On November 14th of last year, terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State wounded or killed over five hundred French citizens with bullets and bombs in Paris. French President François Hollande responded the next day with rhetoric similar to what he had first deployed the previous January after Al Qaeda struck the City of Light, reiterating that France was “at war” with Islamic terror. The January speech had emphasized France’s unique role in combatting terror in Francophone Africa. In his November address, Hollande added a surprising new approach: in response to the global threat posed by the Islamic State, France would now invoke the until-then-untested collective defense clause of the European Union’s charter. In effect, he was obligating the peace-loving superstate to start its first war.
Several months into the European “war” on the Islamic State, however, there is good reason to question whether the EU is fighting a war against IS at all—and if it’s even capable of doing so. The European response to France’s call for help has been confused and anemic. On the security front—that is, when it comes to defending Europe with domestic counterterrorism efforts—EU leaders have aggressively pushed a new unified security agenda, setting a June deadline for establishing a new combined border force, and promising enhanced intelligence sharing and cooperation in domestic counterterrorism.
Where Europe has stumbled is on the defense front—that is, in actually going out and striking back at the Islamic State itself in Iraq and Syria, where the attack on Paris was planned. Most European powers have made symbolic moves to “intensify” military operations against IS, but only the United Kingdom has made a new, sustainable commitment of combat troops to the campaign. That reveals European counterterrorism’s Achilles heel. Security cannot exist without defense: armies and fleets, not police, are the ultimate guarantors of borders and the security of what is behind them. Yet even since the Paris attacks, the United States has provided the real defense muscle that ensures European security, and since November, only the US has claimed credit for killing IS leaders involved in plotting terrorist attacks on the West.
European neglect of defense is not new, even if it is increasingly anachronistic. The European Union has no collective defense policy, no army, and an underfunded and little-loved military staff of only two hundred. Its only articulated military aspiration is to be able to play a significant role in peacekeeping and conflict prevention activities. The collective defense clause buried in Article 42 of the EU charter is so obscure that several of the foreign ministers who France called upon to affirm their invocation of it had “never heard” of the thing. They had little reason to, as the clause very sensibly states that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—the largest military alliance in history—is “the foundation of [the] collective defence [of members of both the EU and NATO] and the forum for its implementation.” No one predicted France’s EU move, but many informed commentators, including former Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridis and former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, assumed that France would also invoke the collective defense clause in Article 5 of the NATO charter, obliging not just Europe, but the rest of the Free World to come to France’s aid.
France demurred, instead confusingly invoking the EU charter which calls upon NATO to act, without then calling upon NATO. After an emergency consultation, NATO only declared that “a number of Allies are already working with France on their ongoing operations and investigations in the wake of the attacks.” Hollande surely had sound reasons for avoiding the organization’s involvement. It struggled to lead operations in Afghanistan when it took over from America there. It also inspires Russian antipathy, which Hollande cannot afford while he seeks to build an accord with Russia that addresses Syria and hopefully also excuses an end to the pesky US-EU sanctions against Russia over Ukraine that hurt Hollande politically (a move which Germany may well support). Most importantly, as Hollande’s government has stated in the past, even being a member of NATO results in the “trivialization of [France’s] foreign policy” and “a deterioration of [France’s] ability to make decisions and act.”
To prove that France’s foreign policy was far from trivial, in the days after the Paris attacks, French politicians, diplomats, soldiers, sailors and airmen went into action. While Hollande tried to build a Euro-Amero-Russian consensus about how to deal with the Islamic State, France’s own Charles de Gaulle—the only fully operational, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier flying a European flag—steamed to Syria and doubled the number of French planes flying against IS. They bombed Raqqah, IS’ capital.
Americans enthusiastically applauded the French president for allegedly not imposing politically toxic rules of engagement on French forces, and the French military for its ability to fight light while avoiding dreaded “mission creep.” However, France is constrained by the limited capabilities of its armed forces. In 2012, the French Chief of the Defense, Admiral Édouard Guillaud even expressed doubts about its ability to deploy 30,000 soldiers for a year—its stated goal. That number is significantly fewer fighters that even the Islamic State has.
France’s “escalation” against IS did not include any new deployments of forces to the Middle East. The De Gaulle had been preparing for its cruise, which was publicly announced weeks before the attacks, since returning from its last Middle Eastern mission months before, and will have to withdraw in March for logistical reasons. Even with the De Gaulle’s 20 planes in action, the French still only have 32 flying over the Middle East as part of what they call Operation Chammal. Eight of them are outdated Super Étendard Modernises, which have been flying since 1978 and which the French publicly admit are overdue for retirement. Simply put, France’s current contribution to the fight against IS is both modest and unsustainable.
