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Mali is the proving grounds for the Common Defense


By Michelangelo Freyrie

An unescapable characteristic of continents is that they´re big, and because of that, diverse.  Europe, despite being the second smallest continent in the world, extends to staggering 10 million square kilometers and embraces numerous ecosystems – both environmentally and politically. When we talk of “European security”, usually to note the meagerness thereof, we fail to appreciate the diverse challenges policymakers face when trying to craft a comprehensive strategic plan. The Union may well aspire to become a cohesive engaged block, but it has become obvious that every front on which it tries to engage its international partners present unique sets of linguistic dissonances regarding what “common security” exactly means. In the East, Russian antagonism represents a far less hypothetical threat to Poland and Estonia than it does to France and Germany. Similarly, while the stabilization of North Africa is an urgent security question for Italy and France, the Visegrad Group can count on its Western allies to carry the burden of immigration. The bifold nature of the European common defense policy isn´t just a question of facing actors with radically different agendas: to face targeted destabilization by Russia presents a fairly different military challenge compared to counterinsurgency operations in the Sahel region. With much of the political capital funneled in the creation of multinational battalions, a reasonable proposal would be to adopt the German proposal of “framework nations” – plugging minor countries´ resources into larger, backbone armies – on a European level, backing national armies with European missions and funds.

Supporting the French

A good example of this model would be the French intervention in Mali, the most recent  independent out-of-area European operation. Legitimized by the 2013 UN resolution 2100, the stabilization effort designed to avoid the birth of a new caliphate in the heart of the Sahel has been, at least in its inception, a French-African endeavor seemingly mimicking the same rationale that had pushed the US to intervene in Afghanistan without NATO support in 2001. Amidst a Tuareg insurgency and the rekindling of jihadist activities in the region, there was no time to rally European contributions for a war France was perfectly capable to handle. After the end of operation Serval and the conclusion of a peace accord between the northern Azawad separatists and the government, the need for a long-term stabilization effort has opened the gates to a series of international efforts. While ceasefire implementation and policing efforts have been assigned to MINUSMA (a mixed UN peacekeeping force of African and European forces), there has been an effort to craft an operational structure regarding active antiterrorism measures (read: offensive actions against the different jihadist groups in the region). With the creation of an African multilateral force compellingly baptized G5 Sahel, European involvement is set to be scaled down to embedded support similar to what we´re witnessing in Iraq and Syria, albeit on a minor scale. The French, with operation Barkhane, provide highly efficient strike forces, close air support and reconnaissance to their African counterparts – from which 10.000 Malian soldiers have been trained by EU instructors of the EUTM Mali mission. A similar program (EUCAP) has been activated for the police and gendarmerie units.

Just do what you do best

Under a purely operative point of view, the European involvement in Mali seems to be a handbook example of how EU exterior operations may look in the future. It provided auxiliary manpower to the mission of a member state that risks spreading its units thin across the region; it weighs in with its soft power providing for funds and the perspective of an enduring partnership to local leaders far better than the UN could do.  However, it also shows the limits of an intervention model lacking clear institutional coordination. In the last years the Union has abdicated its role as political pilot favoring a purely operational support to the French-African mission, channeling common investments in security rather than development. Although this may show a EU capable of dealing with crises requiring military coercion, it doesn´t count towards solving the issue at hand, as some authors have pointed out. Fighting corruption and trafficking, enhancing the reliability of local institutions and creating the conditions for economic growth beyond criminal activities are the kind of lengthy initiatives the structures backing the lead nation should undertake, but doesn´t because of the desire to show that Europe as a whole is indeed active on security front. The lack of long-term political cohesion is of course a chronic problem of Europe, but the Libyan Civil War has demonstrated that consequences would be especially dire if no long-term understanding on what the Sahel needs was reached. Circling back to the premise, a failure on this front would not only reverberate on those countries more affected by migration, but would also cast doubts on the ability of the Union to act as an actor capable of sustaining its member states. With EU Battlegroups still in an embryonic state, the concept of a common defense built on entrusting operations to single member states is currently the only solution allowing the EU to sit at the table of international affairs as a somewhat credible actor. But despite the immense challenge of building a consensus in a 27-members-block, we cannot forget that its primary role, at least in this approach to power projection, is to fill the gaps member states can´t deal with on their own. Why bother with building a common army to deter Russia if there isn´t even a political structure capable of wielding it?