Europe urged not to give up its vital role in Sahel

Relations between Brussels and some capitals have frayed since coups in Mali and Burkina Faso

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The EU must keep the countries of the Sahel orientated towards the bloc, a top European diplomat has said, amid widespread signs that the relationship between Brussels and some regional capitals is fraying.

Emanuela Del Re, the EU’s special representative for the Sahel, said countries in the region looked to the bloc as a “model” in terms of its social achievements, system of governance and welfare.

Relations between the EU and Mali, a country in the Sahel, have plummeted since military coups in August 2020 and May 2021. Last month soldiers also overthrew the president in Burkina Faso.

EU member states have sent troops to help train the Malian military and tackle extremist groups operating in the wider Sahel. But the presence of European troops in Mali could well end, amid disagreements between the military junta ruling the country and the EU.

France, the main foreign military power in the Sahel, said that “the conditions are no longer in place” for French troops to continue the fight against terrorists in Mali, including those linked to ISIS and Al Qaeda. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French soldiers would be sent elsewhere in the Sahel to maintain its mission. Mali's military junta has also called for protests against France, in part due to international sanctions imposed on the country.

On Tuesday, Germany’s defence minister said “there will be no reason” for her country's military to stay in Mali if the country delays presidential and legislative elections by four to five years, as has been suggested by the military junta.

Ms Del Re said the proposed four to five year wait for elections was unacceptable.

Western countries are also angry that Russian Wagner Group mercenaries are operating in Mali.

Ms Del Re, speaking at an online seminar organised by the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the presence of Wagner Group operatives was a “red line” and was unacceptable. Mali rejects claims that the Russian mercenaries are in the country.

The West regards the Wagner Group as being close to the Russian state.

Ms Del Re said that the EU training of Malian soldiers aimed to equip them with a “set of principles and values that we all share”. But it would not be acceptable if those soldiers were to be trained by those with “no precise rules of engagement”, Ms Del Re said, referring to the Wagner Group.

The EU has imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group and associated individuals and entities, and has accused it of human rights abuses and destabilising activities in countries that it is active in, including the Central African Republic, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.

In January, the Economic Community of West African States responded to the Malian junta's postponing of elections promised since 2020, when the military took power, by imposing a trade embargo and closing borders with Mali, in a move backed by France, the US and EU.

Updated: February 15, 2022, 1:28 PM