‘Europe has fallen silent’ on the war in Syria

Standard ISIS press photo, with black flags, faceless jihadists, and technicals. Syria, 2014. [Day Donaldson/Flickr]

Frustration is mounting in France against the inaction of other European countries in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Paris wants the EU to suspend Schengen for three months. EURACTIV France reports

“Where is Europe? Europe has fallen silent.” France’s former Prime Minister Alain Juppé summed up the feelings of many French citizens towards the war in Syria on Monday (15 November), just three days after the deadly attack on the French capital.

While a common enemy has been identified, the struggle is anything but shared.

“There is a common enemy: IS,” Jean Asselborn, the Luxemburgish minister of foreign affairs, said on Monday. He added that there was “no disparity in the EU’s efforts in this regard”.

Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said it was the “duty” of Europe’s people to “stand beside France”.

European defence to the rescue

But France is still the only EU country to have intervened militarily, as it was against the terrorist uprising in Mali in 2013 and 2014.

To an audience in Versailles, President François Hollande suggested several ways France might end this military isolation. He invoked article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union, and, which was then unanimously backed by EU member states today (17 November).

Under this previously unused article, if one EU member state suffers an attack on its territory, the other member states must provide whatever military assistance they can.

The president had previously raised the possibility of going to NATO, and had also indicated that a meeting of the UN Security Council would be called to adopt a resolution against terrorism.

“In Syria, the international community is divided and incoherent,” Hollande said. He also announced plans to discuss the subject with the Russian and American presidents in the coming days.

Domestic measures in breach of Schengen

The EU’s interior ministers will hold an extraordinary Council in Luxembourg on Friday (20 November) to discuss questions of domestic security. New measures proposed in January this year have still not been put in place.

One of these measures is the Passenger Name Record (PNR) for air passengers entering or leaving the European Union, which has already been discussed by the European Parliament and the Council. But they will also discuss a framework to combat the financing of terrorism and a system for stopping the traffic of firearms.

>> Read: Passenger name record law passes first hurdle in Parliament

“It is imperative that the demands made by France to the EU in January are applied rapidly, be they the PNR, the control of firearms or the borders,” the president insisted.

According to the Telegraph, France also wants to re-establish border controls in Europe, and not just at its frontier with Belgium.

Signatories to the Schengen agreement are allowed to introduce temporary border controls in an emergency situation, but the French president’s calls for three months of border checks across the EU’s member states may spell the death of the agreement.

Superficial police cooperation?

While it is regularly praised by the competent authorities, the reality of European police and judicial cooperation is less than ideal.

“Some countries cooperate little or not at all; others do cooperate, but do not have adequate resources,” a source from the Parisian police told EURACTIV.

The French police have been concentrating their efforts on terrorism since the Charlie Hebdo attack in January this year, and are disappointed by the lack of engagement from other European police forces.

In the reorganised Parisian criminal police force, six of the 12 units concentrate on terrorism and six on common law. Before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the proportion was four to eight. The ministry of the interior’s anti-terrorism directorate took charge of operations on Friday (13 November) to centralise the country’s anti-terrorist action.

One French investigator questioned the work of the Belgian security forces. “We have locked down the French territory. But if weapons are readily available in Belgium and if terrorists can come and go as they please, there is not much we can do,” he said.

One of the perpetrators of the January attacks had bought weapons in Belgium, and the attempted attack on a Thalys train between Brussels and Paris this summer was carried out by a Belgian.

Several of the terrorists responsible for the massacres on 13 November also came from Brussels.

Belgium also has the highest number of radicalised young people, as a proportion of its population, of any country in Europe. According to the Belgian interior ministry, 272 Belgian citizens are currently fighting in Iraq and Syria.

Budgetary restraint put on the backburner

The French president also announced plans to strengthen the police. France intends to recruit 5,000 police officers, 1,000 customs officers and 2,500 staff for the ministry of justice.

But he is also tied down by the European Commission’s budgetary straight jacket, which forces France to cut its public deficit to below 3% of GDP by 2017.

>>Read: Spain overtakes France as the eurozone’s problem child

“The security pact trumps the Stability and Growth Pact,” Hollande said.

France has long been asking to remove its international defence spending from its deficit calculations. This would help them save face with other European countries in the short term, as France is not the only EU member state to be struggling with an excessive deficit. 

Article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union

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

Commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, for those states which are members of it, remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation. 

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