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.

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.

Tags: Afghanistan, Foreign Policy, Mali, UK politics