France has beefed up its campaign against al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, but the EU response to other West African crises has often been piecemeal, with individual member states focused on former colonies.
West Africa was a growing source of concern to the EU in 2010. Some EU members continue to take an interest in their former colonies (France focuses on Côte d’Ivoire, Britain on Sierra Leone, and Portugal on Guinea-Bissau). But there are more general worries about the rise of drug trafficking in the region and a growing al-Qaeda presence in the Maghreb, which is associated with a number of recent kidnappings of EU citizens.
European policy in the region has fluctuated between toughness and confusion over the last year. French special forces participated in a series of raids in Mali and Mauritania against al-Qaeda bases, but a proposal by the European Council secretariat for a CSDP mission to support governance in states affected by al-Qaeda failed to win approval. The Council also agreed to close a security-sector reform mission in Guinea-Bissau that had been operating in 2008. This had never made much impact, and looked irrelevant when soldiers launched a coup attempt in April. The mission closed in August.
The biggest test for the EU came in December when a political standoff followed Côte d’Ivoire’s presidential elections. The European Council was quick to agree sanctions against incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo after he refused to accept results that showed he was the loser. But as violence mounted, the 900 French troops in the country refrained from intervening – primarily out of concern for the safety of French civilians – and the main diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis involved the US, the AU and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
The EU has more direct leverage in West Africa than in much of the rest of the continent, and French interventions in Mali and Mauritania are a significant contribution to the wider international campaign against al-Qaeda. Nonetheless, events in 2010 showed that EU policy towards the region remains piecemeal, varying markedly from crisis to crisis