Ensuring a more effective and beneficial cooperation



Europe’s relationship with Africa has been governed by a number of international agreements. In the lead-up to the 5th African Union–European Union Summit in Abidjan at the end of November 2017, many questions arise. Have these agreements delivered the expected results? What should be done to build a mutually beneficial partnership?

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    In parallel there is also the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) that was adopted in 2007 at the Lisbon Summit. What lessons have we learned for the future? These are just some of the questions that deserve clear answers to restore the credibility of the cooperation between the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU).

    Breaking with a two headed foreign policy

    Europe faces numerous internal challenges, from economics to security and migration. Its external action is also confronted with many challenges.

    Today the European Union has a two-headed foreign policy when it comes to Africa: a total of twenty-eight (soon twenty-seven with Brexit) bilateral policies and a Community policy skilfully overseen by the European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS).

    In most cases, however, these policies overlap and even clash, rather than harmoniously coexist. The result is that where a single issue is concerned, Africa receives two or more different, and sometimes contradictory, messages. The European Union needs to coordinate and harmonise its many policies upstream (in Europe) before presenting them downstream (in Africa). This will help prevent the duplications and contradictions that have undermined the image African populations have of Europe.

    Freeing ourselves from the stereotypes of the past

    Europe continues to treat Africa as a continent on the brink of maturity. The most recent example was Europe’s adoption of the External Investment Plan (EIP) for Africa without any prior serious discussion with Africans. Europe behaves like an architect who has decided to design a house for Africa. Although the initiative is certainly laudable, Africans themselves were not informed until the architect, a good Samaritan or a philanthropist, knocked at the door with tools and equipment ready to get to work. An African proverb says ‘those who don’t sleep in a house don’t know where it leaks when it rains’. It should come as no surprise then, that the fruit-to-flower ratio is often disappointing. Seeing Africa as a mature continent and burying the stereotypes of its past with Europe must be at the very heart of Europe’s new approach to Africa.

    Stopping the cycle of reinvesting undisbursed funding

    The European Union’s effort to help Africa out of poverty and misery are recognised by all. But this unanimity quickly evaporates when it comes to perceptions over the effectiveness of Europe’s policies vis-à-vis Africa and the allocation and management of financial envelopes. The Regional and National Indicative Programmes (RIPs and NIPs), among others, are disbursed at a slow rate and Africans find this difficult to understand. As a result, a whole series of unused envelopes are permanently ‘recycled’, giving the impression of a continuously renewed European commitment to Africa. The extreme sluggishness and complexity of disbursements fuel belief that Europe’s aid is deliberately inefficient for one simple reason: to control Africa’s development like one might control the growth of a young plant (using precise dosages of water and fertilisation), to prevent the birth of an economic and political entity which tomorrow could become a formidable competitor or adversary.

    Adapting cooperation governance to African realities

    The first AU-EU Summit in Cairo in 2000 rejuvenated relations between the African Union and the European Union through the adoption of new attitudes and the establishment of an appropriate governance framework. Consequently, Senior Officials’ Meetings and Ministerial meetings were organised in between summits. These frameworks allowed the participants of both continents to breathe new life into their cooperation efforts. Today, in between two summits, no other joint have met.

    The Joint Task Force which was established after the 2007 Lisbon Summit is in poor shape. The Commission-to-Commission meeting, which was supposed to keep the flame of cooperation alive, is also not doing very well. The Economic Forum supposedly replacing the Task Force has yet to hold its first meeting. In short, unilateral changes in the governance structures imposed by the EU to reflect the development of its own internal institutional apparatus, without prior consultation with African counterparts, have left the AU-EU cooperation looking tired and outdated.

    To revitalise the Europe-Africa cooperation there is a need for a mutually agreed governance structure, one which meets the demands of the modern world. Such a governance structure should boost AU–EU relations by organising a more regular high-level political dialogue between both parties.

