The response to last week’s hostage crisis at the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria perfectly encapsulated the broader relationship between the European Union and Algeria. EU countries, notably France and the U.K., tried to encourage Algeria to consult with them on handling the dramatic events taking place on Algerian territory, but ultimately, the Algerian government acted on its own terms, on the basis of its better intelligence about the situation on the ground. In the end, European leaders acknowledged that, while they would have liked some advance notice, the Algerian army had responded swiftly and appropriately according to its own understanding of the situation.
Algeria’s experience in tackling armed Islamist groups from its decade-long internal civil conflict, and the broader role that it has thereby developed as one of the key security actors in its region, form one of the twin pillars supporting the EU’s relationship with Algeria. Ansar Dine and the other Islamist groups involved in the takeover of northern Mali have strong links to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which originated in Algeria. The relationship’s other pillar is Algeria’s position as a hydrocarbon-rich, reliable energy provider to Europe, the U.S. and beyond. Algeria counts many EU states among its energy clients, including France, Italy, Spain, the U.K., Portugal, Greece and Slovenia. The combination of these two Algerian strengths means that the EU has far less leverage with Algiers than with other North African capitals on stated European priorities such as political reform. In addition, Algeria has traditionally enjoyed far closer relations with key member states than with the EU-wide institutions, which makes it even harder to ask Algeria to follow the European Neighborhood Policy agenda.
Following the seizure of northern Mali by secessionist and Islamist forces in March 2012, the international community deliberated over whether and how to intervene. France and the U.S. in particular tried to court Algerian support for an African-led intervention, with both U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and French President Francois Hollande making separate high-profile visits to Algiers in late-2012. But despite the proximity of the crisis to Algeria, which shares a more than 600-mile border with Mali, and the leading role in the conflict played by the very Islamist groups that the Algerian government had spent years fighting, Algiers warned against an international response, calling the Malian situation an internal matter. Algeria watchers offered various interpretations of this warning: Did instability in the region work in Algeria’s favor, by making it infeasible for neighboring Mali to explore oil sites in its north? Was there a fear of involving Algerian armed forces in a military operation beyond its borders, which would risk exposing their relative weakness?