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Mali is a British concern because it is a European concern

24 January 2013

Aaron Ellis makes a good point: the comparison between Mali and Afghanistan is flawed. But I disagree with him as to why. Afghanistan was a failed state long before al-Qaeda settled there (as a last resort). The pattern is slightly different in Mali: Islamists have further destabilised an already weak country in a strategically sensitive area.

Mali has been wracked by unrest, both ethnic and religious, for some time. The country is so poor (as a glance at the CIA World Fact Book’s approximations demonstrates) that is precarious politically; so precarious that it threatened to undermine some of its delicate neighbours along the Sahel (the massive and growing strip where desert meets savannah): Niger, Mauritania and Chad.

The European Union has viewed the Sahel as a crisis zone for more than a decade. The 10th European Development Fund (2007-2013)  allocated 660million euros to the region. The EU supplemented this considerable sum by 167million euros following the coup d’etat against President Amadou Toumani Touré in March 2012, which was caused, it seems, by his failure to quell the Tuareg and Islamist rebellion(s).

Is the European Union right to spend this money? The answer to this question requires a determination as to whether Mali is a European interest. Despite the weight of French colonial history, Mali’s top five export partners in 2011 were China 31 per cent, South Korea 14.5 per cent, Indonesia 12.2 per cent, Thailand 6.3 per cent, Malaysia 5.4 per cent, Bangladesh 5 per cent. I was surprised by these facts until learning that Mali’s exports are predominantly low quality agricultural products and gold, which are not of premier interest to developed European markets. Much of Mali’s workforce is occupied in nomadic agriculture and the country is wholly dependent on aid, so its internal market is much too weak to import most European products.

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If Mali barely qualifies as an economic interest, why then is the EU spending so much cash in the region? Put simply, Mali is viewed as a security concern. EU documents on food shortages and ethnic and religious rebellions in the Sahel warn of the implications of humanitarian crises (and human rights violations) occurring a couple of thousand miles south of the Mediterranean. There is good reason for this, reasons that go beyond the obvious worries about breeding terrorists. 2011 saw huge rows across Europe over the Schengen Agreement as tens of thousands of displaced Arabs arrived in Italy and Malta. The crisis undoubtedly revealed deeper concerns that exist across the continent about refugees, immigration, freedom of movement and access to public services and the labour market.

Mali also threatens several vital European economic interests. The country’s proximity to the oil producers Algeria, Libya and Nigeria (see here, here, and here for details of each country’s respective production, reserves and export partners – Britain is prominent among them) is clearly a factor, especially as each of those countries is battling internal Islamist elements that appear to be in contact with Mali’s rebels. It may smack of leftist conspiracy theory to view foreign policy through the prism of energy security; but, Europe, with its antiquated energy infrastructure, rising prices and depleting reserves, will not be following the United States into the happy position of energy independence any time soon. Europeans will continue to do business with some very dysfunctional, even terrifying regimes.

Freddy Gray’s recent cover story for the Spectator demonstrated that the US is repositioning its strategic assets decisively to the Pacific, reflecting new economic and political realities. This change will shift the balance of global diplomacy. It seems unlikely, for instance, that Britain will be able to build exceptionally close bilateral ties with Commonwealth countries such as India, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, each of whom will be looking to the United States for defensive (and economic) ties against the spectre of belligerent China. Indeed, this process has already begun: in November 2011 with the agreement to increase US hardware and personnel based in Australia, an agreement that was packaged by the Australian government and some of the media as an extension of the 60 year old ANZUS alliance. The view, held by some esteemed British commentators, that America is ‘withdrawing’ has to be seen in light of these strategic developments, which are, as Alex Massie says anything but isolationist. America may have ‘led from behind’ in Libya; but it is leading from the front in Darwin.

What does this mean for the Atlantic world? America’s recalibration surely provides an opportunity for European countries to rediscover their self-confidence on the international stage (and enjoy the economic benefits of doing so) by taking full responsibility for their interests and concerns, both collectively and individually. This is not merely a matter of guns and airstrikes, but of law and sound investment. I cannot forget the moment when the new road on which I was driving in Kenya (a key export partner of Britain and the Netherlands, by the way) disappeared at the very point that a sign advertised the astounding success of the EU’s Rural Access Scheme. This astounding waste is unacceptable, both to taxpayers in Europe and users in Kenya’s underdeveloped but plentiful interior. European governments and the EU should challenge it.

There is vast potential across Africa, even in destitute Mali. But little will be realised while instability, corruption and human rights violations persist. The EU’s latest strategy document on the Sahel makes this clear when it says that its programmes in Mali will not resume until there is a ‘credible road map towards these objectives (defined as the establishment of security, the rule of law, good governance and public services to countervail ‘extremism and radicalisation’) is adopted and in the light of tangible progress.’ You can almost hear the fighter jets between those lines.

The prime minister said on Monday that Britain is likely to be drawn into more conflict. It is strange, therefore, that his government remains committed to reducing Britain’s offensive capabilities; strange, but understandable given our present financial predicament. The context of Britain’s place in the European Union seems stranger still. There might be some who look at the situation in Mali, see Britain’s place within a wider European context, and then wonder why David Cameron has chosen this moment to make his anticipated EU speech. The threat posed by Islamists in Mali and elsewhere makes the need for EU reform, and renewed understanding of the EU’s purpose in this rapidly changing world, even more pressing.

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Show comments
  • eeore

    It’s odd how the issue of slavery has dropped out of the picture. Back in October and November when the budget for the mission was set, the coalition was being gathered, and the planning done, I note that the slavery angle was being pushed.

    Clearly it was not a meme that gained traction, so it fortuitous that the the incident in Algeria has given focus to the media operations, and allowed people to obsess on the pre-laid memes of nationalism, religion and terrorism.

