The first months of last year had brought some hope that, this time around, things may be different between the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU). 2020 should have been the pivotal year for their relationship, upgrading it with a new comprehensive strategy and culminating in their sixth annual summit in October in Brussels. Things looked promising, yet, not everything went as planned. As the virus spread across the globe, many policy milestones on both sides – such as the start date of the AU’s African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy – were pushed back, as was the annual summit, postponed to 2021. Recently, reflections on the EU-AU relations’ future came to the fore.
The pandemic is impacting almost everything, and EU-AU relations are not an exception. Evidently, the virus spread makes the road to a stronger and equal EU-AU partnership even more difficult, in a context in which Africa’s response to the pandemic calls for the reclamation of its economic and monetary sovereignty, and in which Europe is preoccupied with its own struggles. The economic recession worldwide has highlighted the crucial need to move on from the old donor-recipient paradigm and restructure the relations between the two continents into an equal partnership, in which both parties can foster economic growth, prosperity and sustainability on their own terms. The main challenge for the EU is to build a new strategy with Africa based on common interests and shared responsibilities.
Under the ongoing crisis, which presents itself as a test for this new vision of an enhanced partnership, much more is required than simple economic stimulus packages to offset the virus’s social and economic impact, such as debt relief, provision of emergency soft loans, substantial financial aid, etc. After all, Africa is a field of fierce competition that Europe needs to secure and work along with; a part of Europe’s future is at stake in Africa.
Africa as a field of fierce competition
Over the past few years, the EU has gradually understood the need to strengthen the ties with its southern neighbours. This will help to cope with the geo-strategic changes occurring on the continent, and therefore, the need to win the attention and confidence of the AU instead of settling for unilateral proposals. Africa is nowadays perceived as a young and dynamic continent that offers plenty of opportunities for investment and trade, and an important one for forging geopolitical alliances. The EU remains the main partner of the AU, but the power balance seems to be gradually shifting towards new actors like China, Turkey, Russia and some Gulf states, in a wide range of areas.
The new comprehensive strategy and subsequent enlargement of the partnership confirms the European Commission’s geopolitical ambitions on the continent, with new clear signs of the strategic importance of Africa for the EU’s foreign policy. The five pillars of the comprehensive strategy touch upon green transition and energy access, digital transformation, sustainable growth and jobs, peace security and governance, and lastly, migration and mobility.
Most of all, the pandemic has confirmed the need for urgent actions. The World Bank forecasts the deepest and most synchronised global recession since WWII, in which the Sub-Saharan African economic activity will have the deepest contraction on record (by 2.8% in 2020), letting debt diplomacies sink the continent’s poorest countries. If this is indicative of anything, it is the pressing need to move on from the aid approach and create sustainable economic opportunities.
Supporting Africa’s economic integration
The AfCFTA, one of the flagship projects of the AU’s Agenda 2063 and which goal is to create these much-needed opportunities, is an excellent arena for action to bring Europe closer to Africa. The project still has a long way to go to fulfil its goals, mainly to get rid of the continent’s bureaucratic maze, and this is incredibly relevant for the EU, for both short- and long-term interests.
In the process of this continental integration, gaps and deficiencies will occur, and the EU will need to act quickly to solve them before another global power exploits. Numerous African countries are unwilling or unable to apply the terms of the AfCFTA as many of them lack the customs procedures and infrastructure to do so. Also, if trade fails to generate profit for the poorest countries as well as the richest ones, a backlash against free trade could happen, reducing cooperation, and giving room to further unilateralism.
Removing tariffs will not be enough. The EU must share its expertise on tackling the many non-tariff barriers, such as the weakness of transport, logistics and communication infrastructures, as well as the harmonisation of payment systems. The securing of borders will strengthen customs cooperation and as such provides an excellent opportunity to facilitate trade, but also to limit illegal traffics and guarantee the rule of law. With the AfCFTA, through collaboration on the borders, it is possible to hope for a control of the one hundred million small arms circulating illegally on the continent, and the pacification of the less stable regions of the continent, which is, at the end of the day, of great interest to the EU.
Given the AfCFTA’s central role in African economic development, the EU should adapt its strategy towards Africa and its trade-related support in a way that is supportive of these dynamics of economic integration.
Contentious topics and the European Green Deal
Despite these dynamics, some contentious topics remain unchanged, and are expected to be just as problematic in the upcoming summit as in previous ones: trade and immigration. The trade structure remains very unequal and currently cannot help eliminating the continent’s problems: high unemployment and a large, untaxed, informal sector. As for immigration, the EU has long been putting pressure on African countries to better secure their borders to prevent the flow of irregular migrants. In contrast with the previous text that included only one largely ineffective article on migration, the post-Cotonou Agreement (that the European Commission still battles to sell at home) is far more detailed, covering issues such as legal pathways, visas, circular migration, and family reunification, and including timelines – which some EU Member states, with strong right-wing nationalist parties, still do not fully agree on.
Finally, further talks must take place on how the EU’s new economic growth model, the European Green Deal, can serve this cooperation. The EU and the AU look at green transition from very different angles, as climate mitigation policies are a high priority for the EU, but African countries prefer to prioritise adaptation and socio-economic issues, such as job creation. A European-African dialogue on green transitions needs to acknowledge these differences, in a first place, then look for win-win opportunities.
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Skouri, A. (2021) A Continent of Opportunities: The EU’s Comprehensive Strategy with Africa, IDRN, 28 January. Available at: https://idrn.eu/economic-development/a-continent-of-opportunities-the-eus-comprehensive-strategy-with-africa [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].