EU security, defence missions in Africa do not translate into ‘real political influence’, says minister

Portuguese Minister of Defence Joao Gomes Cravinho presents priorities of Portugal Presidency of the European Union during a video conference with subcommittee on security and defense of European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, 26 January 2021. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

The financial efforts and missions of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) in Africa do not translate into “real political influence”, Portugal’s defence minister, João Gomes Cravinho, argued on Thursday (28 January).

“There is a lack of political commitment, a lack of translation of the financial effort and capabilities that we invest in the African continent, particularly in CSDP missions, into real political influence and a real capacity for dialogue with African political actors who ultimately decide on security and peace on the continent”, Cravinho told a hearing in the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Security and Defence (EP).

Portugal chairs the rotating presidency of the EU Council until July.

Warning that the EU should not only speak “about Africa”, but also “with Africa”, he identified the “strengthening of strategic dialogue in EU-Africa security and defence relations” as one of the priorities of the Portuguese chairmanship of the Council of the EU, as he believed that “support for the consolidation of peace and security in Africa” was one of the “most important elements” for the “consolidation of a European security and defence identity”.

In this context, Cravinho said he would invite “ministers and representatives” of the African Union (AU), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the United Nations to the informal Council of Defence Ministers on 2-3 March, which he hopes will be held in Lisbon.

“Our understanding is that political dialogue with African regional organisations with security and defence mandates will not only increase the effectiveness of EU missions in Africa – by designing more appropriate mandates and developing a more integrated approach – but will also translate the operational competence of these missions into EU political intervention capacity,” he said.

Among the areas identified for cooperation between the EU and Africa, he referred to “maritime security”, as he believed that there was still “a deficit in European thinking on maritime matters”.

“Given that a very considerable share of foreign and intra-European trade depends on free movement by sea, bearing in mind that, according to the International Maritime Organisation, the Gulf of Guinea accounts for over 90% of all piracy attacks on an international scale and that the Atlantic is now an area of growing geopolitical competition, the construction of a European defence identity must include a maritime dimension”, he stressed.

The minister thus highlighted the Gulf of Guinea area as one of the regions where European maritime security could be exercised, following the approval on Monday at the EU Foreign Affairs Council of a pilot project entitled ‘Coordinated Maritime Presences’ aimed at harmonising the missions of European naval forces in the region.

“Portugal, like other member states, maintains a regular naval presence in the Gulf of Guinea region, either through bilateral cooperation with Sao Tomé and Principe, where we have a naval environment at all times, or through the Open Sea mission and the naval exercises and capacity building initiatives developed in this field,” he said.

Pointing out that “European companies and European traders” are “directly affected” by crimes that take place in this region – ranging from piracy to arms smuggling and drug trafficking, which then “fuel the financing of terrorist activities in the Sahel region” – Gomes Cravinho added that, given the “lack of capacity of coastal states in the Gulf of Guinea to guarantee the security of these waters”, this is an issue that constitutes “an immediate threat to European security interests”.

“Therefore, I would say that we should be interested in the development of the pilot project ‘Coordinated Maritime Presences’ and we should be concerned about the set of illegal activities taking place in the Gulf of Guinea, from illegal fishing to smuggling of various kinds, to piracy,” he said.

Gomes Cravinho said that the experience in the region would “certainly be useful” in raising awareness among African partners of the “added value of the EU’s maritime and coordinated presences,” and in contributing to “the Union’s increased visibility as a maritime safety actor in the Atlantic.

“After this pilot case in the Gulf of Guinea, we will be in a position to reproduce the model or to adapt it to experience, creating the conditions for the EU to gain strategic maritime relevance,” he said.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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