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Shared values? Maybe. But how effective are they?

November 2017

Matala-Tala, L. Shared values? Maybe. But how effective are they? GREAT Insights Magazine, Volume 6, Issue 5. November/December 2017.

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Since 2007, the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU) have pursued the joint Africa-EU strategy (JAES), which “reflects the Euro-African consensus on values, joint interests and common strategic objectives”. At a time when both partners are working to replace the Cotonou Partnership Agreement (CPA) in 2020 and on the eve of the 5th Africa-EU Summit, it is a good moment to reflect on the effectiveness of shared values.


The growing number of crises in the EU, in Africa and the world leave Europe and Africa little choice: either they defend their interests at all costs, using even those means which are incompatible with their values or they make these values essential elements of their partnership.


A solemn declaration of values


At the 4th EU–Africa summit in 2014, all parties agreed on a roadmap for five priority areas from 2014 to 2017: peace and security; democracy, good governance and human rights; human development; sustainable, inclusive development and growth, and continental integration; and global and emerging issues. As the first paragraph of the JAES states, “Africa and Europe are bound together by history, culture, geography, a common future, as well as by a community of values: the respect for human rights, freedom, equality, solidarity, justice, the rule of law and democracy as enshrined in the relevant international agreements and in the constitutive texts of our respective Unions.”

Both the EU and the AU share at least the following nine values: peace, human dignity, human rights, gender equality, freedom, democracy, the rule of law, justice and solidarity. The values underlined above will be highlighted as points of comparison. Although solidarity is not literally specified in any AU document, it is mentioned here as a shared JAES value because solidarity has traditionally been such a common recurrent theme in many AU speeches.

These values are universal. They apply to all human beings and have been adopted by a number of states and organisations around the world. This universality can be seen in the gradual strengthening of the individual’s place in society and in the legal and political frameworks created to protect the individual’s autonomy vis à vis power. These two factors promote the establishment of the rule of law, an essential basis for the expression of values. As shared values, they form the very foundations of the edifice on which this Africa–EU partnership is built.


How effective are these values?


Values matter only if they are protected and respected. On the face of it, one might think that there is a great disparity between the AU and the EU in the practical application of these values – the EU being the model pupil in contrast to a faltering Africa. In reality, although Europe’s track record would appear more solid, both continents are facing major challenges on an unprecedented scale, all of which constitute pitfalls they can neither avoid nor manage without compromise.

Within the EU, member states have integrated these shared values into their working methods . Their citizens have rights enforceable against the public authorities and guaranteed by two international courts – the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Luxembourg and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR, Council of Europe) in Strasbourg, in addition to the national courts. While peace is now established on EU soil, the current crises are testing such values as the rule of law, solidarity and respect for human dignity – particularly in Austria, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania.

The electorate votes for populist parties who claim to have better solutions to key problems (as seen in Austria, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and the UK). The EU finds itself torn between defending shared values and respecting the national identities of its Member States. While the President of the Commission recognised in his State of the Union Address on 13 September 2017 the urgent need to improve the inhumane conditions in which migrants are living in detention and reception centres in Libya, the Visegrád Group (i.e. Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) refuses to implement the decision (OJ 2015, l 248, p. 80) taken by the Council of Ministers to relocate refugees to help Italy and Greece, which are currently overwhelmed by the influx of migrants.

On 27 July 2017, the European Commission launched the reasoned opinion procedure which, should these states fail to act, will open the way for a judicial review by the CJEU. On 6 September 2017, that same CJEU rejected (C-643/15 and C-647/15) the appeal brought by Hungary and Slovakia with Polish support against the 2015 decision. Moreover, the reforms introduced in Hungary and Poland (involving the judiciary and the media, for example) call into further question the value of the rule of law. These crises demonstrate the limits of the guarantees put in place to protect these values within the EU. What will happen now that these limits have been exceeded, with Hungary having decided not to comply with the CJEU decision of 6 September 2017? With a growing distrust for the ruling class and given today’s political ratings culture, even the law is under pressure. Democracy itself is suffering from the disengagement of EU citizens.

In Africa, peace still struggles to take root in everyday life following chronic political instability. The regularity with which constitutional changes are made to keep the leading president and government in power, the lack of free elections and the failure to respect pluralism are a hindrance to the implementation of the rule of law, even when several AU values emanate directly from it: the rejection of impunity, political assassination and unconstitutional changes of government. In 2008, the AU merged the African Court of Human Rights and the AU Court of Justice to set up a new African Court of Justice and Human Rights. The aim was to establish an effective regional court with the necessary resources to defend the rule of law, human dignity and human rights. But will this court really have the means to fulfil its aims? Will it succeed where the other two have failed? Respect for human dignity is implemented in a variety of ways. While African constitutional texts (e.g. the Maputo Protocol and the constitutions of Burkina Faso, Benin, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mali and Nigeria) guarantee the protection of women, mutilation and slavery still occur in some regions. Finally, solidarity, often held up as an African value, has little influence on the ground. Malnutrition in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, terrorist conflicts and attacks in certain countries (such as the Central African Republic, Mali and Niger) do not spark strong mobilisation by neighbouring states, or even by the AU itself. Indeed, help has come primarily in the form of foreign aid.

Within the AU–EU partnership, shared values are proclaimed loud and clear. But are they adequately protected or even respected? Do we trample on values abroad which we consider sacred at home? The agreements the EU has signed with the armed groups in Libya and Al Bashir’s Sudan on the Turkish model for migration control, the shrinking space left to the opposition and civil society in many African states, and the lack of solidarity on the part of states which are becoming inward looking, are just some examples of the fragility of these shared values.

Certain crises, including migration, are merely the visible effects of values which have long been ignored., We can reverse this trend only by putting the respect of values back at the centre of the agenda. Europeans must encourage reforms in Africa which help to establish lasting peace and the rule of law, rather than supporting regimes which do not respect these values. Their credibility and the success of the JAES are at stake. Jean-Claude Juncker’s appeal in this year’s State of the Union Address bears repeating: “Europe is and must remain the continent of solidarity where those fleeing persecution can find refuge.” Africans must work together to make these values effective, starting with the rule of law and human dignity. This is the price to pay if African youth are to have enough faith in their continent to stay there and invest in it. The values shared by the EU and the AU need to guide decisions and actions to guarantee the solidity and sustainability of the partnership they want to build.


About the author

Léonard Matala-Tala is associate Professor in Public Law at ISAM-IAE, Université de Lorraine, Nancy.


Photo: Lawmakers meet during a session of Parliament in Accra. Credit: Jonathan Ernst / World Bank via Flickr.


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

Economic Transformation and TradeEuropean external affairsAfrica-EU RelationsAfrican Union (AU)AfricaEurope

External authors

Léonard Matala-Tala