Conflict at the EU's southern borders: the Sahel crisis

Gradually, EU systems of governance have extended into the southern Mediterranean, linking dynamics in the Sahel with European interests through its borderlands. This could be a test of the EU's foreign policy ambitions. But is the Union ready and capable to act, and if so, what is at stake?

From its usual location in the shadow of world politics, the Sahel region has in a matter of weeks assumed unprecedented geopolitical significance. The complex set of security threats coalescing in the largely borderless Sahara-Sahel has generated a flurry of international reactions – and some conspicuously absent ones.

Following UN Security Council Resolution 2085, France intervened unilaterally in defence of Malian sovereignty in the on-going Operation Serval, and has received varying, primarily logistical, support from European allies, notably the UK, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark, in addition to airlift support from the US and Canada. The United States has been present in the region with various counter-terrorism activities since 2002, but has kept a relatively low profile in the recent events in Mali. Moreover, regional organisations such as ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) and the African Union (AU) are increasingly involved politically and militarily, leading the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA). There are thus plenty of actors interested in keeping the Sahel in check.

For the European Union, the crisis in the Sahel is a potential litmus test of its foreign policy ambitions. Historical ties, geographical proximity, economic relevance, and strategic pertinence all seem to call for a robust EU intervention in the region. Yet, the Union still seems to be reluctant to mobilise the full array of foreign policy instruments at its disposal, including the deployment of battlegroups.

The EU in the Sahel

Some activities are nevertheless underway. The EU’s current involvement in the Sahel region aims at countering the deterioration of the humanitarian and security situation that has marked the area over the past two years. The most recent EU action in this regard is the decision to establish an EU Training Mission in Mali (EUTM Mali), taken at the Foreign Affairs Council on 17 January 2013. The mission will dispatch 250 civilian experts and 200 military staff who will provide military training and advice to the Malian armed forces. The EUTM Mali comes at a critical moment, as French forces seek to find an exit from the scenario of holding garrison towns and desert outposts for the foreseeable future. However, the EU mission also represents a continuation of EU activities aimed at assisting the governments in the Sahel to tackle the security challenges and foster economic development. In 2011, Brussels adopted the EU Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel (the ‘EU Sahel Strategy’), a comprehensive attempt to address these challenges.

In the framework of the Sahel Strategy, the Union launched fact finding missions, and drastically augmented aid budgets. It also initiated some Security Sector Reform (SSR), notably by deploying the EUCAP SAHEL mission to Niger in 2012 with the aim of building the capacity of the Nigerien security forces to counter terrorism and organised crime. Concurrently, the European External Action Service (EEAS) set up a Task Force Sahel to monitor the activities within the EU Sahel Strategy and improve coordination. While still at an early stage these developments clearly indicate that the EU has started to pay much attention to this semi-arid region, while linking the stability of the Sahel to the security of Europe and its citizens.

The appointment of former EU Commission President Romano Prodi as UN Special Representative to the Sahel in 2012 only reinforces the impression that the frenzy of activities aims at anchoring the EU as a key foreign policy actor in the Sahel region. The absence of any NATO initiative, the reluctance of the United States to increase its involvement for the moment, and the French encouragement of a stronger EU engagement further supports this assumption.

The EU and its Borderlands                 

A closer look at relations between the EU and the Sahel points to the existence of substantial inter-linkages. Perhaps most important is the way some of the bordering countries of the so-called southern Mediterranean have gradually been drawn into cooperation with the EU over the past two decades. Officially starting with the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership in 1995, the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have signed association agreements with the EU, laying the basis for enhanced cooperation in a number of key policy fields. These range from security and migration to trade, transport, energy, environment, civil protection and communications. Linking the southern Mediterranean to Europe and thus creating borderlands in this area has brought the EU core ever closer to its periphery, as well as to the periphery’s hinterland.

As a consequence of the Arab Spring, the MENA region witnessed a reconfiguration of unprecedented intensity. The fall of autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt had the effect of drawing the Sahel states into the dynamics of these upheavals. The largely borderless Sahara-Sahel offered no protection to states and people from the changes that were taking place in the region.

