Open Europe Blog

“We are all with you”

Le Monde’s cartoonist left a clear image – France’s President Hollande rushing off into the Malian desert while the rest of the EU sits behind and pontificates.

France has a history of interventions in Francophone Africa and mostly they are primarily of regional importance. This time though it seems France is trying to fry a bigger fish: the biggest concentration of Islamic fundamentalists in West Africa. So should this be just a French responsibility or should they expect help from the EU? (NATO will always be a second choice for France) Well, evidently the French media feels others in the EU are not pulling their weight.

EU states have a history of under-investment in their own security and failing to help in multilateral actions. In Afghanistan the USA’s allies invariably left it with the lion’s share of the heavy lifting and in Libya, in the EU’s neighbourhood, big states such as Poland and Germany decided to sit it out. 

But the French are clearly beginning to feel Mali should be different. The Economist quotes French conservative opposition leader, Jean-François Copé, saying “for now, our country is alone at the front.” And on Channel 4 News Former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said:

“The British people for such a mission are our closest friend. We need them. For the time being we are alone. I beg you don’t leave the French alone. This is a common mission, this is a common threat, we are all fighting extremism.”

reasonable enough plea – though he sort of spoiled his case by adding that in his view “part of the reason” Britain was dragging its heels was because of the Conservatives’ sceptical attitude to EU membership, when in fact, Anglo-French defence and foreign policy cooperation is widely seen in Conservative circles as exactly the type of issue and network-based approach that European cooperation should be more geared towards. Also, that a former French foreign minister is begging for the UK’s assistance only serves to highlight how important the UK’s military and clout is in terms of lending the EU geopolitical credibility. It also says something about the perpetual fear in some circles of the UK being “isolated” in Europe…

How long France will take to complete its operations in Mali is unclear, but the longer it drags on, help in the form of training and logistics as promised by the UK, Germany, Spain, Belgium and Denmark may not be enough. So will this end up becoming a European operation? One thing remains clear: as ever, when it comes to defence and security capabilities, co-operation and political will are far more important than politicians grand designs for European “state” building.

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