Last week French President Francois Hollande announced that Operation Serval in Mali has entered its final phase and hinted that the withdrawal of French troops from the country would begin within a matter of weeks. The French government has always maintained that it does not intend to keep its forces in the region for the long haul, and wants to hand over operations to an African-led force as soon as the situation in Mali is stable. Emphasis will now gradually move to diplomatic discussions at the U.N. for a resolution mandating a peacekeeping force, and the level of media attention on France’s high-profile intervention in the region will slip down a few notches.
The European Union Training Mission to Mali, which finally launched Feb. 18 after months of discussion, will work quietly alongside Malian armed forces, helping build their capacity and supporting the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity under civilian authority. The European Council has also decided to restart development cooperation with Mali, now that the interim government has adopted a road map to democracy and plans to hold elections by the end of July. The council will dedicate up to $320 million to this effort, which will prioritize the restoration of democracy through the electoral process, and peace through reconciliation and conflict prevention. In addition, EU aid will seek to provide basic services, strengthen food security and relaunch the Malian economy. So after around three months in crisis mode, with France at the helm, the EU’s engagement with Mali will fall back into something resembling business as usual, as part of its approach to the Sahel region more broadly.
What is lacking, however, is any comprehensive European approach to a region that suffers enormously from poverty and underdevelopment; weak states and conflicting local, regional and religious identities; numerous complex networks of armed rebel and terrorist groups, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb; and expanding circulation of weapons and drugs. The conflict in northern Mali has laid bare the extent to which these challenges directly affect European security and European strategic interests in North Africa, most notably during the hostage crisis at In Amenas. But given the Sahel’s geographic proximity to Europe and the regional nature of many of the militia groups operating there, the issues Europe faces there are not new. The problems have been there, growing, for a number of years -- but a coherent approach has not.