EU-African relations are a strategic issue: Here’s why

For European foreign policy, there are, perhaps, just three issues that truly qualify as ‘strategic’: the extent we manage to shape events in our neighbourhood; the way we navigate the growing strategic competition between the US and China and the nature of our future partnership with Africa and the kind of social-political model that will prevail on that continent. It is necessary to think about EU-Africa relations in these terms, as a strategic issue that deserves the highest level of attention.

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    A diverse and changing continent

    Africa is diverse. It is also changing rapidly – and not just in the demographic or security terms we often hear about. That diversity and change presents as many opportunities as challenges. For example, Africa hosts six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world, and at the same time 36 of the world’s most fragile countries. It is taking clear steps in the direction of continental integration – look at the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. Young people everywhere in Africa are demanding a greater say. Entrepreneurship and e-business are enabling some to leapfrog in development terms. Examples are the advent of the mobile payment system M-PESA and talk of the rising ‘Silicon Savannah’. No wonder Africa is being courted by China, the Gulf states and others.

    While these new relationships are being formed, it is perhaps worth recalling some facts that make Europe Africa’s top partner. Beginning with trade, the European Union (EU) accounts for 36% of Africa’s trade in goods (compared to 17% for China and 6% for the US). Europe is by far Africa’s biggest investor, now providing €261 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) versus €42 billion for the US and €38 billion for China; and we have long been and still are Africa’s biggest donor (€22 billion per year). Added to this is Europe’s very substantial support to African efforts in the area of peace and security; and the millions of practical ways that Africans and Europeans are linked together every day. Around 170,000 African students came to Europe in 2019, with 8,500 doing so on EU-funded scholarships.

    A partnership fit for purpose in the post-pandemic world

    All this is highly relevant and bears repeating; but it is not the essence, which is that we, as the EU, want to revamp our partnership with Africa and make it fit for purpose in the post-pandemic world. Of course, the coronavirus has had major impact on both continents, in terms of health, economy and even security. For the first time in 25 years, we will see the African continent in recession.

    We are ready to do our part to address urgent needs and plan together to ‘build back better’. This is not just rhetoric. The Team Europe package of EU institution and member state support allocates €8 billion for Africa. There is also the EU’s stance in favour of not just a moratorium on debt repayments but also debt relief (unlike others); and the EU’s €7.5 billion for development of a vaccine, and our commitment to make sure the vaccine, when it comes, will be treated as a global public good.

    Beyond the corona crisis, other reasons why the EU wants to revamp the EU-Africa partnership still apply today, perhaps even more so. The pandemic has acted as an accelerator of world history. There is more geopolitical competition today, and the world is becoming more digital, more authoritarian and with more inequality within and between states. There is also clearer competition between different political and societal models.

    In this rougher world, Europeans and Africans have every reason to work together, to protect values and interests that should be dear to both. We share the vision of a society based on individual political rights and freedoms, solidarity, human dignity and the centrality of the Sustainable Development Goals. As partners for multilateralism, we must ensure that the international system itself is based on respect for laws and rules. There are clearly many actors pursuing a different vision and agenda; we see this every day, both in Europe and in Africa.

    Shared strategic priorities for a mature political partnership

    Which societal vision and which political model will prevail in the post-corona world is truly a strategic issue and should be at the heart of EU-Africa dialogue at all levels. Which strategic vision is upheld will determine the specific priorities that flow from it. The EU should be clear on what its interests and priorities are, but of course these need to be matched with Africa’s. After all, this is what a mature political partnership is about. Obvious shared priorities could include the following:

    – Working jointly on the recovery, by giving substance to the rhetoric of ‘building back better’ and above all by prioritising women and the young in everything we do
    – Digitalisation and innovation, because our future is digital, but we must make the internet accessible to all, while protecting the privacy of each of us
    – Climate change and resilience, because this is the mega-challenge coming after COVID-19, and we will not find a vaccine against it
    – Peace and security, by silencing the guns from the Sahel to the Horn and Great Lakes through inclusive peacemaking
    – Partnering at the global level, because the multilateral system is in crisis, and both sides have a major stake in creating a world where agreed rules, not might, make right.

    For each of these areas, we must gather the best ideas and learn from past mistakes. We also have to give visibility to our common efforts, so African and European citizens know what is being done in their name.

    The bad thing about the future is that it is unknown and full of challenges. The good thing is that we can shape it together. As the post-pandemic world takes shape, Africans and Europeans must decide how they want that world to look, and act accordingly.

    About the author
    Since December 2019, Josep Borrell has been EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission. He previously served as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Spain and has held numerous senior-level positions in both Spanish and European politics and academia.

    Read the full magazine issue

    Navigating the new normal: EU-AU partnerships in the post-COVID era – Volume 9, Issue 3, 2020
    This issue of Great Insights explores the essence of the partnership between the AU and EU from the perspectives of policymakers, business leaders, city officials and individual thinkers. Their insights push decision makers to reimagine the relationship as they navigate the pandemic-induced ‘new normal’.
    26 October 2020
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