The future of the European Union’s role in Africa’s Sahel region was up for debate at the European Parliament on Wednesday, where MEPs from the committees on Foreign Affairs (AFET) and Development (DEVE) met to exchange views on how to address volatile security situations in both Burkina Faso and Mali.
The debate was a preview of some of the issues that will be in the spotlight at a highly anticipated summit between the European Union and African Union Member States. The EU-AU Summit will take place in Brussels from 17-18 February.
The European Council website touts “an ambitious Africa-Europe investment package” as the aim for this year’s EU-AU Summit. It also announces that a “joint declaration on a joint vision for 2030 is expected to be adopted by the participants”. Yet within the European Parliament, MEPs diverge in how to respond to recent coups in Mali and Burkina Faso.
“We have to do everything to support our African partners to restore stability and then we have to support the people in the Sahel region for governance and humanitarian aid and in the interest of human rights".
Carlos Zorrinho, MEP
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suspended Burkina Faso last week following a military coup. The coup leaders argue that they were moved to seize power from President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré after the democratically elected leader proved unable to secure the country against jihadist attacks.
Meanwhile in Mali, relations with former colonial power France continue to deteriorate. On 31 January, Mali’s junta-led government, which came to power by way of a military coup in 2021, announced it was expelling the French ambassador.
France also has thousands of troops deployed to Mali as part of a major anti-terrorism operation in the Sahel. As tensions between Mali and France escalate, it is increasingly uncertain what a European military presence in the region will look like in the near future.
With these escalations in the Sahel region, Mali and Burkina Faso have both been suspended from the African Union. Nonetheless, the management of the recent coups is expected to be addressed at the upcoming summit.
Representatives from the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the European Commission also took part in Wednesday's debate at Parliament.
In his opening remarks, EEAS Deputy Managing Director for Africa Bernard Quintin stressed the continued uncertainty of Europe's engagement with de facto leadership in both Mali and Burkina Faso.
Bernard Quintin, Deputy Director General Africa at the EEAS, stated that “the EU must react” and develop “a political stance to unblock the situation or at least contribute to it”.
Quintin outlined three measures which are being implemented. First is to support in the sanctions against those who threaten peace.
“Nonetheless, sanctions are not a sufficient response alone”, Quintin said. “We feel that dialogue is an essential lever”, highlighting the importance of prioritising de-escalation.
The third action the EU must follow according to the diplomat is to avoid confusing the ends with the means when it comes to bilateral development aid. The ulterior motive is to fend off malign Russian influence in the region, namely the mercenary organisation Wagner Group.
"Wagner Group needs a weak state to operate. The EU's mobilisation to organise elections and other services to the population are ways to counter the deployment of Wagner", Quintin said.
Carlos Zorrinho, the chair of Parliament’s Delegation to African, Caribbean Pacific states - EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly, also responded to the events in the Sahel:
"We’re in a lawless zone here. We have to do everything to support our African partners to restore stability and then we have to support the people in the Sahel region for governance and humanitarian aid and in the interest of human rights".
"We don't want this to become a pattern", he continued, referencing the repeated coups in Mali and last week's coup in Burkina Faso.
“We’re on the eve of the EU-Africa summit, and that is where we will need to decide how to proceed”.
Marie Arena, MEP
DEVE and AFET MEPs challenged the role of the EU In the region and expressed anxiety about potentially repeating mistakes of the past.
Assita Kanko, the Belgian member of the ECR Group who grew up in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, urged the floor to reconsider their strategy.
“What we are doing now is not working. We continue permanently making the same mistake. We are simply rolling the red carpet for jihadists and Russia in the Sahel. The jihadists are steadily moving to new countries like Cote d’Ivoire and Benin, so I have a lot of expectations for the upcoming the EU-AU Summit”
Kanko urged the EU to recognise its failure and change its approach from “babysitting” Africa to seeking trade partnerships. “While we are busy doing things that aren’t working, Russia and China are increasing their influence", she warned.
MEP Karsten Lucke (S&D, DE) was also among those suggesting the EU rethink its approach to the region entirely:
"If Islamic terror is the poison to the society of these countries, and a military solution, no matter whether it's a training mission or boots on the ground, is obviously not working for years, do you see any different tools or other policy approaches to fight terrorism to kick off a more successful story in this region?"
The legacy of European colonialism in the region also came into play during the debate. Mick Wallace (IE), from The Left Group, denounced European influence in Mali, arguing that the region’s colonially issued CFA currency has only been a means for exploitation and control rather than benefiting the local popu.lations.
The West Africa CFA franc was introduced under French colonialism and continued after West African countries gained their independence in the 1960s. The current sanctions set in place by France and ECOWAS have “effectively frozen out Mali out the CFA currency” and worsened the already dire economic situation.
Marie Arena (S&D, BE) commented: “We’re on the eve of the EU-Africa summit, and that is where we will need to decide how to proceed. If our assessment is mistaken, our objectives will be as well. And it will be business as usual with a risk that ten or 20 years down the line, we'll still be facing the same problems".