Bach, D.C. 2013. The EU and Africa in the XXIst century: Time for a new deal. GREAT Insights, Volume 2, Issue 6. September 2013. Maastricht: ECDPM.
It is not too late for the EU to adjust its policies to a rising African continent. This should involve the definition of a more pragmatic set of priorities, based on the clarification of European interests.
The Cotonou Partnership Agreement (CPA) was launched nearly a decade and a half ago, yet the pending negotiations of economic partnership agreements (EPAs) between the European Union (EU) and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries and regions still show no sign of significant progress in most cases. The issue has been a bone of contention in EU-Africa relations and is about to become a textbook illustration of Europe’s limited ability to impose its views, a sharp contrast with the post-cold war decade. Brussels seems to be belatedly discovering that African states have recovered margins of negotiation, an unprecedented situation since the early 1970s. Against such a backstage, the Brussels EU-Africa Summit of April 2014, will find it difficult to convince Africans that the ‘strategic partnership’ launched in 2007 is more than a placebo. The Summit may be conceived as a mere exercise in public diplomacy, but in such a case the ‘aura’ of the EU is likely to be dimmed by demonstrations and public protests, as was the case during the Lisbon summit of 2007. It is therefore high time for the EU to operate a Copernician revolution. This should involve the definition of a more pragmatic set of priorities, based on the identification of what European interests are (or could be) in Africa, and a departure from the assumption that sub-Saharan Africa is still Europe’s backyard.
The long shadow of Lomé…
The Lomé Convention, with its initial ambition to become a model for the treatment of the North-South divide, is now history, yet its institutional and ideational impact on current EU-Africa relations lingers on. Lomé was born out of a strategic and federating concern among Europeans: the quest for secure access to energy resources and minerals. This resulted in an unprecedented round of negotiation with the ACPs, emboldened by a favourable international context.(1)The outcome was a holistic approach to development that, in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo (and in the context of cold war rivalries) was expected to offer a model for the re-ordering of North-South relations in exchange for dependable access to oil and other strategic minerals. This trade-off was soon to lose much of its substance as energy and commodities renewed with their boom and bust cycles. The enthusiasm that had surrounded the conclusion of Lomé was also dampened by the failure of the Paris and Cancun conferences on the New International Economic Order (NIEO): the Lomé Convention kept being renewed, but it was increasingly associated with unfullled ambitions and an outdated conception of development.(2)By the early 1990s, preferential access given to ACP exports had not prevented these from losing ground on the EU market due to competition from South-East Asian and Latin American producers. More generally, if one excludes Mauritius (due to its skilful management of the resources drawn from the Sugar protocol), the ACP’s aid and trade regime failed to stimulate a diversification of African economies away from commodities.
What remains from the golden years of Lomé’s generous trade-off is the elaborate (and costly) architecture of the joint EU-ACP Assemblies and Councils. They still formally preserve the illusion of a dynamic and intense web of ‘partnerships’ and shared interest, a sharp contrast with their lack of substantive achievements beyond public diplomacy events and the reconduction of the institutional status quo.
Streamlining at work: Cotonou, the EPAs and the JAES
The unimpressive record of the joint institutions echoes Europe’s downgraded representations of Africa as a “distant abroad” since the end of the cold war.(3) The Cotonou Partnership Agreement (CPA), also reflects, in its own way, EU perceptions of Africa as a region too close to be ignored, but now devoid of much strategic or economic significance.
The CPA was signed in 2000, following half a decade of negotiations that revolved around two overlapping bullet points: streamlining and banalisation. Cotonou initially took its cue from the agreements concluded with the post-communist states of East and Central Europe. As a substitute to the end of the WTO waivers that allowed Lomé’s non-reciprocal trade preferences system, a generic offer was also made to all the LDCs – the famous Everything But Arms (EBA) initiative, granting dutee-free and quota-free market access to all LDCs exports to the EU except arms. Cotonou purported to provide the roadmap towards a new and original inter-hemispheric partnership based on trade liberalisation. In effect, the CPA rested on a deeply flawed assumption. While the prospects of joining the EU conferred legitimacy to the succession of drastic reforms imposed on the East and Central European candidates, in the case of the ACPs, it is the lure of ‘partnership’, as enshrined in EPAs, requiring reciprocal free trade, that was meant to be the driving force.
Africa’s loss of strategic significance was further highlighted by its transformation into a middle ground for consensus building among Europeans and with the United States. By the time the G-8 summit met in Gleneagles in July 2005, Africa’s ongoing depiction as “as a scar on the conscience of the world”,(4) had turned it into the perfect continent for consensus building over normative concerns.(5) Characteristically, while images of a benign West being undermined by a ruthless and unscrupulous China kept flourished in the Western media, whether or not to engage with China in Africa was not on the agendas – in Britain, the subject was ignored by the contributors to the Commission for Africa report (Blair report); in Brussels, the new strategy for EU-Africa relations released in October 2005 by the European Commission carefully avoided the issue.<(6)By 2007, the mood seemed about to change as the EU Commissioner for Development publicly stigmatized the dissemination of moralising representations of Africa, while expressing the EU’s commitment to a new and strategic partnership with Africa. Launched with fanfare in the aftermath of the EU-Africa Lisbon summit, the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) carried the ambition to promote a rejuvenation of EU-Africa relations that, we were repeatedly told, should involve a radical departure from the past. Six years later an impressive array of meetings has taken place, but no tangible results have been achieved. The JAES has instead, due to the sheer number of priority areas, highlighted the lack of any strategic focus in the conduct of the EU’s Africa ‘policy’. Yet, throughout the past decade, European ‘foreign policy’ towards Africa has increasingly revolved around concerns at the porosity and securitization of the EU’s Southern frontiers. Such concerns have also exercised a pervasive and insidious influence on interactions with Africa(7)The EU and Africa: back to the future…
The stalled EPA negotiations and the EU’s failure to instil strategic relevance into the JAES invite to draw lessons from the pragmatic, proactive and holistic engagement of the Chinese, Indians, South Koreans, Brazilians or Turks, lured by the resources and markets of Africa, but also by fresh opportunities for coalition-building within international institutions. The EU’s narrow interpretation of WTO compatibility bears the mark of a period during which African states had a limited capacity to negotiate internationally. This is no longer the case, even though growth rates remain closely linked to favorable terms of trade for their commodities and ongoing growth in the large emerging economies. Such a nexus generates opportunities for accumulation and entrepreneurship that no longer exclusively revolve around ‘capturing’ the state or seeking its protection. At the same time, the spectre of growth without (socially inclusive and ecologically sustainable) development still looms at large and this is where the experience of Europe remains highly relevant.
Largely spared by the 2008-9 financial crisis, sub-Saharan Africa is currently offering to investors, traders and immigrants opportunities that have kept being upgraded due to the ‘high risk [with] low returns’ equation associated with the Eurozone(8) The impact of the EPA negotiations on region-building in Africa has been disastrous and this deserves urgent attention in Brussels. Failing to do so will result in the dissemination of images of bureaucratic arrogance and ‘provincialism’ vis a vis sub-Saharan Africa. Within a few months of the Brussels EU-Africa Summit, it is high time for the EU to take advantage of the current momentum to reset its priorities and prepare the ground for the future.
This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 2, Issue 6 (September 2013).