    Increasing European investment in productive African sectors

    To bridge the growing divide between Africa and Europe, Africa needs to structurally transform its economies. In this process, the EU could encourage European small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) to invest in Africa, be it through direct investment, portfolio investment, capital investment or other types of innovative financial injections. These SMEs could have a clear and measurable impact on the living standards of African and European populations. It is high time that European and other economic operators stop seeing Africa as a high-risk continent to invest in. Africa should no longer be seen merely as a continent for short-term investment and floating capitals that can be easily repatriated at the slightest indication of instability. Support for the implementation of Africa’s integration initiatives should also be at the very heart of a new type of European cooperation with Africa. Investing in Africa’s development means helping African populations out of poverty and misery, thereby shielding them from tribal and ethnocentric inclinations, which can potentially result in all kinds of instability. The recent German Marshall Plan for Africa is a step in the right direction. To ensure greater impact, it should also be supported by German SMEs.

    Today Europe remains closely connected with Africa due to cultural and linguistic affinities, not to mention the geographical proximity between the two continents (just 12 kilometres separates them). Those with the largest amounts of resources in every respect have a moral obligation to support Africa as it transforms itself economically and politically. European attempts to help Africa achieve wealth will also generate solutions to the acute economic and social crisis that Europe now faces. Investing heavily in projects with high added value should today be the foremost axe of European cooperation. This will ultimately contribute to a win-win situation for the people of both continents.

    Clarifying coexisting AU–EU and ACP–EU policies

    AU–EU interactions involve the whole of Africa, while ACP–EU interactions concern only sub-Saharan Africa without the Maghreb region. The EU is connected to South Africa and the Maghreb, through specific cooperation frameworks. In reality, this fragmented European approach has been detrimental to the effectiveness and harmony of the JAES. At the same time, implementation of the ACP-EU Cotonou Agreement has been structurally hampered for a diversity of reasons. What should be done? Should the JAES and Cotonou instruments be streamlined by abolishing one in favour of the other? The Joint Strategy is built on the cardinal principle of treating Africa as a single entity. Is this principle not an invitation to sacrifice ACP–EU on the altar in favour of just one cooperation framework with Africa as a whole? What price would Africa have to pay if this happened? Is the cost of the divorce between Cotonou and JAES that is the deterrent? Should we stay in a bad marriage simply to avoid paying this price? In any event, this is a major concern that will have to be addressed in the ongoing negotiations on the future of the Cotonou Agreement after 2020. A single instrument, not two, would have the advantage of bringing greater harmony, efficiency, visibility and momentum to AU–EU cooperation, enabling it to capitalise on its massive potential.

    Africa: a continent struggling to transform itself?

    Today, a recurrent theme in the discourse of most African political leaders and even economic decision makers at the national, regional and continental level is the issue of ‘structural transformation of Africa’ with all the challenges and difficulties involved.

    First, there is a widespread consensus that agriculture in Africa has failed. In some parts of the continent, agriculture still cannot perform its primary function, which is to provide the African population with an adequate supply of food, thereby shielding it from malnutrition and structural and endemic famine. Today, Africa imports massive amounts of food to meet its dietary needs. This not only puts a strain on its balance of payments but also increases its food dependence.

    Second, it should be noted that industrialisation in Africa appears to be at a standstill despite the adoption of many industrial policies and strategies since the 1960s. While the structural transformation is under way, it is bypassing the secondary sector of the economy. African populations are abandoning rural areas, despite the underdevelopment of agriculture, to move into the tertiary sector. Cutbacks in state structures and their personnel, under the aegis of the Bretton Woods institutions, have been at the expense of industry. Former employees of the state-controlled companies and from the public administration, made redundant as a result of drastic budget cuts, have bloated the formal and informal tertiary sectors. The industrial sector in Africa has been neglected as a consequence.

    Third, Africa still lacks economic and political integration. Multiple initiatives have been taken to find ways to make it work. Yet, the volume of intra-African trade remains negligible. The continent is developing its trade relations with the rest of the world. Likewise, Africans still do not have the right of free movement within their own continent. Creation of a single African currency is a seemingly impossible task, despite it being enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitutive Act of the African Union. The continent is still struggling to standardise its statistical resources. National figures cannot be compared across countries due to a lack of capacity and problems emanating from poor infrastructure and a dearth of adequate, sustainable funding for statistical organisations.  Africa also suffers from a lack of integration of its infrastructures. While it abounds in energy sources of every kind, over 70 per cent of its population languishes in the dark. Power cuts are everyday occurrences in nearly every country in Africa. These are a structural barrier to the development of business and to emerging industries and start-ups. Although capable of providing sufficient sustainable energy to a large number of countries, the Grand Inga hydropower project has yet to be completed for example.

