Making policies work


A message to African and European leaders: ‘More of the same is not good enough’


Laporte, G. 2017. A message to African and European leaders: ‘More of the same is not good enough’. ECDPM blog, 23 October 2017.

Share Button

In a few weeks’ time, African and European leaders will gather in Abidjan for the fifth AU-EU Summit. There are plenty of important issues for them to chew on and yet, the agenda once again stays clear of the potentially controversial topics that divide both continents. ECDPM’s Geert Laporte has a message for them. ‘We need to break the silence and the aversion to take risks if we want a stronger partnership’, he says. ‘More of the same just isn’t good enough this time around’.

The upcoming AU-EU Summit takes place at a moment when both continents are dealing with a number of major common challenges. Climate change, demographic pressures, conflicts and increased migrant and refugee flows continue to affect both continents – albeit to a different extent. The Summit also comes at a time when the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) celebrates its tenth anniversary and the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States are preparing for a complex re-negotiation process on their future partnership agreement, to be concluded in 2020.

Plenty of important things to talk about during the Summit, you would think. Unfortunately, the urgency of such topics does not seem to trickle down to the high-level policy makers and their administrations. Both continents stress their great commitment to the partnership, yet avoid openly addressing the ‘elephants in the room’, fearing it would spoil the party. By the looks of it, success will again be judged by the number of participating leaders, rather than the quality of the dialogue or concrete outcomes.

Structural imbalances in the partnership

So why is it so difficult to address openly the issues on which both continents have diverging perspectives? Why is there still a deep-rooted mistrust between African and European leaders? And why is it so difficult to build the necessary political traction in the partnership?

To answer those questions, we need to go back to the origins of the postcolonial partnership. Successive Lomé Conventions (1975-2000) and the Cotonou Agreement (2000-2020) between the EU and the ACP Group of States may have been quite innovative in the previous century, but they also kept alive a relationship of dependency.

While policy declarations speak of an equal contractual partnership and joint decision-making and management, in reality the partnership has never been one of equals. The EU transfers aid money to Africa via its state bureaucracies and elites, and in return expects loyalty to the European agendas. Over a period of several decades considerable financial envelopes of the European Development Fund have created strong vested interests in Europe, Africa and the ACP-EU institutions. The EU presents itself as the “do-gooder” in Africa in a rather paternalistic way. Aid conditionalities were supposed to help keep up the pressure on African governments to undertake the necessary governance reforms and to accept the EU’s terms for new trade agreements, such as the controversial economic partnership agreements (EPAs).

But recipes of the past no longer work. Africa can choose from a growing group of potential partners. An increasing number of assertive African leaders openly questions whether foreign aid should still interfere in the internal matters of their countries. In the meantime, there is ample evidence that EU aid conditionalities and the contractual type of cooperation have no real impact on changing the course of African political regimes. This is an illusion, yet it takes time for the EU to slowly understand these new realities.

While the EU increasingly advocates for a strategic partnership beyond aid, many European and African aid bureaucrats seem to have great difficulties in doing away with the old system. Why change an outlived and asymmetric ACP-EU cooperation if it provides access and control over substantial aid resources for those who are in command on both sides of the relationship?

At a moment when the EU and ACP institutions are more risk-averse than ever, it is considered inappropriate, or even dangerous, to change old habits. That is why the EU and ACP institutions have made a deal to protect what exists and continue with more of the same. It also explains why the future of the ACP-EU partnership – an extremely important issue – is not on the agenda of the Summit. Avoiding any discussion on this matter may be a convenient approach in the short term, but in the long run it is a major strategic error.

Breaking the silence

To reverse this deadlock and build a more political and strategic partnership, some fundamental changes are needed on the African and European side.

The EU and its Member States need to strengthen the coherence of their policies related to Africa. The cacophony of competing initiatives and ad hoc agendas do not contribute to the desirable, more coherent foreign policy as spelled out in the EU Global Strategy. Moreover, the EU would gain more trust and respect if it would be clear about its interests while avoiding the blatant use of double standards. For example, it is difficult to understand how the EU can decide to strike lucrative deals with totalitarian regimes such as Sudan to curb migration and to return refugees.

On the African side, a stronger continental leadership with more assertive and self-sufficient institutions is a prerequisite to make the partnership work. The African Union and some of the regional economic communities (RECs) hold the potential to become representative institutions, but the gap with the European institutions in terms of powers, capacities and resources is still too big. While they have more political legitimacy than the ACP Group, the African Union and RECs should invest in structural systems to ensure financial autonomy, make clear strategic choices and prevent the EU or its other strategic partners from dividing the continent.