Other European responses also fizzled. European defense budgets have been eviscerated since the end of the Cold War, and the downward trend has only increased since the global financial crisis of 2008. The European defense forces lining up behind France are small, outdated, and with one exception, unsustainable.
The United Kingdom, the only European state with worldwide military reach, was the first power to answer France’s call. After prodding by Hollande and a noisy debate in Parliament, British Prime Minister David Cameron deployed a handful of additional planes and gained authorization to expand the UK’s anti-IS bombing campaign in Iraq into Syria. As air power analyst Justin Bronk notes, however, this “will not make a significant difference” as the UK’s niche is intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, which have long been able to fly over Syria. Like France, Britain is flying outdated planes whose retirement has been delayed to do so. Importantly, though, the UK has deployed a sustainable, enduring force, whereas the French force flying off the De Gaulle will have to withdraw in a matter of months.
Germany, the EU’s economic giant, promised a modest contribution of six Tornado jets which will be limited to conducting ISR missions (a smaller air wing than Denmark has sent against IS), a frigate to escort the De Gaulle, and 150 more trainers for Iraqi Kurdish militias. Germany only has 38 fully operational combat aircraft, however. While the Germans should be given due credit for bringing their planes into action rapidly—flying their first mission on December 16th—their contribution has still been modest. Germany has also promised to deploy about 650 additional military trainers to Mali asa part of the broader fight against terrorism, but they will be 5,000 kilometers from the Islamic State.
The rest of Europe has done basically nothing. Italy, which just took delivery of Europe’s first next-generation F-35 fighter planes, typifies the European approach to defense: it spends two-thirds of its defense budget on personnel costs, has minimal force projection capabilities despite its force’s technological advancement and size, and most importantly no political will to take to the offensive against IS. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi insists that Italy wants “to wipe out terrorists,” but he has refused to commit any Italian forces to doing so. Instead, when Hollande came to Rome in the aftermath of the attacks, Renzi promised that Italy would match a €1 billion expenditure on domestic security spending with €1 billion spent on “culture,” a curious effort to prevent the radicalization of would-be jihadi youths with free museum trips and concerts.
There is no sign that the decline of Europe’s military might will be reversed. In response to the attacks, Hollande has promised to increase military spending, even if it meant transgressing EU budget guidelines, but little of that money will go towards forces that could “eradicate” IS. The coming months may actually see a de-prioritization of defense abroad as France focuses on expensive domestic security operations. Operation Sentinel, the military’s long-standing domestic security mission, cost $1 million a day earlier this year, an amount the French government called “unsustainable” even before France entered a state of economic emergency declared in January 2016. Similarly, the United Kingdom, which released a long-awaited Strategic Defence and Security Review in the aftermath of the attacks, has at best staunched the decline of its military forces, which have seen about 30% of their capabilities axed since 2010.
Every European country has a different excuse for this lack of military might. Most European politicians would note that the EU has demonstrated significant diplomatic, intellectual, and economic power since the attacks on Paris. European leaders’ own actions, however, demonstrate that this disinterested and haphazard approach to defense is already outdated. The Paris attacks showed that the Islamic State is now a global, hybrid threat, which endangers Europe directly with terrorism and the Middle East (and thus Europe indirectly) with pseudo-conventional forces. Any effective response must address both security and defense. —which is why France is increasing cooperation between its own security and defense establishments. The EU’s first, faltering war has proven that Europe cannot pursue such a strategy with the military means now available to it.
For more than half a century, the states that today compose the EU have relied on NATO for security. France has suggested this is no longer enough, especially as Russia looks more and more like a necessary partner for Europe. The EU has demonstrated that it offers no alternative, however. Many, especially in Germany, fantasize that the solution is the formation of an EU Army, but this would require the creation of a collective defense policy of the sort European leaders don’t want to admit is necessary, a level of defense spending they cannot afford, and alienate the United Kingdom, Europe’s most capable military power. There are no easy answers here.
Nonetheless, the European response to the Islamic State suggests that change is on the horizon. As European publics become increasingly concerned with preventing terrorism, and battles in the Middle East continue to have direct ramifications on the streets of European cities, Europe will have to give more consideration to, and likely spend more on, both security and defense. It is a commonplace to predict that the European Union is doomed so long as it pursues a common monetary policy without a common fiscal policy. A new critique is in order (a re-purposing of a longstanding argument against NATO, which has an exclusively wartime, defense role): in an age of hybrid threats, it seems increasingly illogical to pursue a common security policy without a defense policy or policies that can be tied to it. Only time will tell whether this calls the ideal of an ever-closer EU, or the ideal of a peace-loving Europe, into question.
T.S. Allen in an officer in the United States Army. The views expressed in his work are his own and do not reflect the position of the Department of Defense, the United States Army, or any other part of the United States Government.
Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.