The EU-Africa nexus: promise and purpose

Authored by Fabrizio Tassinari and Mehari Taddele Maru

@DrMehari and @f_tassinari

Only by recognizing and sharing the values derived from its unique transnational experience can Europe meet the promise of its holistic partnership with Africa.

On her first week in office, newly elected president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen made Ethiopia the destination for her first official trip outside Europe. For an institution that she has declared should play a geopolitical role in the world, this trip is powerfully symbolic and of real strategic significance. For African governments, as with many other competing parties, the visit is indicative of the EU’s determination to maintain or even reinvent its relationship with Africa.

If such aspirations are to come to fruition, however, the EU’s priorities concerning the African continent and its fundamental mindset towards it, need radical change. Europe and Africa are naturally bound by geographical proximity, a shared – and often controversial – history, and growing economic and demographic complementarities. But it is these very ties that most often turn out to be a source of division rather than convergence. As a result, Africa features on the European political agenda mainly as the source of threats and challenges, ranging from migration and terrorism to resource management and proxy geopolitical competition.

Two Mediterraneans

The microcosm of the Mediterranean, which encloses the maritime boundaries of the two continents, provides ample evidence of this contradiction. For decades, Europeans have unabashedly played on an assumed ‘togetherness’ that unites the northern and southern Mediterranean shores: that Sea as the cradle of civilizations where, as French historian Fernand Braudel put it, ‘to live is to exchange’. Yet it is the Mediterranean that has become the central breaking point of Europe’s approach to human migration, in the process serving as an enhanced mirror image of dysfunctional multiculturalism within Europe itself and the international solidarity and multilateralism that EU was supposed to exemplify and espouse.

European development assistance has also decreased by 1.6 percent in 16 years, while that of non-EU aid to Africa has increased by 50 percent. EU aid to Africa is almost 100 times more than that of China. EU is destination to 38 percent of Africa’s export, while China is fast following the EU at 19 percent and the US remains at 15 percent.

Nonetheless, according to a recent African Union study, while the EU is Africa’s largest trading partner as a bloc, the percentage of EU aid to and trade with Africa is also in decline, indicative that other partners are taking more share of aid and trade. Close to 70 percent of the total trade of Africa is with non-EU countries, and in the past 15 years, the share of trade with the EU has declined by 20 percent, while trade with Asia (particularly China, India and Japan) has increased by 15 percent. While the EU has committed itself to Euro 44 billion ( USD 54 billion) investment by 2020, China has pledged USD 60 billion only in 2015. China has more than 10,000 firms operating in Africa.

Newly-arrived front rank nations

Europe needs to adopt a radically different approach. For all the talk of the European Union’s normative power, the past decade of financial and migration ‘crises’ has tarnished the reputation and appeal of the European way of life. Africans see themselves now as closer to China, India, Turkey and even Russia than to Europe, thanks to the willingness and capacity of those newly-arrived front rank nations to match priorities, take risks, and make minimum profit. The experience of dealing with Chinese publicly owned enterprises that often win tenders for massive infrastructural projects on the basis of wafer-thin margins and consequent sub-standard quality, presents a paradigm of this current state of affairs.

Nevertheless, it is the values and living standards embodied by the countries of the EU, in some cases even more than those of the US, that remain the aspirational model for many Africans. The EU is still the paragon for the AU, the main pan-regional institution on the African continent, and is a ‘brand’ that Africans admire over that of all other external actors. The ambitious African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA), signed in Kigali in March 2018 among 44 of the 55 African states, sets out to reduce trade barriers between its members by up to 90% and is a testament to the endurance of the EU model. Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda and leading architect of CFTA, said “we view this [CFTA] as a historic step. It will transform trade within our continent, while encouraging the world to relate to the fastest-growing continent as a single bloc for trade purposes”.

