European leaders will double their funding for a force tackling militants in the Sahel. Meanwhile, the bloc has discussed how it will cope with a multibillion-euro hole in its budget caused by Brexit.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, centre, French President Emmanuel Macron, left, and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni arrive for an EU summit at the Europa building in Brussels on Friday, February 23, 2018.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, centre, French President Emmanuel Macron, left, and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni arrive for an EU summit at the Europa building in Brussels on Friday, February 23, 2018. (AP)

International donors on Friday pledged $510 million to five impoverished countries in West Africa's Sahel region, much of it to fund a new counterterror force.

It came at a summit in Brussels of 32 leaders and 60 delegations meant to show political, development and security support for the G5 Sahel Force, involving Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

The 5,000-strong G5 Sahel force for the five countries was seeking around $493 million for its mission along mostly desert borders, including near Libya – the main jumping-off point for thousands of African migrants bound for Italy.

The amount pledged "goes far beyond our initial expectations," said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. "It's a tremendous result that allows us to begin putting the force into operation."

TRT World speaks to journalist Jack Parrock.

'Continuous form of financing'

While the funding was welcomed, Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou warned that it would keep the force operational for only one year based on current needs.

"It's easy to imagine that the confrontation between the terrorists and us lasts for more than a year. So we need a continuous form of financing," he said, suggesting that the force should come under the control of the UN.

"The Sahel is one of Europe's frontiers. The Sahel is a shield, a dike that must never burst," Issoufou said. He reminded the leaders that "security is a global public good."

Security has deteriorated in the Sahel since 2011, with attacks a regular occurrence, as militants but also people seeking better lives in Europe move easily through the porous borders that have an estimated combined length of some 28,000 kilometres.

More than 1,100 people have been killed since 2014, nearly 400 of them last year. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is considered the most active of around eight groups operating there.

Development aid

But the EU insists it's not just about security. Brussels says political help and development assistance are vital in a region wracked by extreme poverty, harsh climate, food shortages and health crises.

"We need to support these five countries, especially also to give hope to the next generations so that they have also a future in their own country," said Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel.

The EU has invested more than $9.8 billion in development aid in the Sahel for 2014-2020. Part of that is self-interest as the EU seeks to ease its burden by tackling the root causes of migration.

While migrant arrivals through Libya have dropped, more than 120,000 people still left there last year. Many perish in the crossing of the Sahel and Sahara before they can even take their chances in the Mediterranean.

Post-Brexit budget

Meanwhile, the leaders of EU nations – minus Britain's prime minister – met Friday to discuss how the bloc will cope with a multibillion-euro hole in its budget caused by Brexit.

In the summit debate, all EU states except Britain are expected to say whether they agree to increase the 2021-2027 budget to pay for new common policies on security, defence and migration, at a time when Brexit will slash revenues to the common pot by $12-15 billion a year.

"I think we want to have new priorities, new policies, future-oriented policies, and if we cannot reduce to the right extent old policies then countries have to pay more," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on arrival.

The summit in Brussels will gauge the EU's ambitions as it sets a multiyear budget for the post-Brexit era, said Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, a former EU budget commissioner.

The choice is "to increase the budget and find new resources, European resources or taxes, or to reduce some other old programs," Grybauskaite said on her way into the one-day meeting.

Britain is set to leave the EU – the first country to exit the world's biggest trading bloc – in late March 2019. But Brexit talks must be finalised by the fall so parliaments can ratify any withdrawal agreement.

Discussion on funding areas

The EU's executive commission estimates that Britain's planned departure will cut contributions by around $14.8 billion a year. Britain has agreed to pay its budget share until 2020.

Juncker said last month that the EU's 2014-2020 budget, which totals some $1.34 trillion, is insufficient to fund the bloc's growing ambitions in areas such as defence, tackling migration and border control.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte disagreed, a sign of divisions between some leaders that could presage acrimonious wrangling during months of budget discussions.

Facing pressure at home not to stump up any extra cash for Brussels, Rutte said the EU can keep costs under control by modernising programs.

"We spend a lot in Europe. There are good reasons for that," he said. "But the amount does not have to rise."

Brexit won't only cause financial headaches; leaders were also expected to agree to slim down the European parliament from 751 seats to 705 and redistribute seats relinquished by departing British lawmakers.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies