The weakening of the EU's position in Africa and the Middle East has been taking place for approximately the last 15 years, according to a report by the Italian Institute of International Political Studies (ISPI). In 1995, EU leaders and several Middle Eastern and North African countries proclaimed a strategy to create a Euro-Mediterranean partnership, the main goals of which were the establishment of a 'common space of peace, stability, and shared prosperity' and the launch of a free trade zone by 2010. However, little progress was made toward its implementation. The deep structural problems of the countries in the region, including high levels of unemployment, inequality, corruption, lawlessness, and flawed state institutions, led the region into a deep political crisis — the events of the 'Arab Spring' in 2011. Yet, this crisis did not bring the region closer to their resolution, and the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and exacerbation of environmental problems (water scarcity, desertification, environmental pollution) have resulted in a series of humanitarian crises. The consequence of this has been an increase in migration pressure on the EU. As a result, today, the region appears even less integrated and more conflict-ridden than it was in 1995, or even in 2011.
The trend is equally unfavourable further south, in the African Sahel region. Military juntas have seized power in four of the five states within the region — Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad — over the past three years. In total, eight coups d'état have taken place in the territory from Sudan to Niger in the last three years, according to the authors of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) report ‘Middle Powers, Big Influence: Africa's “Coup Belt”, Russia and the Weakening Global Order’ (Re: Russia has written more about this here).Over the past 15 years, the traditional problems of these countries, such as the fragility of state institutions and weak economic development, have intensified due to the weakening global order and the emergence of competing external actors in the region.
As a result of the recent string of coups in the Sahel region, politicians seeking support, including from Russia, have replaced pro-Western regimes. For example, the coup in Mali in May 2021 led to the breakdown of the country's relations with its long-time ally, France. When Paris suspended joint operations with the Malian armed forces, Mali's transitional authorities turned to Russian mercenaries — the Wagner Group — for help. Eight months later, the Malian junta expelled the French ambassador and terminated military cooperation with France, forcing it to withdraw its troops. Shortly thereafter, Britain announced the withdrawal of its peacekeeping forces from Mali, and the new authorities of the country demanded the complete termination of the UN MINUSMA mission.
As experts from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) note in their commentary on this topic, disappointment with international organisations and the West in the region is due to their contradictory policies. The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali has been blamed for being unable to resolve the conflict between the government and rebel groups and for only prolonging the conflict. Western countries have been active in combating threatening terrorist cells in the region but have failed to address deep-seated internal political conflicts. They have also often linked aid provision to the region's progress in resolving issues such as gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights, which has fuelled public discontent. This dissatisfaction has further intensified in the wake of unconditional and extensive Western support for Kyiv after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
As a result, the countries of the region have become increasingly active in seeking out new allies. Moscow has emerged as one such ally, promising the Malian authorities tools to combat insurgents without attaching any restrictions on internal politics. This approach has appealed not only to the elite but also to a significant portion of the population, the experts from RUSI note.
In Mali and other sub-saharan African countries, Russia continues to benefit from political instability through disinformation campaigns aimed at further fueling anti-French sentiments among the local population and reinforcing a positive perception of Russia, according to an article by RANE, an international risk analysis company. These information campaigns, organised on social media platforms in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Sudan, Gabon, and Niger, have successfully disseminated pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda against the backdrop of the suspension of French media operations in the region.
However, it is not only Russia that has sought to increase its influence in the region; the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are also making efforts in this area. These countries are willing to invest substantial resources in the political and financial capital of the region, as well as in supporting its security. They are also creating a favourable environment for African autocrats, preventing their international and regional isolation.
As the experts note, although the EU still presents itself as a global player, in reality, its relations with its southern neighbours are becoming increasingly insular. To change this situation, Brussels needs to develop and offer the region a more active policy with the right incentives for elites and populations, taking into account the reasons for the failures of previous 'integration' strategies. This will be particularly challenging in the context of the effective withdrawal of the United States from the Middle East and North Africa, initiated by the Obama administration and continued by Donald Trump and Joe Biden. European governments and institutions have since struggled to provide an alternative to US security guarantees in the region, and the EU’s lack of leadership, along with internal disagreements among its members, has repeatedly undermined the coordination and effectiveness of the union. This has sown widespread distrust of its promises and stated intentions.