Time to move towards an interest-driven Africa-EU political partnership (part one)

Geert Laporte elaborates upon the reasons why, in his opinion, the partnership between Africa and Europe has failed to meet the hype and hope of the JAES.

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      At the end of November African and European Heads of State will meet in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, for the 5th Africa-EU Summit. Every three years this high-level event is a good opportunity to feel the pulse of the Africa-Europe partnership and to explore ways to revitalise or deepen it.

      This year, it will be particularly timely as the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The European External Action Service (EEAS) and the European Commission issued last May a Joint Communication for a renewed impetus of the Africa-EU Partnership. The Joint Communication will be brought to the attention of today’s EU Foreign Affairs Council which will also adopt Council conclusions on this.

      In the first of a two-part blog series, our Deputy Director Geert Laporte takes a critical look at the state of the Africa-Europe partnership and the Joint Communication, and gives an answer to the question that the document did not even dare to ask: why is this partnership not delivering the desired results?


      From projects to political partnership


      Since the last Summit in Brussels only three years ago, a lot has happened in the world, in Europe and in Africa. The Joint Communication highlights some of the key challenges in the rapidly changing African landscape.

      But when it comes to Europe, surprisingly, the document does not mention any of the key issues that the EU is currently facing. As if Brexit and the migration crisis – that caused a political tsunami in Europe – would not have an impact on the future of the partnership with Africa. Even when it mentions migration, the language used is wooden and unsubstantial, with statements such as “the EU addresses migration in a spirit of partnership and mutual trust through continuous dialogue and cooperation with its African partners”.

      In spite of this lack of introspective analysis, the interrelated key strategic objectives of the Joint Communication for the partnership with Africa are mostly valid and justified. The EU aims to strengthen the cooperation with Africa in international fora. It also wants to jointly work towards more security on land and on sea and to promote sustainable and inclusive economic development in Africa.

      Actions are structured around two key strands, namely resilient states and societies, and more and better jobs – especially for youth, the central theme of the Abidjan Summit. Both the African Agenda 2063 and European policy frameworks such as the Global strategy for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy provide the necessary guidance on the quite extensive list of actions.

      As we saw over the years with the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) and successive Roadmaps, good intentions were never in short supply. Sometimes this has also resulted in concrete and useful projects and programmes on infrastructure, agriculture, sustainable energy, research and innovation.

      So far so good. However, a strong political partnership is and should be more than a technocratic agreement on a set of actions. The Commission and the EEAS do call for a stronger investment at the political level so as “to lift the political relationship to a higher strategic stage”.

      Yet, why did the partnership not deliver on its political aspirations? Why did both continents not succeed in fostering the right alliances on major global themes? The Joint Communication opts for the easy way forward and turns the same lofty aspirations of the past into ambitions for the future without first analysing why things did not work the way they were intended to.

      There is a famous saying that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. A serious assessment without taboos on why both continents did not manage to build in the past ten years a stronger political partnership in spite of their Joint Strategy, the Roadmaps and numerous declarations is absolutely paramount. In the absence of an in-depth political economy analysis of the partnership, I have tried to make a basic diagnosis of European and African contradictions, largely inspired by some personal experiences.

      European inconsistencies and contradictions


      There is a quite common perception among Africans that the relationship between Europe and Africa is not a partnership between equals. On paper, the partnership intends to promote open and constructive dialogue on all major issues of the relationship between Europe and Africa. In practice, there is a strong feeling that the EU defines the agenda and the rules of the game.

      “The EU is never willing to make concessions on issues that really matter to Africa” is a sentence that can be heard on different floors of the African Union Commission tower in Addis Ababa. Examples relate, amongst others, to the controversial Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) – once described as a “well-intended diplomatic disaster” – and the migration crisis that have soured the partnership.

      Another major factor of irritation in Africa is the use of double standards in dealing with value agendas – governance, democracy, rule of law and human rights – in different African countries and regions. Also some unilateral European interventions in African affairs, in Libya for example, have not been appreciated by the relevant African institutions, which felt that their voice on this issue was not being heard.

      Europe’s difficulties to speak with one voice have generated some confusion. Several EU member states promote their own bilateral policies, sometimes in contradiction with EU-African policies. If the EU is really serious about building a continental partnership then it should avoid keeping up an amalgamate of overlapping and competing agreements and instruments that split up the African continent, such as the EU-Africa Joint Strategy, the ACP-EU Cotonou Agreement, the South African Trade, Development and Cooperation Agreement and the European Neighbourhood Policy towards North Africa.

      These observations are further compounded by the fact that the EU is not always explicit in spelling out its strategic interest agendas. The perception that the EU is keen to be seen in Africa as a ‘do-gooder’ and ‘the most generous donor’ does not help. In fact, it confirms the image of an African continent of dependence rather than a continent of opportunity.

      Yet, many Europeans are aware of these sensitivities on the African side and, to some extent, the Joint Communication is already more explicit about Europe’s interests. The question should no longer be what Europe could do for Africa but rather what Europe could do with Africa.

      African inconsistencies and contradictions


      Also on the African side, there are several complicating factors that make it difficult to build a more balanced partnership. The African continent is divided. Many heads of state are unwilling to hand over more responsibility to the African Union and there are also major tensions between the African Union and the Regional Economic Communities.

      Furthermore, the institutional capacity of the African Union is rather weak and it is not always easy to understand Africa’s strategic vision for its future with the EU. The Agenda 2063 can hardly be seen as a game-changer as it rather confirms a certain African inertia by postponing badly needed and delicate decisions to the second part of this century.

      The biggest hindrance to a real balanced partnership remains the African aid addiction. European and African parties repeatedly stress their desire to build a partnership beyond a donor-recipient relationship. Nevertheless, the vested interests created by the aid industry make it difficult to end the dependency syndrome. Yet, at a moment when both parties are systematically repeating their intentions to build a partnership beyond aid, it is time to put the money where the mouth is.

      In the second part of this blog series, we will look into how Europe and Africa could reinforce their political partnership.


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

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