    Fourth, Africa is getting nowhere fast in terms of governance in the broadest sense of the term. It has ratified the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which entered into force on 15 February 2012. Leadership changes are often painful and sometimes bloody, and the old habit of amending states’ constitutions dies hard. Good economic governance at both the micro (household) and the macro (government) level is proving difficult to establish.

    Fifth, it is no exaggeration to say that African schools have missed their mark. After several decades of autonomy in education and training, schools have become factories for producing unemployed job-seekers. The scientific and technological gap between Africa and the developed world is growing at an alarming rate. Consequently, Africa is short on skills to support corporate growth, while at the same time there is mass unemployment among young people leaving universities and schools.

    Sixth, Africa is bogged down in a multiplicity of partnerships without an optimal strategy for capitalising on any of these. The various partnerships are quite similar in form and content, covering similar areas of joint interests. The rather small differences mainly relate to funding and implementation mechanisms. Ultimately, however, none of these partnerships have had much impact. Much ado about very few, if no results at all. It is a self-evident truth that the EU remains Africa’s leading economic partner despite Africa’s strengthened relationship with China. How can Africa make the most of its cooperation with Europe? Several avenues could be explored to answer this important question.

    The dynamics of integration, a lifeline for Africa’s partnership with Europe

    Africa must speak with one voice when negotiating with Europe. The attitude of each actor seeking to get the best deal is outdated. Indeed, each country has assessed its relations with the EU through its own ideological lens and on the basis of its own comparative, and even technological, advantages. The most powerful countries have always taken it upon themselves to steer cooperation in the direction of their own ideological views and the needs of their economies. This situation has undermined a coherent continental cooperation between Africa and Europe. To reverse this counterproductive trend, it is imperative that all African actors coordinate and harmonise upstream (in Africa) their visions, programmes and approaches in a spirit of African unity and solidarity. Consequently, the individual African countries, the Regional Economic Communities (RECs), the AU and all AU bodies, the African Development Bank and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) have to form a common front in negotiations with European partners. This is vital if Africa wants its voice to be heard and respected.

    Breaking from its past with Europe with dignity and responsibility

    Although Africa has suffered the double blow of slavery and colonisation, it must break with this painful history and focus on its economic emancipation. In other words, the past should no longer be a millstone around the African neck. Other regions in the world have overcome a similar painful past and seized the opportunities for growth and development. Why should Africa not do the same? Africa must modernise its political discourse, drawing on the virtues of the modern age. It has to look at Europe as a credible partner that can support Africa in its development process. To win the battle of economic and social emancipation, Africa must modernise its political discourse and engage its youth in a third industrial revolution powered by new information and communication technologies. Looking at Europe differently could help to establish a new relationship of trust that could strengthen cooperation and make it mutually beneficial.

    Stepping up political integration

    Promoting state sovereignty has not contributed to the rise of an Africa marching to the same tune. Instead, the cacophony that has emerged has increased divisions, isolationism and nationalism. In negotiations with European partners, each African country or region has been seeking to defend only its own national or regional interests. This individualistic tendency explains in part the inefficiency of cooperation with Europe, as it has kept Africa from presenting a common front and undermined Africa’s clout. Furthermore, it has made it hard for Africa to build respect, to compel Europe to fulfil its obligations and to steer the dialogue with Europe in Africa’s favour. The face that Africa has shown to Europe is one of a continent that can be easily manipulated; of an Africa in which countries can easily be played off against one another; of an Africa in which division is the rule and unity the exception. In response to the many appeals to treat Africa as a single entity, not a one initiative has been taken on the African side to call for a harmonisation of the European cooperation instruments. On the contrary, each institution has defended jealously the existing structures at the expense of African integration and of the coherence of Europe’s external action.

