While addressing the European Parliament, gathered in plenary in Strasbourg on 17 April, French President Emmanuel Macron defended the French participation in a coalition missile strike on government forces in Syria, along with the UK and the US.
« Hands off Syria! »
A majority of MEPs voiced support for the airstrikes in Syria, including President of the ALDE group Guy Verhofstadt who claimed that a regime using chemical weapons was a « genocidal and illegitimate regime, » and European Parliament President Antonio Tajani who declared that using chemicals weapons was a red line that could not be crossed with impunity.
Others, however, criticized the strikes as « undemocratic » and « irresponsible »…
Partick Le Hyaric, a French MEP from the United European left, spoke against the move and criticized Macron for having intervened without the support of the United Nations. He also emphasized that this was contradictory to his decision not to do so in Gaza for Palestinians facing attacks from Israel.
The absence of international mandate was also criticized by Liadh Ni Riada, a GUE/NGL MEP from the Sinn Fein party in Ireland, who tweeted provocatively during the speech : « Where was the democracy you talk about when you undemocratically attacked Syria? »
In fact, a dozen MEPs from the GUE/NGL group held anti-war placards reading « Hands off Syria » in an attempt to overshadow the French president’s call for unity on security issues. Among them where Sinn Pein members Lynn Boylan, Martina Anderson and Matt Carthy.
Other MEPs took advantage of the situation to fight for national battles.
Nicolas Bay, a French MEP from the French National Front, accused Emmanuel Macron of compromising the independence of a country that famously stayed out of former US president George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq : « Your recent decision to follow the US in a unilateral military intervention in Syria will maybe make us miss Jacques Chirac who at least had the merit to say no to American goings-to-war. »
It should also be noted that, in France, members of the National Assembly also reacted to Macron’s decision, denouncing the strikes as illegal and carried out at the behest of Washington, in a debate held on 16 April.
« Let’s sit back and watch »
Emmanuel Macron did not hesitate to hit back at MEPs : « France has not declared war on the regime of Bachar el-Assad, » he said, emphasizing that the airstrikes specifically targeted three chemical weapons facilities « without any human life loss ».
The strikes were deliberately intended to defend the West’s much-touted red line on the use of chemical weapons against civilians. They were about defending the rule of law. President Macron said that countries that believed in the force of law and what was right could not simply « cave in to the cynicism » of those that did not, adding « the side of law would become that of the weak, and I will not resign myself to that. »
He spoke of « all those who are shocked each time by images we have seen of children and women who died of a chemical attack » and challenged his critics:
« Do we sit back and watch? Do we defend human rights by saying rights are for us, principles are for us and realities are for others? »
Moreover, President Macron spoke bleakly about divisions in the EU and unveiled a series of proposals for reform for more democracy in the EU, including direct elections for the European Commission President.
« There seems to be a sort of European civil war where selfish interests sometimes appear more important than what unites Europe. » Recalling how the EU began after the Second World War, he said: « I don’t want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers that has forgotten its own past. »
Immediately after the French President’s speech, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker rose to his feet and said: « Yes, yes, we agree! I fully support what the President has just said. »
A call for unity
The strikes were effective in sending a strong message that the red line about the use of chemical weapons could not be crossed with impunity. But peace in Syria remains far away, and the lack of unity on the diplomatic front in the EU is a clear impediment. The losers of this dynamic include Germany, Italy and other EU members. The winner is Moscow, which has a taste for dividing the bloc whenever it can.
It is hard to detect a common EU voice on Syria. Even the three leading figures of the EU institutional scene — Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and Federica Mogherini — couldn’t manage to produce a joint statement.
Part of Macron’s objective with this speech was maybe to enlist the EU to start working on a real U.N. settlement. Indeed, an EU-wide resolve on Syria could help engage Turkey regarding Syria. As Ankara’s approval of the Western strikes has shown, the country is torn between its longstanding NATO membership and an opportunistic yet uncomfortable alliance with Moscow and Tehran.
Working to unite the EU around a common cause and to activate the EU foreign policy machinery would moreover be the fulfillment of the promise he made to voters before his election: « A European Union that protects »
For more information on the airstrikes in Syria, read: Syria airstrikes, a warning to the use of chemical weapons