Germany bears the burden of responsibility for contemporary Europe. We need to be reminded of this. This isn’t a dogma founded in the post-World War pacification of Germany, but the belief of renowned German sociologist Ulrich Beck. He believes that Germany has taken on the role of the European vanguard because of its twice waging war in Europe during the first half of the 20th century. It is therefore now second nature for German politicians to carry out their political engagements within a greater European context. And whether intentional or not, Germany’s multi-faceted foreign policy preoccupations with the Eurozone crisis, the brokering of the Turkey-EU migrant deal, plus the containment of a revanchist Russia through the Minsk accords indicate that the ‘reluctant hegemon’ has long since established itself as a legitimate leader on the European continent. However, we have underestimated the scope of Germany’s foreign policy objectives, and the extent to which it will act in the interest of its European neighbors with greater ambition in mind. This brief explainer therefore occupies itself with the relationship between the German military foothold in Mali and its aims and repercussions for Mali, Germany, and the EU. But context is needed; we’re not talking about a naval deployment similar to the likes of operations off the coast of Libya – considered one of the most troublesome African neighbors as far as European cohesion’s now concerned – but rather feet on the ground in Mali, a former French colony formally regarded as fitting comfortably in the French sphere of influence.

Mali, a sub-Saharan French-speaking republic, has recently experienced a political upheaval. It underwent a Tuareg insurgency in 2012 when militia members returned from Libya after Gadaffi’s removal, establishing strongholds in the country’s northern Sahel region. The country consequently appears to be the latest westwards falling domino across the Maghreb national security pact, the Sahara G5. Consisting of these Salafist Tuareg militiamen, the militant Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in northern Mali and its destabilisation on the state subsequently triggered UN Security Council Resolution 2085 in April 2013, granting the use of force under the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). It has been renewed annually ever since, setting the stage for an international response reminiscent of the American-led coalition in Afghanistan. But while the USA, the UK, Russia and Iran play a long, tedious proxy war in Syria, they appear to be absent in Mali. And consequently, there exists no bolder, more dominant international actors than France and Germany to fill the posts.

What formally began as an international coalition of 50 states alongside UN blue helmets has become a showcase for the extraordinary growing competency of the Franco-German alliance. There’s a somewhat good cop, bad cop dynamic playing out there. While the French head gun-ho to the battle grounds of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao in the Azawad region, Germany’s seemingly pacifist role has been anything but clear. So ambiguous is the role of the German Bundeswehr (national army) in Mali, that one journalist for the Frankfuter Allgemeine compared a 2015 statement from the German defence ministry as painting a bleak image more associated with Afghanistan than a Francophonie member. The news this July of a German helicopter crash in Mali, and two German fatalities along with it, finally brought the dangers and the consistency of the German role to the foreground of public debate.

So, what are the Germans up to? According to the Bundeswehr’s own website, it is serving as a member of the MINUSMA coalition. Germany’s presence does not extend to military confrontations, but instead serves to educate local forces and institutions as they continue to tackle the Islamic insurgencies. This is in line with the UN Security Council Resolution. But why is Germany involved in a region it has historically overlooked? There are three main reasons which I believe are most telling as to why Germany is again a part of an international military coalition.

The first reason regards geopolitics. Mali is bisected by the highly navigable River Senegal and River Niger, the former of which leads to the Atlantic coast, and the latter of which’s upper course carves out the populous spine of the country. Hence, there appear to be several international concerns regarding its waterways. With the Islamic occupations of Timbuktu and Gaol, the possibility of impacting the river traffic and water supply in the Niger river basin raises the stakes of regional economies’ dependence on the river. Such precedent as the Egyptian dispute with Ethiopia over building its Millennium Dam, potentially leading to Ethiopian leverage over the River Nile’s water scarcity downstream in Sudan and Egypt – in this instance Nigeria, and Africa’s most prosperous economy – suggests this to be a possible factor in the French and German military involvement. Furthermore, with France holding key influence in Mali, one of its West African former colonies, notably, but not exclusively through the use of the CFA Franc currency, Germany has been able to exert its soft, diplomatic power to the benefit of its strong relationship with France. Beyond Mali, however, it is in fact Germany’s foot in the door that is invaluable as it seeks to secure its greater EU ambitions.