    The Permanent Representatives Committee (PRC) and the Group of ACP Ambassadors in Brussels: clarifying relationships to boost AU–EU cooperation

    The Permanent Representatives Committee (PRC) is one of the constituent bodies of the AU. In almost all cases, the diplomats appointed to it are accredited to the AU Commission, UNECA and the Federal Republic of Ethiopia. The African Ambassadors in Brussels are accredited to the ACP Group, the EU Commission and the Kingdom of Belgium. The PRC and the ACP Committee of Ambassadors have two different mandates. As an AU body, the PRC reports to the AU Executive Council which, in turn, answers to the Assembly of Heads of State and Government, which is the AU’s highest authority. This clarification of functions is important if we are to better understand the role of these two entities in the governance of AU–EU relations. In the execution of its mandate, the PRC oversees and coordinates on the AU Executive Board’s behalf the management of all the partnerships of Africa with the rest of the world, including, of course, its cooperation with the EU. On the other hand, the Group of ACP Ambassadors in Brussels, owing to its geographical location in the heart of the EU, believes that it has a natural right to oversee the governance of AU–EU relations, as well as ACP–EU cooperation.

    As a result, the Brussels- based ACP institutions believe they have a say on, and even a right of scrutiny with respect to, any undertakings that Addis Ababa might initiate with the EU. This confusion is exacerbated by the fact that EU bodies (the European Commission and the European External Action Service) seem inclined to favour the ACP Committee of Ambassadors in Brussels when it comes to negotiating with Africa on issues related to the future of both continents. The ongoing negotiations on the future of the Cotonou agreements is a case in point. There is every reason to believe that the debate on the subject is being “held hostage” in Brussels while the AU institutions, including the PRC and the AU Commission in particular are excluded from the negotiations.

    The ACP Secretariat in Brussels is not accountable to any political authority in Africa. All the African countries participating in the Cotonou Agreement are members of the AU, which should require them to receive their mandates from the governing bodies of the AU. Instead, quite the opposite is happening.

    This problem needs to be solved to keep the Brussels ACP group from unilaterally adopting policies that may be at odds with Africa’s aspirations as set out in such key initiatives as the Abuja Treaty and the Agenda 2063. The ACP Secretariat should of course, receive its mandate from and be duly accountable to, the decision-making bodies of the AU. These examples call for a clarification of the working relations between Brussels and Addis Ababa. This is an essential condition to stop sending confusing messages and to further boost AU–EU cooperation.

    Conclusion: we need to ensure that cooperation contributes to a shared future prosperity

    The principles of mutual respect, joint responsibility and a shared vision with regard to the governance of international public goods must always guide the cooperation between Africa and Europe. No subject can be taboo in the context of AU–EU relations. All issues must be dealt with frankly, in total transparency and without ulterior motives. As the saying goes, ‘friendship thrives on truth’. Yesterday, Europe knew what it was doing in Africa. Today, it knows what it is doing in Africa. And it already knows what it will be doing in Africa tomorrow. Africa, however, is divided and it is still mired in endless questions about the type of partnership it would like to have with Europe. The theme of the 5th AU-EU Summit is one of major importance to both continents: investing in young people to accelerate inclusive growth and sustainable development. Solutions to this serious problem are crucial for both parties, as the vast majority of young people in Africa and a large number in Europe are caught in a trap of mass unemployment for which the consequences are indescribable. The AU and the EU can become part of a dynamic shared future by offering their youth a unique model of shared values such as peace, respect for human rights and freedom of expression. The summit in Abidjan must plant the seeds of this new type of partnership.

    The longer version of this text has also been published in French and is available at: www.ecdpm.org/bn96fr

    About the author
    Dr René N’Guettia Kouassi is Director of Economic Affairs at the African Union Commission.

    Read the full magazine issue

    Africa-Europe relations: Time to reboot – Volume 6, Issue 5 (November/December 2017)
    'To rebuild mutual trust, both Europe and Africa will have to design new and more effective types of partnerships and shake off past habits and practices.'
    16 November 2017
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