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GREAT insights Magazine

EU-Africa: Breaking the silence and the vested interests

November 2017

Laporte, G. EU-Africa: Breaking the silence and the vested interests. GREAT Insights Magazine, Volume 6, Issue 5. November/December 2017.

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The upcoming Summit, the next months and years should provide unique opportunities for Europe and Africa to move into a different type of partnership. Will the EU and the AU seize this momentum or will the success of the Summit in Abidjan be measured by the number of participating Heads of State?


We urgently need to realise that the context of our cooperation has changed dramatically and that our partnership with Africa is outdated. (…) We need to be aware of the urgency and the need to review this partnership from scratch (…). Europe needs to construct with Africa the most important of all its external partnerships (…). We strongly question the pertinence of the ACP Group …’ (Le Monde, 29 September 2017).

Just a few weeks before the 5th summit of European and African Heads of State in Abidjan on 29 and 30 November, the largest French private sector association MEDEF gave an urgent wake-up call for a new and ambitious Europe-Africa partnership. This comes at a moment when European and African institutions should be finalising the agenda of the Summit after a long ‘sleepwalk’ since the last 2014 Brussels Summit.

In the past three years a lot has happened in Europe, Africa and beyond. The European project has been under increasing pressure because of Brexit, the migration and refugee crisis, terrorism and rising nationalism and populism. In Africa, the ‘booming continent’ discourse seems to be met with growing scepticism. Many African countries are coping with multiple challenges relating to demography, economic transformation, security, governance and climate change. The Trump Presidency has also put pressure on the current international liberal order and China is increasingly offering an alternative cooperation model fuelled by large financial support to authoritarian African regimes without stringent conditions.

The Abidjan Summit takes place at a moment when Africa features prominently in the European policy discourse on migration and security and in actions with the Emergency Trust Fund and the External Investment Plan. It also happens to be at a moment when the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) celebrates its 10th anniversary and the EU and the ACP Group (largely composed by sub-Saharan as well as Caribbean and Pacific countries) are preparing for a lengthy renegotiation process of the Cotonou ACP-EU partnership that should be concluded by early 2020.

Against this background, one would expect plenty of strategic agenda items for Heads of State to chew on during a Summit, that takes place once in three years. But this urgency does not seem to trickle down to the high-level policymakers and their administrations in both continents. In the same tradition of the past, both sides stress in lofty wordings their ‘great attachment to this important partnership amongst equal partners’. At the same time they avoid discussing openly the important, but potentially controversial, issues that risk spoiling the party. Once again, it looks as if the success of the Summit in Abidjan will be measured by the number of participating Heads of State and not by the quality of the dialogue or the concrete outcomes.


Youth as the central theme in a risk- averse partnership


In this context it is not surprising that both parties selected as the theme for their summit “investing in youth for a sustainable future”. While the issue of youth is of great concern to both continents, it is also a safe topic that most probably will generate fairly general statements and policy declarations expressing ‘the need to create jobs and tackle the root causes of migration’ . It looks as if the underlying frustrations and discontent about the current state of the partnership will be kept under wraps. This would be a pity and a missed opportunity, not at least for the European Commission and the European External Action Service who have expressed the wish ‘to lift the political partnership to a higher political stage’ in their May 2017 Communication.


Structural imbalances in the partnership


The questions which should be raised are: why is it so difficult to openly address issues of disagreement between both continents? Why is there still a deep-rooted mistrust among the leaders of both continents? Why is it so difficult to build the necessary political traction in the Europe-Africa relationship? The EU transfers aid money to Africa, via its state bureaucracies and elites, and in return expects loyalty to the European agendas. This type of relationship lacks reciprocity and it has given rise to the generalised perception in Africa that “the EU sets the agenda and hardly makes concessions on issues that really matter to Africa“.

In spite of all the jargon about an equal ‘contractual’ partnership, joint decision-making institutions and co-management, the partnership has never been one of equals. Over a period of several decades, considerable financial envelopes of the European Development Fund have created strong vested interests in both Europe, Africa and the ACP-EU institutions. Supported by this substantial aid, the EU could present itself as the “do-gooder” in Africa in a rather patronising and paternalistic way. Aid conditionalities sought to put pressure on African governments to undertake the necessary governance reforms and to accept the EU’s terms for new trade agreements (EPAs). But in the current rapidly changing environment, the recipes of the past no longer work. Africa has become an attractive bride and can select its partners out of a much broader group of candidates. A growing number of assertive African leaders openly question whether foreign aid should still interfere in the internal matters of their countries. In the meantime, we have also learnt that EU aid conditionalities have little or no impact on changing the course of undemocratic regimes in Africa.