The EU’s cultivation of the MENA countries as its borderlands had the consequence that it is now much more directly entangled with the political and security situation along the disaggregated and partly porous frontiers of its “empire”. The Sahel has in this way been rendered a classic periphery of the EU borderlands, in which all things destructive, illegal, and potentially dangerous are coalescing. This includes poverty and underdevelopment, environmental degradation, ineffective and weak states, heavily armed militias undermining any central authority, circulation of weapons, nomadic groups fighting for self-determination, and the presence of the Al-Qaeda franchise in the area. The geopolitical gravitation towards the southern rather than the northern Sahara-Sahel region has brought local conflicts in the Mauritania-Mali-Niger nexus much closer to the EU than anyone would have imagined only a few years back.

The EU’s interests are plentiful in this recalibrated region, including securing energy supplies via gas pipelines and solar power projects, expanding export markets for European goods, preventing unwanted migration from the Sahel and North Africa, and hindering drug trafficking and terrorism reaching EU territory. The connection between internal and external security has never been more apparent. The EU’s policies of expanding some of its rules and practices to its southern borderlands, thereby connecting it substantially to the European core, seems to force the EU to act vis-à-vis the acute crisis in the borderland’s periphery. Indeed, the EU has played the game of empires and is now confronted with its consequences.

EU intervention in the Sahel?                 

There are three main reasons as to why the EU would expand its foreign policy role in the region. First, it could provide an opportunity to the newly established EEAS to assert its institutional independence and legitimacy, given that no other EU institution is involved in this area. Second, if Europe does not commit to comprehensively tackling challenges in this region, there are good chances that the US will get more involved, and policymakers in Brussels and other European capitals may be reluctant to accept a stronger US presence in an area that is geographically and historically close to Europe. Third, it has been argued that the Sahel is in need of external assistance and providing such assistance aligns with the EU’s strategic interests — and its ambitions.

There is no doubt that the Sahel crisis has significant strategic implications for the EU and its borderlands. However, there are rather sobering implications of a potentially greater EU involvement in the region. The Sahel crisis is of such a magnitude and complexity that it defies any primarily developmental approach, as the EU has maintained hitherto. In addition to substantial development aid, seeking to efficiently tackle the crisis would also necessitate a stronger military assistance and possibly the deployment of EU troops, together with the need to cooperate pragmatically with regional partners such as Algeria and Nigeria. Should EU member states – despite apparent reservations and even disinterest in African affairs – support more extensive EU action in the Sahel it would demand a long-term commitment from the EU, both in terms of substantial aid and military presence.

The situation is extremely messy, potentially involving a protracted guerrilla war in a desert terrain, and external actors have relatively little knowledge of regional dynamics. The UN-sponsored US intervention in Somalia in 1992-1993 but also the current NATO involvement in Afghanistan should serve as reminders of what is at stake. Nevertheless, compared to France alone or the US, the EU may be in a much better position to implement a policy towards the Sahel that addresses the nexus between development and security. A long-term engagement with the region also seems to correspond to the EU’s foreign policy philosophy. Thus, the EU has the potential of developing into a full-fledged foreign policy actor with regard to the Sahel crisis. It is an experienced player in development policies, peacekeeping and institution-building; it has troops, the right reasons – and huge ambitions. A comprehensive intervention in the Sahel crisis will be a very serious undertaking. Thus, while the Sahel crisis might present the EU with a perfect opportunity to develop its foreign policy capacity and take on responsibility, Brussels should think carefully of the potential implications of seeking to recalibrate its extended borderlands.

About the authors

Simone Tholens is a post-doctoral research assistant at the BORDERLANDS project within the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies of the European University Institute. 

Raffaella A. Del Sarto is professor at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, where she directs the BORDERLANDS research project. She is also adjunct professor in Middle East Studies and International Relations at The Johns Hopkins University, Bologna Center.