The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, have unveiled plans for a €210m partnership with Mauritania in an attempt to curb people-smuggling to the Canary islands and launch new energy and infrastructure projects benefiting both sides.
Figures soon to be published by Frontex, the EU’s border agency, are expected to show that the number of people risking their lives by making the perilous journey from west African shores to the Spanish islands has risen dramatically in the past year.
The EU leaders met Mauritania’s president, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, on Thursday morning to “discuss security, migration and stability in the Sahel region”.
Von der Leyen commended Ghazouani for the support his country was giving to 150,000 refugees, and pledged humanitarian aid as part of the package which they hoped to sign-off in the spring.
She also announced investment support for a new high-voltage power line between the capital and the south-east of the country and improved roads to the north, where Mauritania hopes to develop wind, solar and hydrogen energy supplies in conjunction with the EU.
In addition, there would be support for training defence forces to help secure the border with Mali, she said. “The situation in the Sahel is very precarious and Mauritania plays a key role in ensuring stability in the region,” she said.
Investing in African infrastructure has long been seen as a route to influence by China and Russia, but the EU is also interested in strengthening security in west Africa, where France’s influence in countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso is seen to have waned significantly.
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” in the area.
The path for a partnership with Mauritania was cleared last October, when the EU and Ghazouani made plans for foreign inward investment to help Mauritania decarbonise in an initiative backed by the European Investment Bank.
Von der Leyen spoke of the many “cynical traps” that migrants and refugees may fall into, describing the Atlantic people-smuggling route as “one of the most dangerous in the world”.
The west African country, along with its southern neighbour, Senegal, is a significant embarkation point for thousands of people seeking to reach the Canaries. Sources say the route is now the “most active” for people smugglers luring travellers into high-risk journeys to the EU.
Data shows 7,270 people were smuggled across the 900-mile stretch of water in January, up from 566 in the same month in 2023, the Spanish interior ministry said last week.
Sánchez said he would work to strengthen existing collaboration on border control between the two countries and “explore possible pathways to enable regular migration”.