The EU’s role in an anti–jihadist defence and security mission in the Sahel region is under increasing threat as relations with the military government in Mali continue to decline over delayed elections and the presence of Russian mercenaries, EU officials conceded on Thursday.
“For now, we are continuing our mission to train and advise the Malian army and security forces,” EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said following a meeting of EU defence ministers in Brest.
“We want to stay engaged in Mali, we want to stay engaged in the Sahel, but that should not be done at any cost, ” he warned.
“Our commitment only makes sense if it stays within the framework we agreed on three years ago,” French Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly said.
The EU suspended its financial support to the budget after Mali cancelled the planned elections. “We don’t see any signs of progress,” he added.
Borrell announced that the EU will impose sanctions in line with the measures taken by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), following a meeting of EU defence ministers in Brest.
“The risk that the situation in this country deteriorates is evident,” Borrell told reporters. He added that there was “no sign of progress from the [Malian] authorities”.
ECOWAS earlier on Sunday agreed on a raft of restrictions against Mali, including the suspension of financial transactions, over the interim authorities’ failure to hold democratic elections next month as agreed after a 2020 military coup. The junta government led by Colonel Assimi Göita says it wants a five-year transition period before new elections.
However, the decision by Colonel Göita and Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop’s to deploy fighters from the Wagner Group, has also triggered a major diplomatic backlash from France, the EU and the US, and risks the collapse of a French–led counterterrorism mission in the Sahel region.
In late December, 15 Western countries condemned the deployment of Wagner fighters to Mali and accused Moscow, in a statement, of providing them with material backing.
Mali’s government at the time denied that any mercenaries had been deployed in the country, only referring to “Russian trainers” on the ground bolstering the security forces’ operational capacity. In the meantime, the Russian government has emerged as its main supporter in the international community.
However, French officials say that 300-400 Wagner group mercenaries are on active service in Mali, and insist that Paris will withdraw its troops from its 5,000-strong regional anti-jihadist force, Opération Barkhane. President Emmanuel Macron had hoped to scale down Barkhane in favour of a multinational force called Operation Takuba, including troops from EU member states, but the Wagner group’s presence in Mali could derail the mission.
In December, the EU imposed sanctions against the Wagner group and eight of its senior commanders, following embarrassing revelations that EU military personnel had been training local forces in the Central African Republic alongside Wagner operatives.
“We have suspended the training mission for soldiers but not the military advisory missions,” Borrell confirmed on Thursday.
The EU also announced that it would conduct a root and branch review of its security and defence missions in Africa to ensure that its officials were not working with Wagner group mercenaries.
“The Central African Republic and Mali are two sides of the same problem, with the presence of Wagner in the past, which illustrates in all its dimensions the consequences of the presence of this mercenary group in a country,” added Florence Parly, France’s Armed Forces minister.
French priorities in Africa
Taking over the EU Council Presidency, Paris announced it aims to renew the partnership between Europe and Africa ahead of a crucial EU African Union summit in February.
At the same time, the EU’s upcoming military strategy, the so-called Strategic Compass, in its first draft stressed “the future of Africa is of strategic importance to the EU” and the need to further strengthen strategic cooperation with the African Union (AU), based “on political dialogue and operational engagement from Somalia to the Sahel region”.
The document adds that “ongoing conflicts, poor governance and terrorism across the continent affect our own security. This is, in particular, the case in Mali, the wider Sahel region and Central Africa where instability, terrorist groups, weak state structures, mercenaries and widespread poverty constitute a dangerous mix and call for sustained EU engagement”.
With the EU keenly aware of the role that China has carved out as the main provider of infrastructure investment in Africa, the bloc is anxious to offer something that its rivals cannot match, with defence and security cooperation being one option.
Without naming the Wagner Group explicitly, a reference to ‘mercenaries’ has been added to the EU’s updated military strategy draft, after links have become public late last year.
“As a reliable security provider, the EU will enhance its efforts to support African-led initiatives that contribute to peace and security on the African continent,” the updated draft now stated, compared to a previous version.
It also emphasises the development of military-to-military and police-to-police contacts with African counterparts as well as strengthening trilateral cooperation between the EU, the UN and the AU.
However, Russia and Turkey are also offering arms deals and military support to a series of African states.
In a nod to that trend, the EU document notes that “we see growing geopolitical competition in Africa, with an increased presence of both global and regional actors. Some of them do not hesitate to use irregular forces in zones of instability, thereby undermining international efforts towards peace and stability.”