The EU and Africa: Should, would, could… but how?

An EU communication is always a strange beast. It tries to lay down new directions while building on existing commitments and instruments; to set a united, common agenda that complements but doesn’t overlap (and undermine) those of its member states; to prioritise but also cover all the main topics of the day, not to mention the key objectives of all its Directorates-General; and to set the tone but without being too ambitious lest some members feel left behind.

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      As the Financial Times put it, “[s]trategy papers are good at papering over disagreements. That is why Brussels is so fond of them.” Though that was about the new industrial strategy, the recently launched EU communication on a new strategy with Africa seems to fall in the same category, but with an added twist as it seeks to project all those EU ambitions onto another amorphous partner: ‘Africa’.

      The new Africa strategy progresses from past attempts to reset EU-Africa relations. It recognises the historical and geographical ties that bind the changing context of the relationship, but also explicitly recognises ‘respective’ interests, not just mutual ones. Its title ‘Towards a comprehensive Strategy with Africa’ alludes to a more humble ambition than the inappropriately named ‘Alliance with Africa’ of the last European Commission, reportedly written with little to no consultation.

      The communication also recognises the growth trajectories in a number of African countries and the “welcome development” of “increased interest from many players on the world scene”, often framed as competition from new players. And of course, it reflects a changing world in which a green transition and digitalisation are going to be key to international relations, in Africa and beyond. These are all discussed before governance, and peace and security and the inevitable reference to migration. Recent rhetoric from EU Commissioner Von der Leyen on a ‘partnership of equals‘ with the AU is, advisedly, nowhere to be found in the communication. The communication also seeks a balance between addressing new prospects and challenges in Africa, and global challenges where the EU seeks a joint approach.

      So far so good. The right things all appear to be there, without ruffling too many feathers, and it may indeed mark a less paternalistic approach than in the past. This is in addition to various appeals to what the EU and Africa, and the EU itself, should, must or need to do going forward – so what appears indeed to be a list of concrete priorities. Furthermore, the new communication comes with a handy checklist of ten ‘proposed actions’ to keep everyone on track.

      While the list of proposed actions is commendable, reflecting the current consensus on ‘development issues’ of well-meaning people on both continents, it raises the questions: Who? And how?

      Who is this Africa of whom you speak?


      A challenge for this communication is the institutional setup of the partnership, where the EU can speak for its member states on external policy, but ‘Africa’ is harder to pin down. While that reflects the different institutional nature of the AU and EU – the different levels of power invested in them by their members and the degree to which they can, therefore, take decisions for its members – it makes it difficult to see where action might actually happen as a result of this strategy.

      In fact, for all of the references to ‘Africa’, one might read ‘African countries’, as that is the level that any activities will be discussed and will play out. Even where regional agreements and organisations exist, not to mention continental programmes under the auspices of the AU, it is nationally (not to mention locally) where action happens, as our work on the political economy dynamics of regional organisations in Africa has shown.

      Opting for a “low-carbon, resource efficient and climate-resilient future in line with the Paris Agreement” is something that must take place at the country level, possibly with EU support through its delegations in line with specific nationally determined contributions. “Joint action to protect and reduce pressure on forests, water and marine ecosystems while enhancing their management by tackling illegal harvesting” certainly fits with regional agendas, but again comes down to national and local politics.

      The same goes for attracting investors by “adopting policies and regulatory reforms”, or enhancing cooperation “on a responsible raw materials sector, secure and clean industrial value chains, respecting ambitious environmental and climate standards”. National and local politics will always be key to implementation and ultimate impact.

      At one level it is understandable that an EU communication cannot go into these details. But Africa is a complex continent of heterogeneous countries, histories and politics, and with a range of multiple and overlapping regional and continental agendas. This is a challenge for the AU’s own continental strategies and aspirational Agenda 2063. But here, different countries also have different relations and formal agreements with the EU and its member states.

      Interestingly, the only times that the communication mentions “the EU and African countries”, are where it mentions how they“are committed to promoting and protecting all human rights and fundamental freedoms globally” and “have developed a joint approach to managing migration and mobility”. The past is about African countries, but the future is Africa?

      While there is mention of the need for the EU to step up its engagement with EU member states and institutions on financing, for example, the only time that African regional organisations are mentioned is in relation to peace and security, where the communication recognises that “African states, supported by regional and continental organisations, bear the main responsibility to act, as they are the foremost guarantors of their own security.”

      Regional and continental organisations are not mentioned in the context of regional economic integration and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), but are on human rights and democracy, where “actions will be carried out in close cooperation with EU Member States, the African Union, African regional organisations, the UN and other key partners”.

      Is this a choice by the EU to only work with regional organisations in these areas? Even if regional organisations have their flaws, they clearly have some role to play in the economic integration agenda, and in some cases attained deeper integration than that envisaged in the AfCFTA.

      Multiple partners, multiple objectives


      Though part of an attempt by the new EU Commission to move towards a partnership based on mutual interests, and establishing an agenda in the run up to the EU-AU summit next year, there is a question mark around what this adds to the debate beyond good intentions.

      “Respective and mutual interests” are actually listed together, raising the question: which are respective and which are mutual? “Improving the business and investment climate” is certainly in the interests of some, but experience also shows that certain political and/or economic interests benefit from the status quo. Though a major financial partner in many countries, this is an area where the EU has often failed to have much impact – not because of lack of strategy, but rather the complexity of altering such deeply ingrained institutions.

      The EU is clearly a big player on the geopolitical stage and in many African countries, but when it comes to actual change on the ground, much depends on political incentives and local actors, and therefore on the ability of external partners to read and understand these. Only then can they provide targeted support towards realistic objectives, where there is at least a degree of political interest and traction. If not, there is a risk of yet another strategy with lots of vision but little action – also known as hallucination.


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

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