For the first time, an EU member country has activated a largely unknown solidarity clause. France also wants military aid from its partners - and EU defense ministers have pledged support.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini described the meeting as "emotional" after the first morning session in Brussels. She had called the terrorist attacks in Paris an attack on the roots of our civilization, and added that Europe expected support in the fight against terrorism from all its neighbors - including Arab countries. It was, she said, "a very sad day" for France and Europe but also an opportunity to demonstrate solidarity.
How the European Union expressed its solidarity surprised even veteran Brussels-watchers: France unearthed the largely unknown Article 42, Paragraph 7 of the Lisbon Treaty to request the assistance of its European partners - which they agreed unanimously.
Mogherini even explained it to journalists, on the assumption no-one had heard of it: if a member state "is the victim of armed aggression on its territory," other members have "an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power," in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter.
It does not trigger a common EU military mission, but rather bilateral aid. Many EU members offered France support, either materially or in other areas, to relieve French forces.
French Defense Minister Le Drian (l.) and EU Foreign Policy Chief Mogherini at a press conference in Brussels
Deciphering French needs
Defense Minister Yves Le Drian then made it a bit clearer about what his country wanted from its partners in its hour of need. He began by describing the sympathy his colleagues had warmly expressed to him and his country, even in French - a special kind of attention from the ministerial round, which mostly communicates in English.
But what does his government want in concrete terms? Evidently more than just better communication between the respective intelligence services.
France cannot do everything alone, Le Drian said. Others, he said, could provide military assistance to French missions in Syria or Iraq or other operations - and he explicitly mentioned French commitments in the Sahel region, the Central African Republic and Lebanon. The EU, he said, should find out what it could do together, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere - and he urged the member states to act as quickly as possible.
France is at the limits of its ability to project power, thanks to its commitment to a variety of military missions in various African and Middle Eastern countries. And now, an additional 3,000 troops are to be deployed for internal security, to guard public places and facilities.
Why not NATO?
"This is a political act, a political message," Mogherini said about the mutual assistance pact. Asked why Paris had not invoked the NATO solidarity clause as the US had done after the attacks of September 11, 2001, she said common European defense was the first response.
The French government is probably not only concerned about military aid. As for the type of support, Mogherini said this was a question of bilateral agreements and technical discussions between the partners. The different defense policies of the member countries and their abilities would be taken into consideration, she said.
This means that there may be tasks for Germany, although Berlin has so far rejected any military involvement in the Middle East. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen promised and offered her French counterpart to provide relief to France in Mali. The French would also be very interested in Germany's experience working with Kurdish fighters.