The Malian crisis: A challenge for European interoperability
Picture: French soldiers during Serval Operation, January 2013. Source: World Armies.

The Malian crisis: A challenge for European interoperability

22 July 2020

Since 2012, Mali has been facing armed conflicts that oppose multiple military groups spreading in the Sahel region. Active groups include the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) that seeks the independence of the northern region of Azawad; Islamist groups aiming to impose Sharia law; and the Malian government which has been supported by international actors, including France (Maïga, 2016).

France launched the Operation Serval in January 2013 to support the Malian government. Praised by the European community and materially supported by Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Great Britain, France was the first European country that invested itself financially, materially, politically and humanly in the conflict (French National Assembly, 2013). Operation Serval finished in July 2014, and since August 2014, French-led involvement in the region has continued under the auspices of Operation Barkhane.

While the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) could have been expected to support the French initiative, there was reluctance among the other EU Member States to engage militarily in the Sahel region, and France was initially left handling the conflict on its own for several weeks (d’Evry, 2015: 18). As such, the experience exhibited the limits of the CSDP in terms of EU countries acting with one voice in times of crisis. The case of the Malian crisis thus brings to the fore the challenge of interoperability within Europe (French Senate, 2019: 37). In the present text, interoperability is defined in a broad sense as close cooperation in the field of security and defence, thereby incorporating strategic-level factors in the analysis. To reach this goal and to reinforce Europe’s position on the international scene, Member States would need to coordinate their actions abroad, which requires pooling their resources and interests.

European commitment to peace building in Mali

Despite the lag in action and involvement between France and other European countries, there is a strong concern for restoring peace in the region and increasing interoperability. Besides the French-led military involvement, other tools such as civilian and training missions have been put in place within an EU framework.

The EUCAP Sahel Mali (EU Capability Building Mission) civilian mission, launched in 2014, trains and assists Malian security forces such as gendarmerie, national guard and police, with the mission’s current mandate extending to January 2021 (Council of the European Union, 2019). Additionally, the European Development Fund dedicated €665 million to Mali in 2014–2020, with priority areas including state reform, food security, education and infrastructure (European Commission, n.d.).

The EUTM Mali (European Union Training Mission) has been active since 2013, training the Malian Armed Forces and helping to improve the military education system, to strengthen Malian forces’ capability to protect the country’s territory and population (EUTM Mali, n.d.). The mission is composed of nearly 700 soldiers, contributed by 28 countries, of which 22 are EU Member States (EUTM Mali, n.d.). In March 2020, the mission’s mandate was extended to May 2024, with an indicative €133.7 million budget for the four years (Council of the EU, 2020b). The EU’s Athena mechanism, set up in 2004 to finance common costs caused by EU military operations, has been used as a funding source for the EUTM Mali mission (Council of the EU, 2020a).

These various instruments and the help from the EU Member States demonstrate the willingness for European involvement in fostering peace and the rule of law in Mali. In addition to EU instruments, it is crucial to remember the United Nations’ MINUSMA peacekeeping mission, which has been active in Mali since 2013.

Nonetheless, in terms of military operations, the key instrument remains Operation Barkhane, which is led by the French military and to which France contributes the lion’s share of material, financial and human resources. The previous French commitment to the operation was 4,500 troops, but the size of the deployment rose to 5,100 after the Pau Summit in early 2020 (French Ministry of Armed Forces, 2020: 18). Estonia’s contribution has been 50 troops before a November 2019 parliamentary vote to increase the commitment to 95 (Kelly, 2019), while the Czech Republic is committing a maximum of 60 troops (Šiška, 2020), while the UK and Denmark have provided logistical support (French Ministry of Armed Forces, 2019; Danish Ministry of Defence, 2020). The next section will discuss how the picture of European military involvement in Mali has displayed the limits of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

German trainers for EUTM Mali, July 2013

Military involvement: Ad hoc cooperation outpaces CSDP

Besides NATO measures, the CSDP is a key instrument to promote interoperability between European countries and increase European defence capabilities. However, two major factors are preventing EU Member States from extending their coordinated defence action, developing their common security policy, and acting unanimously under the EU flag to resolving the Malian crisis: different interests and the disparity of resources.

Distinct national interests have guided the involvement of French troops in Mali and the wider region. The neighbouring Niger is key for the French nuclear company Orano (previously known as Areva), which has two large uranium mines in the country and is planning for a third one (Orano, n.d.). In the region surrounding Mali, other natural resources include oil, gold and zinc, which may attract armed groups and thereby destabilise the region where France has interests (Cogné, 2013). Meanwhile, other EU Member States have not had as strong an interest in the region, which has limited finding a genuinely European response.

The most recent development is the creation of Task Force Takuba, which is scheduled to reach initial operational capacity this summer, and full capacity by early 2021 (French Ministry of Armed Forces, 2020). Reaching unanimity among EU Member States risks being a slow and challenging process, which may help explain why France pursued ad hoc partnerships for creating Task Force Takuba.

The Task Force was officially launched in March after a meeting of representatives from 11 European countries as well as Mali and Niger (French Ministry of Armed Forces, 2020). It will work as a part of Operation Barkhane, thereby accompanying French and other troops that are already in the field (French Ministry of Armed Forces, 2020; Schmauder et al, 2020; Kelly, 2020). However, Norway, Germany and the United Kingdom have already expressed their incapacity to contribute troops to the Task Force, while maintaining their political support. As of June 2020, France had committed 300 members of special forces, while Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden combined to provide another 300 soldiers. However, only France and Estonia were ready to already deploy in summer 2020 (Schmauder et al, 2020). In sum, the creation of the Task Force is a new illustration that successes in developing a common European military response to the Malian conflict have been achieved by circumventing the EU-wide CSDP framework.

The Malian crisis presents a challenge for interoperability within the European defence forces. While France has led military actions, European-level actions have focused on training and civilian capacity-building, which has produced a need to ensure that actions for securing the region taken at different levels contribute efficiently to the same goal. Within Europe, France’s involvement in the conflict has contributed to its position as an advocate for strengthening European defence cooperation. Task Force Takuba represents a recent success of French calls for more united European action in the region, and the deployment of the force can also ensure that European forces can gain new experience from Mali that provides valuable contributions to tactical and operational-level interoperability.


Written by Nour ENGUELEGUELE Defence Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre

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