By Clarissa Bigasz Mascarenhas
The involvement of the European coalition led by France in the Sahel has been questioned as it seems to not be doing enough to stop the spread of violence in the region. Since 2013, the EU has provided 449 million euros in financial assistance and several peacekeeping missions have been initiated in the region. Things rapidly deteriorated when, at the end of January, Burkina Faso’s government urged France to withdraw all troops within a month. What caused the situation to escalate and how will this impact European Foreign Policy?
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On 1 August 2014, an international coalition led by France launched Operation Barkhane in the Sahel region, comprising Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, and Niger. The main goal was to take part in combat patrols with the national military and cooperative militias to gather intelligence and give training to local development activities. However, after nearly a decade, the French military initiative has been weakened by the turbulent political climate as local tribes gained more power than the governments.
The conflict, which has been ongoing for over 30 years, is further exacerbated by economic and agricultural crises, political corruption, social inequality, and poverty. Additionally, the area is plagued by all sorts of trafficking, including terrorist activities, leading to a significant amount of money being generated through the smuggling of drugs, merchandise, and people.
In the subsequent years, the French government shared its partial victories against jihadist groups, using the famous words of former President François Hollande in 2013: “France has no vocation to stay in Mali.”. Nevertheless, the French would remain as the standard local government could not “achieve security, legitimate authorities, an electoral process, and more terrorists who threaten.”.
More recently, a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the French intervention has risen in Mali and Burkina Faso. The tension culminated in January 2022 when a dispute with the Malian government led to the expelling of the French ambassador and in January 2023 with Burkina Faso’s formal notification asking for the withdrawal of French troops. Once seen as a liberator, Paris is now accused of failing to effectively manage the security situation and even continuing neo-colonial patterns of dependence.
It is clear that with France's exit, a portion of European foreign policy has weakened if not failed. Evidence of that is the ongoing presence of Russian Wagner mercenaries and the growing wave of anti-Western populist rhetoric. Furthermore, the retreat could have a potential impact on European migration patterns as the Sahel region is a major transit area for people attempting to reach Europe. Approximately 2.9 million people in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger seek asylum elsewhere, including in North Africa and Europe.
Even if France has been the predominant force in the coalition in the Sahel, the European role should not be ignored. Without much success and despite repeated frustrations expressed by officials from other countries, other EU member states have not been successful in challenging French leadership or adjusting their course.
Examples include their devotion to the G5 Sahel Joint Force (a collaborative arrangement between Sahel countries and France). Additionally, there is an inability to meet expectations and difficulties in reaching alignment with Paris’s position on pursuing political dialogues with jihadists, even though there was broader support for it in Mali. This ineffective collaboration happened because European allies effectively did not succeed in opposing French leadership and its corresponding political direction.
Little Cracks in European Foreign Policy
The political stance in the region, and more specifically in Mali, is quite alarming for the European community. Although support was offered to the country to contain further advances of extremist forces, the Malian government had not undertaken the necessary reforms to its security sector. As a result, the national military committed a coup in 2020 and 2021. Currently, the military junta is delaying elections until 2025, and Russian mercenaries have also been spotted in the region.
An increasing number of European governments are questioning their involvement in the region. For instance, Sweden announced its departure by 2023 and the German defence minister expressed the difficulty of seeing German forces remain in a region that has shown a lack of welcomeness. Therefore, the EU military involvement in the Sahel region should be reevaluated to better match its member's preferences.
Impact on Migration Flows
Migration from Africa through the Sahel to Europe has been ongoing for a long time. According to Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, the main migration route to reach Europe is the Central Mediterranean, which connects the Sahel and North Africa to Italy. Between 2014 and 2016, more than 150,000 migrants used the route yearly. While more recent numbers are lower, the last 2021 report indicated an increase of 90 per cent from the previous year, with 67,724 migrants reaching Europe. The French withdrawal could result in a spike in migration patterns as more instability and violence from extremist groups are expected.
The lack of security and stability could also damage local economies, further exacerbating the push factors for migration. The deterioration of security in the region due to the French withdrawal could also make it more difficult for migrants to safely transit through the area, potentially pushing them to seek alternative routes to Europe and creating a new wave of refugees seeking asylum.
This scenario would cause conflict among EU members to reevaluate their migration policy as countries like Italy would receive a huge amount of migrants. Furthermore, strategic planning would have to be made to contain such flows and secure regional security. To do this, there is still a French/EU military base held in Niger to help stabilize the region, which will continue its services after the withdrawal of French troops from Burkina Faso.
The recent notification to the French government to withdraw its troops from Burkina Faso relights an ongoing discussion on the European presence in the Sahel Region. The persistent presence of Russian Wagner mercenaries and the increase of anti-Western populist rhetoric draws a difficult outlook for the eventual success of European foreign policy in the region.
Additionally, the forced French retreat from Burkina Faso and Mali can be seen as a serious hit to European foreign policy. This could lead to increased migration, which, in turn, is another politically sensitive topic and dilemma for the EU. Nevertheless, the EU continues to be one of the leading partners in the region, and it should renew its stance to keep promoting security, stability, and aid for African countries in the near future.
Sources: European Commission, European Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Policy, France 24 Frontex, NY Times, UNHCR
Written by Clarissa Bigasz Mascarenhas