Slowly the EU seems to understand these new realities and in various policy declarations on Africa the EU now strongly advocates a ‘new and more strategic interest driven type of partnership beyond aid’ or a foreign policy that is based on ‘principled pragmatism’.But this is only part of the story. While some political leaders in both continents seem to advocate a new type of political partnership, a large part of the European and African ‘aid bureaucrats’ seem to have the greatest difficulties to do away with the familiar donor-recipient ‘clientelistic’ systems. This helps to explain why many actors on both sides would rather keep an outlived and asymmetric ACP-EU cooperation system alive than really transform EU-Africa relations. Keeping the status quo and the control over substantial aid resources is the key incentive for these conservative forces. At a moment when the EU and ACP institutions are more risk-averse than ever, it is seen as inappropriate and even dangerous to change old habits. This is the reason why EU and ACP institutions have built an alliance to protect what exists and to continue with more of the same. It also explains why the important Post-Cotonou issue is not on the agenda of the Abidjan Summit.

It is difficult to understand why the most important high level encounter between European and African leaders has no intention whatsoever to discuss the future of ‘the oldest and most comprehensive cooperation agreement’ at a moment that this agreement is up for renegotiation. Avoiding any discussion on this matter before and during the Summit may be a convenient approach in the short term but it is a major strategic error in the long run. It is a particularly puzzling decision by the African Union and the African Regional Economic Communities (RECs). Reflecting the emerging but still fragile regional dynamics, they should take a leading role in designing a new and modern type of partnership with the EU that is fit for the 21st century. But because of a lack of strategic vision, and problems of internal cohesion and capacity, the African regional bodies seem to ‘submit’ themselves to an ACP-EU ‘umbrella’ in a partnership of the past that lacks legitimacy, credibility and effectiveness.


Fundamental shift towards a stronger political partnership


So, what should be done to reverse this deadlock? What should be done to build a more political and strategic partnership between both continents?

On the European side, the EU institutions and the Member States could do better in strengthening the coherence of the foreign policy frameworks and instruments dealing with Africa. The cacophony of sometimes competing initiatives and ad hoc agendas and initiatives (for example, individual Member States responses to the migration crisis) do not contribute to the desirable, more coherent European foreign policy as spelled out in the 2016 EU Global Strategy. Competing silos and interests within the EU institutions and the Member States further weaken the European position and undermine the coherence of action. The negotiations on the next Multiannual Financial Framework and their alignment with the EU Global Strategy and EU Consensus on Development should be a first step in the direction of promoting a more modern global approach.

The EU would gain more trust and respect on the other side of the Mediterranean if it were clear about its interests rather than stressing over and over again that it is Africa’s largest ‘altruistic donor’. Avoidance of double standards would also help to rebuild trust. Playing the moral high ground is good if consistency in external action can be guaranteed, but this is increasingly becoming a problem. The lucrative deals with totalitarian regimes such as Sudan to curb migration and to return refugees are a case in point. They strengthen the repressive apparatus in these countries, which in the longer run will increase the flows of refugees to Europe. For European and African citizens and the younger generations in particular, this ‘horse trading’ is undermining the credibility of the EU that always reiterated its fullest support to the decision of the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant to president Omar Al-Bashir for crimes against humanity.

There is also homework to be done on the African side. A stronger and more coherent AU leadership and more assertive and self-sufficient institutions are absolute prerequisites to make Africa and the partnership with the EU work. The AU and some of the RECs in Africa have the potential to become representative institutions, but the gap with the European Institutions in terms of powers, capacities and resources is still big. The 2016 Kaberuka Plan has created expectations regarding the sustainable financing of the AU through a levy of 0.2% on imports entering the African continent. This would generate a revenue of more than 1 billion Euros a year to fund the AU’s operational programme and peace and security budgets. Structural systems to ensure financial autonomy are essential for the credibility of African institutions. However, this is not only about financial resources but also about strategic leadership and priorities. The AU and RECs should re-assess their strategic interests. In a Post-Cotonou context they should make clear choices and avoid that the EU divides the continent and weakens the African leverage.

In conclusion, the upcoming Summit, the months and years ahead, should provide unique opportunities for Europe and Africa to move into a different type of partnership. Will the EU and the AU seize this momentum? Europe and Africa are ‘condemned’ to work together because of their strong interdependence. The good news is that Africa has returned to the top table of political decision-making in Europe, albeit for security and migration reasons. Africa and Europe urgently need to find common solutions to the demographic explosion, the growing discontent of the younger generations, the catastrophic impact of climate change, the threats of terrorism, migration and governance issues affecting both continents. On paper, the potential for strong mutual interests and shared global agendas has never been so promising. There is no shortage of strategies and policy frameworks for cooperation. Yet, a forum of genuine and regular political dialogue outside of the Summits is needed, for example, at the level of Ministers of Foreign Affairs. But even with these new levels of political dialogue, it remains to be seen whether both parties will be able to shake off past habits, break with the vested interests of the past and fundamentally change the course of action. More of the same will serve neither Africa’s nor Europe’s interests.


About the author

Geert Laporte, ECDPM

Geert Laporte is Deputy Director at ECDPM.


Photo: Beauty (left) and Hope who participate in a Youth to Youth education programme,
Zambia. Credit: Jessica Lea/DFID via Flickr.


This article was published in Great Insights Volume 6, Issue 5 (November/December 2017).

European external affairsAfrica-EU RelationsEU-Africa Summit 2017AfricaEurope