by Mieke Molthof. Originally published on 2014/03/20

In recent years, the Sahel region has become an increasingly important part of Europe’s neighbourhood. The region’s economic underdevelopment and insecurity directly threaten EU interests – not only through drug trafficking, illegal migration, and terrorist activities – but also by acting as a conveyor of instability emanating from other regions. The Sahel serves as a transmission belt of any threats that may emerge from North Africa, West Africa and the Middle East (Grevi, Keohane, Lee & Lewis, 2013). Supporting the consolidation of development and security in the Sahel region is now one of the major challenges in EU foreign policy (Helly, 2013).

Given the rather disappointing outcome of the EU’s traditional trade and development policy, as well as the deteriorating security situation in the Sahel, the EU has recently started to focus on addressing the region’s challenges from a more comprehensive approach. It was in this spirit that the EU drafted its Sahel Strategy. The problems in the Sahel are not only numerous, but also multifarious. In this regard, the Sahel presents the EU’s comprehensive approach with precisely the challenge it was looking for – or perhaps feared (Simon, Mattelaer & Hadfield, 2012).

Along with the Horn of Africa, the Sahel is the first region in which the EU is implementing a comprehensive strategy (Hatzigeorgopoulos, 2013). To be sure, the comprehensive approach is not new in EU foreign policy. The interdependence between security and development has been emphasized in multiple EU policy documents, including the 2003 European Security Strategy, the 2005 European Consensus on Development and the 2007 Joint Africa-EU Strategy (Sherriff, 2011). The link between the security and development agenda is therefore not new, but the more targeted strategy for a particular and entire sub-region is new. As stated by Hatzigeorgopoulos (2013), “the Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel … represent[s] [a] renewed line of thinking which goes beyond targeted, limited policies and missions addressing particular issues in individual states, to broader regional approaches where a wide range of complementary tools … are mobilised and deployed to support and advance a complex agenda within a wider strategic framework” (p.6). The EU’s comprehensive strategy for the Sahel is thus not only based on the assumption that development and security are interlinked, but also on the assumption that the challenges in the Sahel require a regional response.

The challenges in the Sahel are not only multi-dimensional, but also of a transnational character. As noted by Grevi et al. (2013), “[i]n a volatile region stretching from West Africa to the Gulf, long-term challenges to European interests will not organise themselves into a neatly separate, sealed ‘neighborhood’” (p.96). Given the porosity of the borders and and the transnational character of the region’s conflict dynamics, improving the situation in the Sahel requires not only supporting economic development and stable state-structures, but also stimulating dialogue among the main regional actors in the Sahel (Simon, Mattelaer & Hadfield, 2012).

Regional cooperation is only likely to be successful when aspired and led by regional states themselves. However, this does not take away from the fact that the manner in which external actors engage with regional states also matters. Yet, from the outset, the EU’s strategy for the Sahel has depended on an ill-defined geographic understanding that largely fails to reflect the complex interdependence between the various conflict systems across the Sahel (Bello, 2012). By limiting its focus on the region’s weakest countries, i.e. Mali, Niger and Mauritania, the EU excluded the region’s pivotal states, notably Nigeria and Algeria. A narrow regional strategy that is limited to a group of core countries and excludes the region’s leading states is widely considered to be unsustainable (IPI, 2013). Indeed, according to Pirozzi (2013), the EU’s choice to exclude Algeria and Nigeria “has inevitably undermined the possibility to tackle crucial economic, security, humanitarian and governance aspects through a genuine and inclusive regional dimension” (p.16).

Nevertheless, the past few months have witnessed a promising development. While the EU’s original strategy continues to provide the main framework for its engagement in the Sahel, the EU now seeks to adopt a dynamic interpretation in order to extend the strategy’s ambit to countries other than Mali, Niger and Mauritania while advancing a new perspective to the links between the Sahel and the Maghreb (EEAS, 2014). A forthcoming revision of the EU’s strategy will reportedly include Morocco and Algeria; two countries that play a critical role in the region’s politics (Korteweg, 2014). In December 2013, the EU emphasized the importance of close cooperation and dialogue between countries in the Maghreb and between regional bodies in order to strengthen development and security in the Sahel (The Maghreb Daily, 2013). Most recently, the EU set up an international coordination platform for the Sahel under Malian chairmanship to foster cooperation across the region and ensure regional ownership (EEAS, 2014). These efforts testify to the EU’s growing recognition of interconnected regional dynamics in the broader Sahel.

Thus, despite the fact that challenges remain, the EU has taken an important step forward by adopting a more dynamic approach, thereby moving from a rather narrow and exclusive focus towards a more comprehensive regional strategy that is key to the consolidation of a stable and secure Sahel.

Further Reading

Lehne, S. (2013). Promoting a comprehensive approach to EU foreign policy. February 21, 2013. Carnegie Europe.

EEAS (2011). Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel. European External Action Service.


Bello, O. (2012). Quick fix or quicksand? Implementing the EU Sahel Strategy. Working Paper, 114. Madrid: FRIDE.

EEAS (2014). The European Union and the Sahel. European External Action Service. Brussels, 6 February 2014.

Grevi, G., Keohane, D., Lee, B., & Lewis, P. (2013). Empowering Europe’s future: Governance, power and options for the EU in a changing world. Brussels: European Union.

Hatzigeorgopoulos, M. (2013). The EU’s strategy for the Sahel: A new turn in EU external action? European Security Review, 64.

Helly, D. (2013). From the Sahel to Somalia: responding to crises. In G. Grevi & D. Keohane (Eds.), Challenges for European foreign policy in 2013: renewing the EU’s role in the world. Madrid: FRIDE.

IPI (2013). Security and development in the Sahel-Sahara. IPI Meeting Notes. New York: International Peace Institute (IPI). October 2013.

Korteweg, R. (2014). Why Europe should broaden its horizons in the Sahel. CER Bulletin, 94.

Pirozzi, N. 2013. The EU’s comprehensive approach to crisis management. DCAF.

Sherriff, A. (2011). The EU Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel – an indicator for the future of EU external action? Talking Points, 23 September 2011. ECDPM.

Simon, L. Mattelaer, A. & Hadfield, A. (2012). A coherent EU strategy for the Sahel. Brussels: European Union.

The Maghreb Daily (2013). EU calls for intensified political dialog in Maghreb to consolidate security in the Sahel.