This military involvement is an indication of larger pan-European ambitions of independent EU battle groups and the notion of a European army. Following awe-inspiring rapprochement between western Europe’s former Erzfeinde (arch enemies), France and Germany, and the development from the ECSC to EEC, to EU, a major indicator of the modern Franco-German alliance manifested itself through the creation of the French German Brigade in 1989. Now counting 5000 troops, and symbolically based in Müllheim, Germany, a town straddling the Franco-German border alongside the Corps’ Headquarters in Strasbourg, France, the Französisch-Deutsche Brigade is a testament to the neighbouring allies’ commitment to one another’s national interests. Although a certified NATO Response Force, the Franco-German brigade was later appropriated by the EU in 2014 and rehashed as the EU Battle Group Force HQ. So promising is the potential for the Franco-German Brigade to function as a potential military arm of the EU, that Belgium, Spain and Luxembourg had already been integrated into the Corps by 1996. With the exception of Spain, this counts four of the Inner Six of the EEC, who contestably remain just as loyal to the European project to this day. In the Trump Era, it’s worth reiterating the necessity of all European allies to explore alternative military arrangements – this is equally applicable to the alliance between the ‘pacifist’ German state and nuclear power France.

Lastly, especially in light of the refugee crisis Germany exacerbated through its virtually open door refugee policy, Germany now aims to balance its own national interests (an increase in its labour supply) with the EU’s longevity. This means European stability. It is awfully difficult to strike the right balance, what the crumbling of the eastern Schengen Zone starkly illustrates. Germany’s concerted role against people smugglers in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya, and its brokering of the Turkey-EU refugee deal, are just two examples of its concerted efforts to stem the flow of refugees. But Mali is a case where Germany intends to prevent the mass movement of African peoples at source through soft power, FDI, and assistance in establishing sound institutional groundwork for the volatile, weakly anchored democracy.

Germany is operating in line with its modern day military deployments in Kosovo and Afghanistan, but with the notable exception of acting outside the remit of NATO. While Kosovo was a European-based conflict with ramifications for stability in the Balkans, and Afghanistan was an arguably fruitless effort to prevent the spread of radical Islamic terrorism in Europe, Germany’s growing confidence to act within its self-defined limits, and outside of traditionally NATO-dictated operations, while pursuing the same causes, demonstrates its growing strategic independence. This marks a shift from its modern military pacifism and limited, US-defined participation, towards its establishment as a legitimate international actor. Considering the USA’s isolationism and growing disregard towards Europe under President Trump, Germany is picking up the reins as Europe’s shining star. Herein lies one of German Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen’s grounds for the EU’s Permenant Structured Cooperation (PESCO) joint Franco-German initiative, announced on the 13th  November. With Germany, supported by the European Commission, spearheading the case for an Armee der Europäer (army of Europeans), there lie exciting times ahead for the ‘Koalition der Willigen’ (the willing coalition).

It is equally Germany’s intention for the EU and its member states to benefit from the stabilisation of the Maghreb. The refugee crisis was the event which tested the very fundamentals of the European project. There was no political will for its member states to redistribute refugees equally, and Brexit, the first member state departure from the European Union, was contestably secured through the misrepresentation of the refugee crisis. But while Brexit is now being negotiated, the prevention of further Africans fleeing to Europe serves to allay growing Euroscepticism from the Visegrád states, notably Poland and Hungary, the harshest critiques of the crisis, and whose populist Eurosceptic governments are now stirring discord in the EU’s east.

What remains to be seen is, however, plentiful. Will Germany have contributed to the stemming of the flow of refugees from central Africa? Will Germany have been able to avert a further blow to fragile internal EU social cohesion? And will the EU extend what it describes as a ‘European Training Mission in Mali’ beyond May 2018 in line with the Bundestag’s extension and expansion of the Bundeswehr’s missions’ scope? It remains to be seen. With Uncle Sam and NATO’s relevance dwindling, it’s time Germany and the EU put its money where its mouth is and give PESCO its unconditional backing.