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As mentioned in other answers regarding the 2022 Ukraine conflict, there is a defense clause for the existing EU countries. I looked and found §42.7 TEU,

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, [...]

The key word for me is "shall", which is less than "must". Also, it seems pretty easy to me for a country to argue that right now, for whatever reasons, the "means in their power" are, alas, pretty much limited to sending a few crates of token equipment.

The article continues with further constraints:

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, [...]

So all in all, this seems like having no real bite whatsoever, and is just a vague declaration of intent, which would, in practice be of no importance whatsoever compared to actual real world politics or military strategies of the individual countries.

Is my interpretation correct? Has this been discussed a lot in the past (or currently) within the EU? Have books been written about this; is there a consensus about it in diplomatic circles? Obviously we have not tested this article so far, but what would be the most probable outcome these days?

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    I think that legally "shall" is the same as "must". No difference there. Maybe you want to ask the legal part of the question on law.SE. I'm sure the EU treaties have been vetted a thousand times and their meaning is perfectly clear to any law person. Nobody would sign a treaty that says "may or may not...". It would be useless.
    – Trilarion
    Mar 3 at 9:12
  • I'm unclear why the question is being downvoted. Is it off-topic here?
    – AnoE
    Mar 3 at 9:43
  • @Trilarion Actually, they certainly have been discussed a throusand times but very often the result is adding constructive ambiguity rather than clarifying anything. It does serve many political purposes. The meaning of the more technical and procedural parts of the EU treaties is better defined but even those took a lot of effort to clarify after the fact (through secondary law, infringement proceedings, and court cases).
    – Relaxed
    Mar 3 at 10:29
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    "Is it off-topic here?" Then it's closed. Downvotes mean that people think it's not very interesting or not well researched. It's definitely ontopic.
    – Trilarion
    Mar 3 at 10:47
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    I don't think it's correct to pull out the single word "shall". Really we are talking about "shall have an obligation to <provide aid>" versus "must <provide aid>". They seem pretty close in meaning to me, although a diplomat or a lawyer might disagree.
    – Eric Nolan
    Mar 3 at 10:59

2 Answers 2

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So all in all, this seems like having no real bite whatsoever, and is just a vague declaration of intent, which would, in practice be of no importance whatsoever compared to actual real world politics or military strategies of the individual countries.

The same is true about the language of the NATO treaty though.

So depending whether you want to see the empty or the full half of the glass, this is just as bad or just as good.

And as if this were not enough, perhaps to rub it to Trump (and perhaps even to the UK given Brexit), France and German made treaty in 2019 which has more or less the same clauses but with some stronger language. This analysis is worth quoting for the 3-way comparison:

The Aachen treaty can be triggered in case of an “armed attack” (“agression armée” in French, “bewaffneter Angriff” in German). Likewise, Art. 5 NATO and Art. 42.7 TEU can be triggered respectively by an “armed attack” and an “armed aggression”, which are strictly equivalent concepts from the legal point of view as indicated by the explicit reference made in both clauses to Article 51 of the UN Charter on the right of individual or collective self-defence. Indeed, the only distinction between Art. 5 NATO and Art. 42.7 TEU on the one side, and the Aachen defence clause on the other, is that the latter does not explicitly mention the UN Charter (an absence with no real consequences, however).

The wording of the Aachen mutual defence clause should rather attract our attention on another point: the binding character of its provisions. The Aachen clause states that Germany and France “afford aid and assistance to each other by all the means at their disposal”. Those are significantly more muscular terms than Art. 5 NATO, according to which each party only has to take “such action as it deems necessary”, which leaves a significant margin of discretion in terms of the assistance effectively provided. The terminology of the Aachen defence clause is much closer to Art. 42.7 TEU, which provides for “an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in [the Member States’] power”. But there also is a relatively important difference between Art. 42.7 TEU and the Aachen defence clause. Although the EU mutual defence clause creates a powerful obligation of aid and assistance, a caveat is immediately introduced: “This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States”. The possibility is thus created to modulate the aid and assistance provided, even in case of a successful activation of Art.42.7 TEU. The Aachen Treaty does not contain any such caveat.


And I'm willing to bet that the CSTO treaty has equally flexible language, judging by how Russia recently interpreted it in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan (of 2020), i.e. they were only willing to defend what Russia sees as Armenia proper. And actually even when the latter was attacked in 2021:

Pashinyan [...] made an official request for help to the CSTO in spring 2021, when Azeri troops moved to re-demarcate the border between the two countries and, according to Yerevan, sent up to 1,000 troops to take up positions on Armenian territory, resulting in deadly clashes.

The request for help was declined at a ministerial summit in Dushanbe. The decision to use force to protect a CSTO ally must be made unanimously by the heads of member states, and the annually rotating CSTO chair must first raise the issue. [...]

The Armenian public unsurprisingly viewed its allies’ attitude as nothing short of a betrayal. Of all its members, Armenia had always pinned the most hope on the CSTO, since the threat of war there is very real. Now polls show that just 7 percent of respondents would count on assistance from the CSTO.

On the other hand, I'm pretty sure Belarus can count on Russia to defend it from NATO, even though it's the exact same treaty involved.


Comparisons aside, 42.7 was invoked by France following the Paris attacks (by ISIS) in 2015, asking for both direct actions against ISIS and an increased participation in burden-sharing in France's other anti-terrorism missions, especially in the Sahel. The results were various votes in national parliaments of EU countries, with some countries like Netherlands or the UK agreeing to strike ISIS and others like Germany agreeing to increase military support for France elsewhere. On the other hand, e.g. Italy declined to participate against ISIS in Syria. It's hard to give a concise summary--the link has a table that spans many pages.

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  • (+1) Indeed, it's kind of inevitable for those treaties, as discussed in the other Q&A. But the EU defense clause is additionally weakened by the two additional caveats (about neutrality and NATO), which contradict the purported goal of creating something new and stronger.
    – Relaxed
    Mar 3 at 13:05
  • Thanks for taking the question seriously, and giving some practical examples.
    – AnoE
    Mar 7 at 11:20
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Is my interpretation correct? Has this been discussed a lot in the past (or currently) within the EU? Have books been written about this; is there a consensus about it in diplomatic circles?

I think your interpretation is essentially correct. It's a typical case of EU fudge, wanting to put something in there as a nod to the notion of an ever deeper union and creating a specifically European defense promise independent from NATO without fundamentally changing the policies of the various EU members (which range from neutrality to full embrace of NATO) and reaching a compromise on a complex and self-contradictory formulation.

Note that the existence of NATO makes the question essentially moot for 21 countries out of 27. They are already covered by a very strong alliance, legally and politically, so they can easily sign onto something like that, at least as far as their relationship with each other are concerned. The real issue is not the wording but what it means for the countries that are in the EU but not NATO.

Obviously we have not tested this article so far, but what would be the most probable outcome these days?

The most probable outcome is that when things have come that far the letter of the treaty is a secondary consideration. If you look very hard for a situation where it could matter, it would be something like an invasion of Finland by Russia and I think both the US and fellow EU countries would evaluate the costs of any course of action very hard rather than ask themselves “what does the treaty mean?” (and that includes the cost of weakening EU treaties and NATO itself by showing the promise to be empty).

The same would apply to a Cyprus / Turkey escalation and it's easy to imagine why or how the consequences there could be different even when the exact same treaty applies.

This clause is also unlike many other in it doesn't create any sort of technical obligation for states or businesses that would be embedded in the member states legal system and routinely enforced. It can only ever happen once or twice and what follows will not be decided by court cases. That why it's inevitably symbolic and political.

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