France’s Withdrawal from Mali Tests Europe’s Credibility
Europe has been highly dependent on French capabilities and interests in Mali. Hence, the end of France’s military mission in that country means that Europe’s involvement there could come to an end as well. Yet there are two reasons why Germany’s future involvement in the former French colony and the entire Sahel is important. First, in the short term, the European presence in the Sahel and West Africa is at stake. Second, in the long term, so is the EU’s credibility as a force to be reckoned with in foreign and security policy.
The Stabilization of Mali Has Failed
In January 2013, France deployed soldiers to Mali at the request of the Malian government. Operation Serval successfully halted the advance of jihadist insurgent groups in the country’s north and was credited with preventing the fall of the central government in Bamako that had seized power in a 2012 coup. Today, however, outside of large cities, violence and insecurity are a fact of life for a vast majority of Malians. Neither Europe’s interventions – the French follow-up to Serval, Operation Barkhane; the French-initiated multinational special forces mission Takuba; and the EU training mission EUTM-Mali – nor the UN stabilization mission MINUSMA were able to prevent the Malian government from losing control over large parts of its national territory.
Over time, fewer and fewer people in Mali trusted the government in Bamako to manage the growing instability. This created the basis for two military coups after the country’s elections in 2013 – the first in 2020 and the second in 2021 – in which a military junta was installed. Under these juntas, the country’s relations with France and other European states deteriorated rapidly. In January 2022, they reached the lowest point thus far when Mali expelled French Ambassador Joël Meyer after French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the ruling junta “illegitimate.” Days later, Denmark was forced to withdraw its soldiers who had been earmarked for deployment under Takuba after being pressured by Bamako. Germany’s armed forces have also recently had difficulties obtaining permits for reconnaissance and transport flights.
Mali’s current government is officially only transitional. France and its European partners have recently urged it to present a roadmap for democratic elections. Recently, the EU Commission imposed sanctions on key figures in the junta, siding with the regional organization ECOWAS, which had already imposed a sanctions regime of its own. Mali has much to lose should the country break completely with European partners. The EU and its member states have not only sent thousands of troops to Mali since 2013 but have also invested hundreds of millions of euros in development aid and infrastructure programs to stabilize the country and the region. The abrupt end of this cooperation could hardly be compensated by other partners.
In the Sahel, the EU Depends on France
It is not only the stabilization of the Sahel that is at stake, however, but also the credibility of the EU’s foreign and security policy ambitions in that region. The Sahel is probably the only region outside Europe where the EU has greater influence than the United States – despite the US commitment there and its interest in stopping the spread of international terrorism. Yet upon closer examination, Europe’s influence there is primarily a French one. Since the independence of its former colonies in West Africa in the 1960s, France has maintained its influence in the region through a dense network of bilateral agreements. It runs academies, trains senior political officials and military officers, and promotes advanced training in Europe. French officials also act as advisors, thereby securing access to regional decision-makers and information.
The EU and other European states are dependent on French infrastructure in West Africa – whether they like it or not. For a long time, this dependence on Paris has led to mistrust and accusations in the region: Postcolonial entanglements are just as common as suspicions that Paris is hiding its own economic interests and pursuing national interests under the European flag.
The French Strategy is Controversial
The lack of coordination in the Sahel among European partners is reflected in the diverging political and military goals of EU member states. France and Germany are no exception. Although the Franco-German brigade, founded in 1989, has been deployed in the Sahel since 2018, German and French contingents are far from a joint operation. French military personnel are deployed to fight terrorism and are regularly involved in combat operations. German soldiers, on the other hand, are deployed in the EU training mission EUTM and the UN stabilization mission MINUSMA, far from any combat mission.
Admittedly, Germany itself is divided on the issue. Since the beginning of the Bundeswehr mission in 2013, German politicians have been arguing about the reason for sending the Bundeswehr to the Sahel: Sometimes they invoke alliance solidarity with France, other times they cite the prevention of illegal migration to Europe. The only thing that those in Berlin agree on is their skepticism about the official account from Paris that military operations in the Sahel prevent terrorist attacks in Europe. There are also doubts as to whether France’s strategy of gradually weakening the terrorist groups in the Sahel through targeted killings was really effective and whether many of the fighters killed were even convinced jihadists with whom no negotiation could have succeeded.
European Disagreement Brings Russia into Play
Recently, in the face of French criticism and European sanctions, Mali’s leadership has been increasingly looking for alternate partners. While the Malian government’s cooperation with Russian military advisers has been confirmed, there has also been speculation about the presence in the country of mercenaries from the Wagner Group, an opaque private Russian military company, for weeks. Moscow is cleverly exploiting the tensions between the junta and its European partners. Russian campaigns, directed in particular against the French military presence, build on the widespread resentment in the Sahel toward France as a former colonial power.
Cooperation with Russia is attractive to the Malian junta for several reasons. Unlike Western governments, no criticism can be expected from Moscow when elections are announced but repeatedly postponed. Moreover, the confrontation with France serves a new Malian national pride, fueled by Russian propaganda, that pushes for a “second decolonization.” In its turn away from France, the junta can count on the support of a majority of the Malian population: Many Malians are tired of being put off by France and its European partners when it comes to progress in stabilizing the country and putting an end to the violence. Paradoxical as it may sound to European ears, many hopes for stability and peace are currently linked to Russia and the mercenary Wagner Group.
European Withdrawal Would Be Russia’s Next Success
The government in Paris is now talking about shifting the focus of military operations in the Sahel to Mali’s neighbors, Niger and Burkina Faso. Although France may feel compelled to end military cooperation with Mali under current conditions, the government wants to avoid relinquishing its influence in the Sahel and in West Africa as a whole. However, it is unlikely that the geographic shift in French involvement can reverse the current trend in the region. While Niger’s government does maintain better relations with Paris than Mali’s government, a larger Western military presence in Niger could quickly spark popular protests similar to those recently seen in Mali. Meanwhile, reports that France is considering deeper cooperation with the coup plotters in Burkina Faso confirm all the critics who accuse France of demanding democracy in Africa only when undemocratic regimes act contrary to French interests.
Europe Must Develop a Joint Strategy
Once again, the Sahel highlights the urgent need for European states to define common strategies. Although this goal was announced with the EU’s Strategic Compass for Security and Defense, foreign and security policy experts criticize its lack of focus. EU member states could not even agree on the prioritization of challenges and threats. Yet the member states need precisely such trade-offs to pool their resources and decide how to build the partnerships needed for a long-term presence abroad. In the absence of this political coordination, European military operations in the Sahel will continue to be merely reactive, dependent on France, and serve as local damage control. Following France’s withdrawal from Mali, the EU risks abandoning the Malian population to Russian mercenaries and jihadist extremists. While Syria and Afghanistan have become symbols of waning US influence, Mali could represent Europe’s failure.