Europe in a foreign field
The Europeans’ ability to deploy force abroad is falling, but Mali shows it is still needed
When young men go to war resentment turns against those shirking danger. In Iraq the Americans denounced the French as cheese-eating surrender monkeys. In the intervention in Mali, French politicians are dismayed by the absence of allies, especially Europeans, in the fight against jihadists.
The French conservative opposition leader, Jean-Francois Cope, was among those complaining that “for now, our country is alone at the front.” Plantu, cartoonist for Le Monde, had President Francois Hollande as Tintin riding into battle, with the European Union depicted as the comically inept policemen, Dupond et Dupont (Thomson and Thompson in the English version), calling from their couch: “We are all with you!”
Such criticism is harsh. The British, the Belgians, Danes, Italians, Germans and Canadians offered airlift support; the Americans are thinking of offering intelligence and air-to-air refuelling. French officials, who usually deride Cathy Ashton, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, are pleased she called an emergency meeting of foreign ministers on January 17th, and is ready to speed the deployment of a planned military training mission to Mali.
Yet the reality is that only the French are putting their troops in harm’s way to push back the militants. African forces that were meant to lead the reconquest of northern Mali in the autumn are being sent pell-mell, but many worry about their abilities. Nobody in Europe or America disputes the danger posed by the emergence in the Sahel of a Taliban-style haven. For one senior (non-French) security source, the region has become “al-Qaeda’s fastest-growing franchise”.
As the former colonial power in the region, and a target of jihadist menaces, France feels the danger more acutely than others. And the fact is that, among Europeans, only the French and the British have the will and wherewithal to fight abroad at short notice. The French never wanted a front-line role. Instead they had hoped to send a small contingent of French experts wrapped in a European training mission, inside a multinational West African force—all enveloped in a political strategy to promote the return to democracy in southern Mali and reconciliation with some rebels in the north and sealed with a UN mandate. It was the jihadists’ pre-emptive assault on the south that forced the French to abandon the indirect approach.
Still, Mali is the sort of contingency that the EU’s “battlegroups” (formations of about 1,500 soldiers deployable at short notice) could be taking on. The unit currently on the roster, the “Weimar battlegroup”, is led by Poland with contributions from France and Germany. But for the Poles, already committed in Afghanistan, Mali is a foreign war too many. And the Germans are always reluctant to put boots on the ground. Established since 2007, the battlegroups have never seen action. Enthusiasm for them is already waning. There are supposed to be two battlegroups at the ready in each six-month period, but lack of contributions means this has dropped to one.
L’Europe de la defence, as the French call the idea of an autonomous EU force, has an unhappy history. France killed the idea of a European army in 1954. Europeans’ reliance on America during the Balkan wars of the 1990s revived the idea of greater EU military capacity, launched at the 1998 St Malo summit by Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac. But the plan ran afoul of America, which feared France was trying to undermine NATO, and was then stalled by Franco-British spats over the Iraq war in 2003. Reassured by France’s return to NATO’s command in 2009, the Americans then encouraged a stronger EU military role. But last year Britain vetoed plans for a new EU military headquarters. At the behest of Britain and others, NATO took charge of the war in Libya, leaving the EU on the sidelines.
Now a new Franco-British pragmatism is gaining ground. The French have discreetly set aside institution-building and the British have quietly accepted the benefit of modest EU operations. The most visible is Operation Atalanta, the anti-piracy naval patrols off Somalia. Last year an Italian helicopter was sent in to shoot up a pirate supply base. The EU now runs a training mission for Somali forces (based in Uganda), pays for the African intervention force in Somalia and is training neighbouring countries to secure their own coastlines. This has reduced piracy and raised hopes for a better future in Somalia. Some of this is being applied to the Sahel. Apart from training the demoralised Malian army, the EU will help African contingents with money and logistics. It is already training forces in Niger, and may soon help the new Libyan government secure its border.
Unappealing, but unavoidable?
The French may have felt compelled to go in alone, but to get out they will have to rely on the EU and the Africans. Mali shows that, although the French and the British retain the ambition to fight on day one, they want the EU, for all its flaws, to help maintain stability on day 100 and beyond.
Europe’s strategic outlook is changing. As the Americans pivot towards the Pacific, Europeans will need to take charge of their own security and the stability of their “neighbourhood”. Yet their means to do so are dwindling. The debt crisis has forced many countries to cut their defence budgets, often in an unco-ordinated manner. The British and French are retrenching, too.
Even given more money, soldiers and equipment, the formula for success in foreign wars remains mysterious. Iraq, Afghanistan and even Libya have hardly been unqualified successes for Western intervention. Some Europeans hoped these would end the appetite for overseas adventures. Yet the war in Mali came unexpectedly and may have been unavoidable. For better or worse, it will not be the last European intervention.