Most importantly however, Africa and Europe need to make use of the Summits to discuss their disagreements and irritations – in all openness. At best, they should agree to disagree on some of the most controversial issues and start a process of genuine political dialogue in between Summits. The upcoming Summit would provide an opportunity to set the terms for a frank dialogue on a new type of partnership for the future. But will both parties 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 just won’t be in anyone’s interest this time around.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

This blog is an adapted and shorter version of an article which will appear in the Africa-Europe issue of ECDPM’s Great Insights magazine, just ahead of the 2017 AU-EU Summit.

Photo courtesy of European Parliament via Flickr.

Our dossier on Africa-Europe relations

Which issues will European and African leaders discuss during the fifth AU-EU Summit? What is the current status of the relationship and how can it be strengthened? Ahead and after the Summit, we will try to answer these questions (and more) in our new Africa-Europe dossier.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Geert Laporte


2017-11-02 16:22:47

Thank you very much for the stimulating and interesting comments on the blog! Beyond this short blog ECDPM's GREAT Insights of November will feature several contributions (mainly from Africans) on different aspects of the Europe-Africa partnership. My contribution in GREAT will also go into more detail as requested by some of you. I fully agree that the management of the European Development Fund (EDF) under the ACP-EU Cotonou framework urgently needs fundamental reform. For almost half a century the overly bureaucratic management of EDF resources has not only been undermining institutional development with standalone implementation agencies or Programme Management Units (PMUs). It also generated perverse side effects with an overly centralised power of National Authorizing Officers (NAO), leaving very little space for the involvement and engagement of civil society. Particularly in countries with poor governance, NAO offices are sometimes channels for clientelist practices and distribution of money in close cooperation with European consultancies who also benefit from this system. This system with highly centralised aid intermediaries has created strong vested interests on both sides of the partnership. It is outdated and not compatible with the multi-actor nature of development and therefore up for a fundamental revision.

Lanre Rotimi


2017-10-27 10:42:18

Three comments - low traffic indicate magnitude and complexity of challenge ECDPM need to overcome, if its Vision for Improved EU Africa Relations is to move from Rhetoric to Reality. ’ Yet it is encouraging that all contributors agree with the Author that serous issues of serious business raised in the article and comments deserve the serious attention of EU and Africa Leaders. It will be recalled that ECDPM created the Dosser Platform for Dialogue and Advocacy to help drive positive change in EU and EU Regional (Not just Africa) Partners Partnership Strategy and in ways that help drive reinforced EUGS to deliver Stronger Europe and Stronger World. It is pertinent to note that the past and current EU Africa Partnership is unequal, oppressive and corruption ridden Partnership. What Africa citizens and EU citizens desire and deserve is New EU Africa Partnership that is equal, progressive and corruption free. This is what will shed light on Brexit Sustainable Solutions within reinforced EUGS that deliver Stronger Europe and Stronger World on successful and sustainable basis. Anything less will catalyze UK National crisis that make past UK National crisis in recent centuries child's play.. It will simultaneously cause EU crisis that could start World crisis. Allowed to our, this would have ultimate catastrophic consequences for citizens in all 193/306 UN Member States.. The Time for UK / EU / Africa / World to change from accelerating on MADning (Mutually Assured Destruction) Road to DOOM to accelerating on MAPing (Mutually Assured Prosperity) Road to BOOM is Now. One Day Delay may be One Day too late.. This is DONG Matter not SAYING Matter. Should ECDPM be willing to pick up the gauntlet and help Mobilize Global collective Action for Sustainable Solutions, we are glad to exchange ideas on Next Steps in common interest and common future of Europe and World.

Tom Sneyd


2017-10-26 10:48:05

Excellent. article Business as usual is no longer a viable option

Lanre Rotimi


2017-10-26 10:37:30

Interesting Policy Brief. Alan's comment underline the point that it is easy to focus on problems and blame but especially difficult to focus on solutions and opportunities. The EU and Africa Leaders cannot keep doing the same old things in the same old ways and expect new results. The reality of Brexit is that for EUGS to deliver Stronger UK, Stronger EU, Stronger Europe and Stronger World, Brexit root cause problems on UK and EU sides needs to be found within correct diagnosis, correct prescription, correct surgery and correct recovery management and in ways that meaningfully address root cause problems within EU Partnership Agreements with Regional Partners Worldwide including Africa. Sustainable Solutions exist if UK, EU and Africa Leaders are genuinely interested in same. One Day delay in DOING the Right Thing may be One Day too late.

Alan Hirsch


2017-10-25 10:17:56

It would be nice to go into this in more detail. Is it too sensitive? One small but frustrating example: EU technical aid modalities are the most bureaucratic of all (though less capricious goal-wise than the US) and are seemingly designed to prevent or undermine institutional development in Africa with standalone, temporary implementation agencies. And the way various contract conditions favour European consultancies that do little more than milk the aid budget and occasionally engage with the actual, in country, implementation agency is just a bad joke.

African institutions and regional dynamicsEuropean external affairs