The Sahel has to be a priority. Part of the future of Europe is being played in Africa. (Interview with Josep Borrell)

Josep Borrell (credit : Council of the EU)

(B2) The Sahel and Africa should not be forgotten. They are a priority for this Commission, reminds Josep Borrell in an interview to B2 and Sud-Ouest just before the Pau Summit. It is necessary to stay united, but still to question ourselves, accept some self-criticism and ‘take the measures that are needed’, he says. 

• On Monday (13th January), the main leaders of the Sahel region (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Mauritania) are coming to Pau (France) on the invitation of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in order to discuss the situation of their region. The choice of city is not random (*). The capital of Béarn hosts the 5e régiment d’hélicoptères de combat, from which seven of the thirteen French soldiers killed in Mali in a helicopter crash in November came from. Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, and Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the EU and vice-president of the European Commission have also been invited.

• France’s goal is to consolidate the Barkhane operation and the G5 Sahel force, and to get more commitments from the African leaders, on the military level as well as on the political one. They have to “clarify” their position and publicly “take responsibility” for the French military presence, who appears to be more and more criticised in the African public opinion.

• This summit was supposed to take place on 16th December. It was postponed after the attack on the Inates camp, which resulted in 71 deaths and in missing soldiers from the Nigerian army. It was also quite controversial, as the tone of Paris’ invitation was a bit ‘rough’ for the Africans.

You will be in Pau for the summit on the Sahel. What is your message?

— I am here to say one thing. First of all: the Sahel is everybody’s business and not only France’s. It is a European priority. The time when we could circumscribe the threats or the dangers to one specific territory is over. Secondly, it is necessary to find a joint path to move our efforts forward. Finding ourselves at a place, where the situation has without doubt never been as dangerous, we have to stand together. If we allow ourselves the luxury of being divided, this division will be exploited by those who want to destroy these countries. The consequences will be dramatic, for the local populations as well as for us. Thirdly, the Sahel needs an urgent and reinforced mobilisation, here and now. The need to work closely together is more urgent than ever.

Yet, in the region, all the lights seem to be turning red. The Malian State is struggling to govern. The jihadists are far from being defeated. They are actually expanding their area of operation, in particular to Burkina Faso and to the north of Mali, to the point where observers do not hesitate to draw a comparison with the situation that prevailed in 2012. How do you analyse it?

— It is true, it has to be acknowledged that, despite an unprecedented engagement in the region, the situation is not improving. Terrorist attacks taking place almost daily are all the more painful reminders of the continued deterioration of the security state in Africa and in the Sahel. And the victims of theses attacks are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. I for example think about these children and teachers in the school bus which exploded last weekend in Burkina Faso. We have to ask ourselves, all of us – G5 Sahel countries and the international community –, what is that is not working, even with our massive engagement (2). We have to do this self-criticism exercise and take the necessary measures. Because it is also in our interest: without stability in these countries that are not that far away from us, we cannot face together the other challenges that we have in common, such as the fight against climate change, the management of irregular migration flows, the economic development, etc.

The French often have the feeling of being alone in the Sahel. Is it true?

— No, France is not alone. The European Union has actually taken a political, human and financial commitment without precedent. On the ground, we have three missions. One, which is military (EUTM Mali), trains and advises the Malian army. The two others are civilian missions (EUCAP Sahel) which advise and support the interior security forces (police and gendarmery) in both Niger and Mali. We have also been the first ones to support the creation of the G5 Sahel force in 2017. 115 million euros have been used in concrete ways, for example to equip this force with armoured vehicles. We have provided fuel as well as rations to the MINUSMA (the stabilisation mission of the United Nations in Mali). And we will continue to do so. We will secure an additional 140 million euro-fund this year (3). Finally we must not forget development aid either. For without economic, social and human development there cannot be sustainable peace and security. Since 2014 the European Union has supported the G5 Sahel countries with 8 billion euros. (NB: This equals to more than a billion euros per year).

However there is this feeling of being alone that continues to grow with each loss of men on the ground?

— To see your children die far from their land, for a cause that, sometimes, is too big to grasp, can legitimately create questions and doubts. That’s why I can understand this feeling. It is one of the reasons why one of my first official acts as head of the European diplomacy was to participate in early December to the tribute paid to the thirteen French soldiers who died in Mali in a military accident in Paris at the Invalides. I wanted to clearly show that the Sahel is not only France’s business. The soldiers that died there were fighting for the security of France, the region, the African continent and for Europe.

EUTM Mali is at the moment stuck to only two places in the country: Bamako and Koulikoro. Couldn’t we have them being more mobile, more active?

— The mandate of EUTM Mali locates the mission in the entire south and center of Mali to the South bank of the Niger river, in the military regions of Gao and Tombouctou. This represents a considerable part of Mali. But it is true that we have to be able to operate on a greater part of the region. And above all to be more mobile, to be where our support is the most useful and necessary, and soon (4). That’s why part of our action also includes reinforcing our support to cross-border cooperation and regional cooperation structures. For example, EUTM Mali can already provide training outside its mission area on a case-by-case basis. And this is also the case for the European Union civilian missions. Ultimately, the three missions in the region should be able to operate, if need be, in the five G5 Sahel countries (5).

Is that enough?

— Of course not. Because the answer cannot only be security related or military. Peace is not only won with weapons. It can also be achieved with the return of State services in the most fragile zones, by the easing of community tensions, by guaranteeing basic services such as health or education to all. We have to bring a global response.

Won’t what is happening elsewhere in the world divert our attention? Will you keep an eye on Africa? 

— Yes. The Sahel and more generally Africa are very clearly priorities in my mandate and for the new European Commission presided by Ursula von der Leyen. We will present a new strategy this year, that we will design not only with the European Union Member States but also in partnership with the African countries. A part of the future of Europe is being played in Africa.

(Interviewed by Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

  1. The electoral matters of the next municipal elections in France are not too far away, as Pau was the birthplace of Henri IV and of its mayor, François Bayrou, leader of MODEM, and ally of Emmanuel Macron in government.
  2. Also read: Les cinq pays du G5 Sahel vont devoir en faire davantage. L’admonestation européenne
  3. Read: Un ‘surge’ pour les missions PSDC au Sahel et en Somalie. EUTM Mali et EUNAVFOR Atalanta réorientées ?
  4. Read: Soutien européen supplémentaire au G5 Sahel
  5. Read: Pichenette à la hausse pour le budget d’EUCAP Sahel Mali. Régionalisation accentuée. La CCCR renforcéeet Régionalisation. La mission EUCAP Sahel Niger reçoit mandat d’aider le G5 Sahel

Longer, completed and translated version of the article published by Sud Ouest Dimanche – Interview conducted through written questions between Friday 10th and Saturday 11th January.

Nicolas Gros-Verheyde

Rédacteur en chef du site B2. Diplômé en droit européen de l'université Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne et auditeur 65e session IHEDN (Institut des hautes études de la défense nationale. Journaliste depuis 1989, fonde B2 - Bruxelles2 en 2008. Correspondant UE/OTAN à Bruxelles pour Sud-Ouest (auparavant Ouest-France et France-Soir).