Politics Defence

War in Mali: The Europeans aren’t fit for purpose

16 January 2013
Süddeutsche Zeitung Munich

France's war in Mali is a fight for all of Europe that France is fighting alone, writes the Brussels correspondent of the SZ. Brushing Paris off with a few aircraft isn't just shirking on the part of its European Union partners, it's a fatal blow to a common European defence.

If the situation in Mali were merely just about Mali, French soldiers would hardly have been sent to fight against Islamist militias. The interests of the former colonial power in Africa aren't great enough for France to take that risk. France has intervened because the problem state in the Sahel threatens to blow up into a serious threat to Europe. And it has gone in alone, it is because the other Europeans have shirked the responsibility. That says a lot about the state of the common European security and defence policy. And none of it is good.

If Paris gets nothing more from its European partners than some fraternal backslapping and a few transport aircraft, then something is going wrong in the European Union. To block the take-over of Mali by Islamists and terrorists is truly in the European interest.

Europe has known of the danger for more than a year. In the hands of Al-Qaeda in the Magreb and their like-minded friends, Mali would turn into an Afghanistan on Europe's doorstep: a starting point, training camp and rest area for international terrorism.

Lack of support

This EU has certainly recognised this risk, but has been unable to agree on a comprehensive response. A small training mission for the Malian army was the most they could come up with: Europe's joint will wasn't capable of any more. There was no precautionary planning for a response to a military emergency, which is what the French are now reacting to.

The news that the training mission is now to be sped up verges on the comical. On the one hand, the problem won't be fixed by the other Europeans looking on with folded arms as the French step up to the line for their common interests.

And on the other hand, the Malian soldiers can hardly have time for European trainers while in the centre and north of the country they're bogged down in fighting the militants. Developments have overtaken the European plans.

Serious about EU security policy?

Today, rather, the EU must answer the question whether they are truly serious about a common security policy. That would mean not leaving France on its own militarily here and now. Former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine recently gave a damning verdict on the common security and defence policy that the EU has been working on for the last two decades. If the leaders of the EU countries cannot agree quickly on reliable principles for their cooperation, then the European claim to be a world power is finished. Védrine could probably not have imagined that Europe would be so quickly put to the test and that the decisive test would be in the Sahel.

There is strong evidence that Europe is failing that test, because the foreign and security policy interests of the EU member states are still too far apart. Just to take the example of Mali, all the Europeans agree about the danger – but not about how to deal with it. Nor about the fact that in such situations you have to prepare for anything, even war. European security policy suffers from disunity, lack of capability, and lack of will. Those will not fade away so quickly.

Nonetheless, the other Europeans must now help Paris militarily. It is a question of solidarity, but there is also a long-term reason: those who want to keep the door open for a true European security policy must not run the risk that Paris will have to call NATO if it cannot go any further militarily. That would be the ultimate proof that the Europeans simply aren't up to the job.