How Europe-Africa relations were liberated from decades-old thinking

The year is 2030. Marta Gabarova, European Commissioner for Africa and member of the African-European Joint Authority speaks frankly about the evolution of the relationship with Africa since the postponed AU-EU Summit in 2020. The radical revision of the partnership towards interest-based cooperation has been a game changer for both continents. It has lifted heavy psychological burdens and the dead weight of ‘path dependency’. Both sides can now focus on what genuinely unites them.

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    Never waste a good crisis, the saying goes. Inadvertently, this is what happened in Europe-Africa relations during the past ten years.

    At first, it all seemed so dramatic. COVID-19 wreaked havoc on a global scale. More than a million dead, societies torn apart and economies shrunk. The pandemic set back years of progress towards the sustainable development goals. The global pandemic was also blamed for the postponement of the AU-EU Summit meant to take place in October 2020.

    A second, more dramatic shock came when the EU, facing a spectacular fiscal squeeze, moved to cut external spending and focus the remaining resources on its neighbouring countries. Though the European Commission under then President Von der Leyen had grown fond of talking up its geopolitical role, in reality the EU was struggling to make a mark even in its immediate neighbourhood. Conflicts abounded where other actors were setting the pace: Libya, Syria and Turkey, but also Ukraine and Belarus, following the fraudulent elections of August 2020. All these crises meant there were simply too many fires around the EU. The EU’s declining resources had to be allocated to the EU’s border. Despite attempts to give matters a positive spin, this meant that the funds the EU had for decades devoted to sub-Saharan Africa had to be cut, and dropped from €26 billion to €10 billion. Another €10 billion, originally meant for humanitarian aid, was left untouched, as a mark of the EU’s enduring readiness to meet humanitarian crises worldwide.

    There was a predictable outcry from some African partners, NGOs and the wider development community. It even led to the resignation of the sitting European Commissioner, Jutta Urpilainen, who openly expressed her disagreement in a debate in the European Parliament (watched by 10 million viewers, another first in the history of EU integration).

    But after the dust settled, what had seemed like a short-sighted, self-centred EU decision turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The removal of the certainty of large-scale European financial largesse also removed all the psychological baggage that came with it. Gone were European paternalism and assumptions that the Africa-EU partnership would be built around EU priorities. After all, Europe was paying. Gone too was the resentment on the European side at the lack of African gratitude for its decades-long aid and for Africa’s willingness, as some saw it, to cynically side with China and its ‘offer’ of infrastructure projects without pesky requirements on human rights, transparency and environmental impact assessments. All that was swept aside.

    Africans too were psychologically ‘liberated’ when they saw that the Europeans could no longer play their usual game of leveraging financial support into policy influence, invariably dressed up as ‘cooperation among equals’. Gone was the need to cater to the endless stream of European ideas, plans and visitors – just because they had money to spend. Some young Africans remarked that this was the real end to centuries of European colonialism.

    It meant that both sides had to drop decades of path dependencies, tired mental schemes and categories – and go back to first principles: What did both sides want? What interests did they have in common, leading to which concrete objectives? What kind of architecture and policy instruments were needed to achieve these?

    In October 2021, a special AU-EU Summit took place and the turnout was impressive. Because the United Nations (UN) General Assembly had still not resumed in 2021, the AU-EU Summit was that year’s largest gathering of Heads of State and Government. Its Ljubljana Declaration set out a new way forward for relations between the two continents. The African side had used the extra time well to set political priorities together, using not just diplomatic negotiations but also online crowdsourcing on both continents. Five priority clusters were identified that have guided the relationship ever since:

    ● Trade/the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA) and regional integration
    ● Climate and resilience
    ● Peace and security
    ● Digitalisation and innovation
    ● Youth and mobility

    It was agreed that, from now on, all efforts would go to concrete projects and tangible activities. The main criterion was, ‘if you can’t see it or touch it, it won’t be funded’. All activities had to be branded #AfricaEuropeTogether, and only European or African organisations working together could be implementers; so no more budget support and no more going through UN agencies. Applying for funds was made easier and bureaucratic hurdles reduced. A co-funding requirement was introduced, so 50% had to be provided by each side. The initial total budget of €20 billion was to be reviewed every year. Overall, this was less than it used to be, but the quality turned out to be higher, with better outcomes, more geared to the future instead of legacy programmes.

    The Ljubljana Declaration established a new African-European Joint Authority, with five Commissioners from each side. The Authority meets once a month and oversees the day-to-day running of the partnership. A Partnership Council, made up of 15 leaders from each side, chosen by rotation, meets once a year to provide strategic direction, taking decisions by super-qualified majority voting.

    There were of course teething problems. But soon enough the new way of working together started to deliver strikingly successful forms of cooperation and results: establishment of an African-European network of universities that funds up to 50,000 exchange programmes each year; an African-European coalition for free distribution of vaccines after the successful alliance for the 2021 COVID-19 one; training 500 joint custom officials on Africa’s external borders to police the ACFTA; a joint AU-EU peacekeeping brigade on standby for peacekeeping duties worldwide, not just in Africa; the ‘Solar’ project on renewables in North and East Africa; the ongoing joint development of a mobile digital payment system for use on both continents. These are just a few examples.

    The new form of cooperation also influenced the multilateral arena. In the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization, for example, the AU and EU were able to jointly push through the institutional reforms both had advocated for years, while other major players continued to pursue their narrow national agendas.

    Europeans did have to swallow hard when they saw they had less influence than they wanted. Yet, within the EU, the number of countries taking a serious interest in Africa doubled, as cooperation no longer revolved around those with money and old colonial ties. It is no accident that this author, the first-ever EU Commissioner for Africa, comes from a country that never had any colonies in Africa.

    Africans had to come to terms with losing, at last, the ability to play the guilt card. They now had to articulate and agree on truly African priorities, instead of presenting wish-lists of national projects. A few old autocrats had to give up their old game of using European money and control of security services to hang on to power, staving off demands from young Africans for accountability and democratic change.

    It is still a work in progress, obviously, but now, ten years on, we can conclude that the annus horribilis of 2020 marked a liberation of sorts. It cut Europe and Africa off from the distorting effect of financial inequality and the psychological baggage that comes with it.

    In the final analysis, the best form of cooperation among states and groups of states is that grounded on a firm foundation of common interest. That is what European and African leaders pulled out of the rubble of the COVID-19 pandemic. We ought to thank them for it. The only question is, ‘what took them so long?’

    About the author
    European Commissioner for Africa and member of the African-European Joint authority.


    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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