The EU’s €210m agreement with Mauritania has been marketed as the bloc’s latest ‘cash for migrant control’ deal with an African state. But the EU is also hoping to see a serious advance in relations between Brussels and Nouakchott to boost its Global Gateway investment programme and start rebuilding its influence in West Africa and the Sahel.
The deal outlined by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Mauritanian counterpart Mohamed Ould Ghazouani on Thursday (8 February), will see the EU help the West African country tackle the root causes of migration, provide humanitarian assistance to refugees and crack down on human traffickers.
That will include a doubling of humanitarian assistance for Mauritania, including support to refugees from Mali.
Following last year’s €700m agreement with Tunisia, whereby the EU would offer funds for migration control, infrastructure projects and budget support, talks on a similar deal with Egypt have been ongoing and are also close to completion.
Officials said that a “common roadmap” on migration management with Mauritania would be finalised this spring.
The EU’s border agency Frontex is expected to publish figures in the coming days revealing a sharp increase in the number of people transiting through Mauritania to attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Spain’s Canary Islands in small boats.
Mauritania will also receive investments for green hydrogen projects, part of the EU’s Global Gateway investment programme — based on China’s Belt and Road initiative — to fund green and digital projects in developing countries, particularly in Africa.
While the deal is part of the von der Leyen commission’s strategy of brokering ‘migration partnerships’ with African states, it also marks an attempt by the EU to reengage in the Sahel region where its influence has been severely diminished by a series of recent coups in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali.
“The situation in the Sahel is very precarious and Mauritania plays a key role in ensuring stability in the region,” said von der Leyen.
Accompanying the EU commission president in Nouakchott, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez said Mauritania played “a fundamental role as the democratic reference for the stability in the Sahel, a crucial region for Spain and for Europe” with “the fall of democratic governments, rise of terrorist attacks, a spike in refugees and internally displaced people and the worsening of an already acute food security crisis”.
The EU has promised €40m of additional support for security under the African Peace Facility in 2024 and that it will continue supporting the College of Defence in Nouakchott, providing education to senior military officers between 2023 and 2025.
Other commitments include EU funding to equip an additional battalion to fight terrorism and secure the border with Mali and to reinforce the military camp of N’Bekeit.
French president Emmanuel Macron ended Operation Barkhane, the eight-year long deployment of French troops to tackle Islamic insurgents across the Sahel in November 2022, amid growing anti-French resentment among local people.
Both France and the EU have struggled to adapt to the spate of recent coups in the Sahel — and the growing influence of Russian security outfits such as the restructured Wagner mercenary group.
In the 10 years before 2023, the EU spent €600m on civilian and military missions in the Sahel and trained 30,000 members of the security forces in Mali and Niger.
But Mauritania was also involved in the Qatargate cash for influence scandal in the European Parliament and allegedly paid €200,000 to former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, purportedly in exchange for help laundering its reputation on human rights, particularly slavery.
Mauritania’s access to the United States’ free trade scheme under the African Growth and Opportunity Act was suspended between 2019 and 2024 over concerns about worker rights and the use of forced labour.
Italian MEP Andrea Cozzolino, one of the MEPs to be arrested by Belgian police in relation to the cash for influence scandal, who chaired the parliament’s Mauritania delegation — held meetings with president Mohamed Ould Ghazouani in 2022.
Until now, that cash appears to have bought little meaningful influence or development of its EU relation beyond a fisheries agreement with the EU that was signed in June 2022.