The European Union and the Sahel
26 Jun 2017|


It was remarkable that the first foreign trip taken by newly elected French President Macron was to Mali to meet French troops undertaking an anti-insurgency/terrorism operation in the north of the country (within days, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative, was also in Mali). Macron also met President Keita, with whom he discussed ‘terrorism’.

On 4 June 2017, the G5 Sahel countries—Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania—requested €50 million from the EU to support the setting up of a multinational force to counter Islamist militant groups that continue to operate in the region. The aid request was made by General Didier Dacko, Mali’s military chief. Dacko was building on an initiative floated in 2016 to establish specialist units (of 100 men per unit) that would be trained in counterterrorism to respond quickly to information about jihadi groups. That is, this would be a rapid reaction force whose purpose would be to take on jihadi groups before they establish a foundation in areas in the Sahel. Within three days, Federica Mogherini approved the request, thus laying the foundation for the formation of a force of 10,000 soldiers.

As all of this is taking place, the EU is laying out the final parts of an EU military structure—something that had been in the works since 2003, as Europe grappled with debates over a European Constitution but also adopted the European Security Strategy, which not only identified key security threats for the EU but declared a European commitment to address those challenges.

In early June, the EU also approved the setting up of the European Defence Fund, to be managed by the European Commission. The fund has been allocated €500 million ($560 million) for defence ‘development and acquisition’ in 2019 and 2020, and it could increase to $5 billion by the mid-2020s. Interestingly, both Jyrki Katainen, the European Commission Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, and Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska (Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs) have welcomed the fund. They see it as an effective way for the EU to become a security actor, to help the EU’s defence industry to grow, and to harmonise the EU defence sector. According to Brussels, the member states waste around €100 billion a year on defence duplication; for example, within the EU there are 37 different types of armoured personnel carrier and 12 types of tanker aircraft, which could create difficulties should the EU engage in more overseas operations. It’s also worth noting that the costs of the Eurofighter Typhoon jet, a joint project between Spain, Italy, Britain and Germany, continue to spiral out of control.

The European Defence Fund is very much the brainchild of Commission President Juncker and German Chancellor Merkel, who as early as 2016 indicated that the EU had to take charge of its own security. On 8 June, the European Council approved the establishment of the military planning and conduct capability (MPCC), placing it within the EU military staff, which is within the purview of the High Representative. The MPCC will command the EU’s non-executive military missions, of which there are three: EUTM, Mali; EUTM, Somalia; and EUTM, République Centrale Africaine. These missions are part of the EU’s commitment to prevent and counter radicalisation in the Sahel, to create appropriate conditions for youth employment, to address the issue of migration and mobility, especially as the Sahel is a major route for human smuggling, and to manage borders (the Sahel Regional Action Plan).

With the British, who in many ways undermined the process to establish the MPCC (as they object to the language used to describe the capability), out of the picture, it’s highly conceivable that European defence integration will receive a major boost, especially as it appears that Macron, Merkel and Juncker are of a similar mindset.

The EU will need to double its involvement in Libya and the Sahel: the 2017 Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, and the 2016 Berlin Christmas market attacker, Anis Amri, had ties to Libya; there’s evidence that the Islamic State is seeking to establish itself in Libya; and Libya is a major disembarkation point for irregular and forced migrants seeking to reach Europe. Increasingly, Europe sees its own security as being dependent on addressing political, economic and social conditions in the Sahel, especially as asylum-related costs are spiralling out of control. German expenditure on asylum-related costs in 2016–2017 will total €43 billion. When secondary costs are taken into account, this raises the EU’s expenditure on addressing refugee inflows from $16–32 billion to $150 billion annually. And it’s expected that the US will play a lesser role in Africa as it comes to terms with the 2016 presidential election and possible Russian influence on the result.