelhamid Abaaoud — the so-called “mastermind” of the operations — was present in the Paris suburbs where he was killed in a police raid before attempting another attack. Worse, reports of his circulation between Syria and Europe raise serious questions about information-sharing among the national security services, overwhelmed by the accelerated nature of the threat over the last years.

At an emergency meeting of justice and defense ministers on November 20, EU countries agreed to take steps to improve control at the exterior borders of the continent as well as to accelerate the implementation of much-delayed measures such as the Passenger Name Record. The PNR, which allows for sharing of airline passenger information, has so far been blocked at the European Parliament. European leaders also agreed to devote more resources to border control and on measures to stem arms trafficking, coming especially from the Balkans. However, similar initiatives had already been announced in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, but never materialized due to a lack of political will and the EU’s notoriously slow decision-making process. Undoubtedly, improving intelligence and security cooperation will be part of the agenda after it is understood what went wrong. The long-disappointed expectations of a structured, possibly pan-European intelligence service will rise significantly given the transnational nature of these terrorist groups.

These expectations at the European level go hand in hand with those that Europeans play a more active military role in combatting terrorism outside the continent. Even if invoking Article 42.7 does not mean that European partners have to participate in these operations, the explicit request made by Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian for them to do so will force EU member states to articulate a clear response — any foot-dragging or negative response will severely undermine European unity and reinforce the French case to not respect European budgetary guidelines. The vote at the British House of Commons on Wednesday to allow airstrikes in Syria is a welcome first step, coming two days after a German decision to contribute to the coalition. These should not be short-term steps, but rather the realization of a broader challenge. After years of spending cuts, these decisions should start a reverse trend in defense investments.

Finally, Europeans must not close their doors to refugees. Declarations by some European leaders play into the hands of extremists who want to portray a closed and intolerant Europe. The attacks were planned in Syria, but organized in Belgium and carried out in France with homegrown complicity. Blaming refugees, based on the still-blurry story of the found passport, is cheap politics. Unfortunately, carrying a European passport makes it much easier to carry out an attack than relying on the harrowing routes undertaken by refugees, fleeing Assad’s persecutions and ISIL violence.

Some voices are already raised to advocate exactly the opposite measures. As Europe’s vulnerabilities were exploited, let’s go back to national borders and stop assuming we can rely on our neighbors, they say. The attacks struck at the values, way of life and security of Europe as a whole. Believing that national solutions alone can protect against this threat is wrong. No country has the military capacity to secure the European periphery on its own, nor can bordering countries handle the circulation of potential radicals without support. To a common threat, Europeans must give a common response and protect their citizens.


Martin Michelot is the Director of Research at the Europeum Institute for European Policy in Prague, Czech Republic, and a Non-Resident Fellow with the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Benjamin Haddad is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC.


Photo credit: stuartpilbrow