Bureaucratic procedures

It is widely affirmed that the partnership between Africa and the EU reflects a desire for a cooperative approach from both sides. Yet it is partly because of this very model that Europe’s partnership with Africa has so far failed to match its promise. The comprehensiveness of the EU’s partnership model paradoxically can serve to undermine its effectiveness. From the ‘blue’ economy to piracy to climate change, Europe and Africa and share a great number of strategic interests. Best practices and knowledge transfer, however, should be tackled in a targeted way and at the local level.

Much as it has inside Europe itself, the EU in its external relations have often lacked the flexibility and institutional agility to apply some of the lessons it hopes to convey. For example, it is not practical for the EU to attempt to apply its somewhat cumbersome and bureaucratic procedures to the Africa, where the requisite institutional skills and experience simply are not available. (While the AU’s total staff complement is not more than 1600, the personnel on the EU’s payroll exceeds 30,000). As a result, the perception of an EU partnership with the AU is characterized by fatigue and frustration, reinforcing rather than overcoming the enduring mistrust that has been inherited from a painful past of exploitation and colonialism, and more recently from the inflexibility of EU paperwork.

Multidimensional dialogue and mutual respect

The EU and AU need to offer multidimensional dialogue platforms to help build confidence, to identify shared priorities and to expand domestic political support for continuing cooperative ventures. Above all, such platforms may help infuse a sense of urgency and flexibly that is in short supply in the current EU-AU cooperative structure for effective delivery on promises.

Effective delivery depends on the will, priority and capacity of the partners. Both sides need to ensure continuous dialogue to foster political will and to identify and reinforce areas of overlapping consensus. The EU side needs structural flexibility if it is to meet the essential priorities of its partnership with Africa.The EU should provide funding responsive to Africa’s priorities. There is no justification for the EU to stick to conditionalities that have not worked in the past (this, of course, does not mean that there should not be mutual accountability).

There should be an allocation of responsibilities, reviews of progress and proposals for addressing weaknesses. Such a process, though, needs to be conducted on the basis of mutual respect and equality, not in the light of donor-recipient or questioner and respondent. Indeed, both parties need to question and answer. But above all, a dialogue should aim at offering an impetus for policy implementation and progress review and must ensure mutual accountability. Building the capacity of the AU to deliver its mandate remains a cornerstone not only of the AU’s future but also the working out of the EU’s partnership with Africa.

By aggressively working on fewer, critical shared priorities with high multipliers on inputs and resources, the Africa-EU relationship could be turned into a natural and potentially central partnership. It must, however, avoid areas already sufficiently covered by other partnership initiatives in order to reduce a potential waste of resources through duplication of effort.

It should also strive to enhance the return on its efforts by investing in areas in which it enjoys comparative advantage. In this regard, cooperation on governance and human rights, trade and investment, education and human resources development remain critical focus areas of the Africa-EU partnership. Well-placed to promote democracy and human rights, the EU could assist the AU in the prevention of conflict through improved governance and economic development. Hence, in contrast to other partners of Africa such as China, the unique pedigree of the EU and megatrends in Africa together dictate that improving standards of governance should take pride of place in the Africa-EU partnership under the Commission led by Von der Leyen.

Paradigm shift

If Africa is to meet its continental challenges related to growth, sustainability, redistribution and poverty reduction, nothing less than a paradigm shift is required in promoting capacity development for its political, business and societal leadership. Addressing individual policy challenges beyond the confines of individual countries has a potentially limitless remit, extending from the empowerment of women and minorities and access to basic services, to the fight against corruption and universal digital access.

In this regard the European pedigree and experience can provide a key comparative advantage: not only limited to the EU’s quasi-federal connotations in its integration model, but in Europe’s unparalleled ability to encompass critical concerns and multiple stakeholders in an inclusive way. From the supranational to the local, from governments to non-state actors and to business interests, Europe is a reservoir of lessons, positive and negative, in the complex tasks of contemporary government.

The practical application of the principle of subsidiarity, the methods for aggregating overlapping national interests and above all the protection of human rights using supranational entities, are some of the critical lessons Africa could learn. The lessons are essential to African countries, where new actors and old powers are rapidly converging as dominant players in the continental and international arenas.