    I haven’t checked twitter, but no doubt very shortly Hilary’s tweeters will be on line with account names such as FreeMali, and MaliPatriot, giving up to date information on events that will be lapped up by those on the Guardian’s live blog.

    Shame about the reported tens of thousands of slaves for whom none of this will make the slightest difference… who knows, maybe one of them will get lucky and be adopted by Angelina Joli, when she turns up to cash in on events.

    • F Dar

      ‘Slavery’ by a bankrupt Neo-Colonialist France+EU is v.much in the mind of Tuareg/Mali &/Sahel/African Resistance Forces. Hence the Commando raid on the EU ‘looting point’ in S.Algeria Tuareg territory. Shame on EU voters who back an undemocratic dictatorial Army regime in Algeria,because it keeps the flow of cheap oil+gas to EU.Wouldn’t a freely-elected government in Algeria continue to sell oil+gas to EU?

  • Hexhamgeezer

    Not our fight and we will never have any influence.

    The UK’s biggest concern is that fi the !$lamofascists get full control they will choke off the best music that comes out of Africa.

    • F Dar

      Not to worry @hexhamgeezer….there is plenty of Eurofascist music to choose from!

  • Tom Tom

    I am all for sending David Blackburns son to Mali to fight

  • Fat_Freddy_Freekowtski

    The French could easily and cheaply solve this problem by allowing the Taureg nationalists to break away and form their own state. The al-Qaeda operators are outsiders who exploit local problems. So the simple solution is to recognise that Mali’s borders (long straight lines through all terrain and ethnic boundaries?) were created on a whim by colonial administrators in a different era and that these days we recognise, like Woodrow Wilson, peoples right to self-determination and will support the Malian Tauregs desire for self-determination. Al-Qaeda insurgents cannot operate without local support and if the French solve the problem by letting the tauregs form their own state that will be then end of that.

    But… the problem with this simple solution is…France will be supporting ethnic nationalists who don’t want to live in the same state as another ethnicity and we can’t let that sort of thing succeed. Oh no.

    So another war for political correctness and cultural marxism. Well done!

    The French PM is a socialist – what is Cameron’s excuse again?

  • El_Sid

    Someone didn’t notice the new defence treaty we signed with Australia last week….
    And as I’ve said before, the US military pivot to the Pacific is largely spin – there’s not a lot of fresh assets moving into the Pacific. A lot of the troop movements are redistribution from places like Okinawa, because of the local opposition there. For some reason people don’t like it when you rape their women.

  • chan chan

    Great picture up the top. A woman on a cart being pulled by a donkey while the fields burn behind her. Could easily be from the 9th century, when muslims first invaded the area. No doubt they burned it to the ground then, as well. Some things never change, eh, readers? Least of all Islam…

    • Tom Tom

      Mutter Courage (Berthold Brecht)

  • Jebediah

    Blackburn you’re talking nonsense at the end: “There might be some who look at the situation in Mali, see Britain’s place within a wider European context, and then wonder why David Cameron has chosen this moment to make his anticipated EU speech.”
    We’ve fought along side the Americans enough times, and that’s never prompted the question “should we be part of America”.

  • the viceroy’s gin

    “…Mali’s top five export partners in 2011 were China 31 per cent, South
    Korea 14.5 per cent, Indonesia 12.2 per cent, Thailand 6.3 per cent,
    Malaysia 5.4 per cent, Bangladesh 5 per cent. I was surprised by these
    facts until learning that Mali’s exports are predominantly low quality
    agricultural products and gold, which are not of premier interest to
    developed European markets.”


    You say the EU has a role to play in Mali?


    They can start by importing Malian goods.



    If the EU is a serious entity, they must IMMEDIATELY address this balance of payments issue.

    However, as we know, the EU is in reality a protectionist bloc, intent on stunting African economies (and unwittingly, their own). The above figures clearly demonstrate that.

    Today’s “security concern” raised in Mali has only resulted because of the previous “security concern” over the need for the excellent Libyan adventure. Absent that, Mali would not even be on the radar screen. The islamofascists didn’t have a toehold in Mali or Libya, prior to then.

  • Tom Tom

    Mali is Africa’s third largest gold producer; like Niger it produces uranium. It is a former French colony not a British one. Britain has spend its inheritance since 1912 propping up France in its military endeavours. If you are so convinced of your case raise some money in The City and hire those 5000 soldiers fired the other day – that is twice the military force France is committing to Mali.

  • F Dar

    Most British tax-payers are struggling to maintain a decent standard of living when prices are rising & incomes are at a standstil & their children’s futures are uncertainl. Why spend our taxes on invading yet another country & creating more ill-feeling towards British people in Africa?Put that money into NHS ,Schools,housing etc at home & send teachers & doctors & farming advisors to Africa,not trigger-happy soldiers, if we want to win hearts & minds there!

    • eeore

      Hearts and minds? What a curiously old fashioned notion.

      • F Dar

        Why have you allowed @eeore to ‘reply’ to my ‘Comment’, BUT YOU HAVE NOT SHOWN MY ‘REPLY’ TO HIS ‘COMMENT’??Be fair,or stop pretending to be an impartial ‘reporter’/journalist.

  • Nigel Jones

    The EU didn’t send troops to Mali. France, a nation state, did – because it was the former colonial power.
    The only time that the EU has attempted to intervene in an armed conflict – Yugoslavia – the result was an utter fiasco.
    Apart from Britain and France, no other EU state has a military capability worth talking about.
    The EU has pretensions enough,without military ones.

  • fubarroso

    There is no such thing as a European concern because there is no European demos. I think you mean an EU concern.

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