Far to the south of Europe, across the Mediterranean, several incidents have taken place over the past few weeks. Despite their relevance for the EU’s strategic and security interests, they have received scant attention, confirming that neither Brussels nor most of the member states grasp which threats the continent is facing.
The incidents involve Niger, Algeria, and Eritrea.
In Niger, suspected Islamist militants attacked an army barracks and a mine owned by the French nuclear firm Areva. This has important implications for Europe. Niger is the world’s fourth-largest producer of uranium. The Areva plant there accounts for about 30 percent of the needs of France’s nuclear industry.
The EU recently deployed a small police training force to Niger. Experts gathering at the EU’s Institute for Strategic Studies in Paris last week questioned the mission’s value. They pointed out that the dozen or so EU officials based there will not be able to stop Niger from becoming part of the Sahel’s nexus of terrorism, criminal gangs, and drugs and human trafficking.
In neighboring Algeria, a political crisis is brewing. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is seriously ill. He has been in Paris receiving treatment since the end of April.
Europeans should be extremely worried about what happens in the post-Bouteflika era. Last January, Islamist militants attacked a gas production field in the south of Algeria owned by BP and Norway’s Statoil, among others. The attack challenged Bouteflika’s zero-tolerance policy toward radical Islamists—which in turn has helped to protect Europe’s mainland.
Further east, in Eritrea, President Isaias Afwerki has had to deal with defections from the air force and growing criticism of his authoritarian rule. If Eritrea becomes swamped in war, the implications for the rest of the region and Europe are serious. The country has a 1,200-kilometer (750-mile) coastline on the Red Sea. Just think about the repercussions for global shipping and trade if things go wrong in Eritrea.
These three cases impinge directly on Europe’s security and interests. Despite that, Europe has no long-term strategy for dealing with the region.
The main reason is that Europeans, all in all, are too inward-looking to grasp how globalization is changing the fundamentals of defense and security policy.
This is confirmed by an excellent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations examining the security strategies of the member states.
What is fascinating (and depressing) about the report is that any kind of strategic thinking—if it exists at all—is still limited to the national level. It’s as if the EU’s common foreign and security policy, established twenty-one years ago, had no relevance. And even though most European governments know well that they are impotent when they try to act alone, the reflex of dealing with interests and security issues at a national level is simply too deeply ingrained.
Yet even at the national level, the documents, with very few exceptions, are so shallow and provincial that they betray a complete blindness toward the security challenges facing Europe. For most EU member states, the countries south of the Mediterranean don’t seem to exist.
Why is this so? It’s because Europeans do not believe that they are threatened. And as they do not feel threatened, there is little pressure to overhaul their armed forces, their military capabilities, or their way of looking at the world.
In effect, European governments have settled into a long-term attitude of irresponsibility for the security of their citizens and the stability of their continent. No European leader shows any inclination to break out of this lethargy.
Not even the United States’ new strategic outlook has penetrated through. The Obama administration’s pivot to Asia has changed the entire nature of the transatlantic relationship, yet the Europeans still believe that this strategic shift will not affect their security interests, and that the Americans will remain the guarantor of Europe’s security.
For Europe, it would be much better if the United States, instead of conveying soothing messages about how the transatlantic relationship is still intact, told Europeans that the old tenets of transatlantic ties are over. Perhaps that would jolt them into adopting collective strategic policies toward the rest of the world.
The alternative is much worse. If Europe continues to willfully ignore the dangers brewing outside its borders—for instance in the Sahel—it risks having to face a far more brutal, bloody, and expensive wake-up call.