EU-Africa relations: a strategy for the whole Union?

, by Benjamin Robinet

EU-Africa relations: a strategy for the whole Union?
African Union leaders gather for the Union’s 17th Ordinary Summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. Source: Embassy of Equatorial Guinea (via Flickr).

In early March 2020 the European Commission presented its communication “Towards a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa”. 2020 would be a pivotal year for the EU-Africa partnership, argued President von Der Leyen, who called for a ’partnership of equals’ and ’mutually beneficial relations’. In the long term, stronger cooperation could prove vital if the EU is to remain a key player on the multilateral stage and to secure access to African markets for European industries. In the shorter term, many of the EU’s security and migratory challenges could be tackled by decisively supporting the African Union.

EU-Africa relations

The African continent is at the centre of the 21st century economic and geopolitical competition. With the youngest population of the planet and the biggest growth potential, international actors are looking greedily at African markets. To this day, the European Union and its Member States are the most important partners for African states and are eager to preserve this special relationship.

When looking at commercial exchanges, the EU is the biggest partner in Africa. In 2018, the total trade in goods between the EU27 and Africa reached about €235 billion, i.e. about 32% of the whole African trade, twice as much as trade with China and five times more than with the US. The EU also provided around 46% of the total aid delivered through the Official Development Assistance, which channels official international contributions. It is also involved in security cooperation through its different Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and operations, and its African Peace Facility (APF), established in 2003. The rise of jihadist violence and internal conflicts, e.g. in the Sahel and in Libya, have led to enhanced security cooperation over the last few years.

The new EU-Africa strategy: a Commission proposal

Upon taking office in December 2019, Ursula von der Leyen called for a “partnership of equals” between the European Union and Africa, both in bilateral contexts and in EU-African Union (AU) relations. She also declared that 2020 be a "a pivotal year in living up to our ambition of an even stronger partnership with Africa”. She built momentum this year with a visit on February 27 to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), where the AU’s headquarters are located, and by scheduling the EU-AU summit in October 2020, which will serve to define the partnership’s future priorities.

On March 9, 2020, the Commission issued a communication titled Towards a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa. This proposal highlights five partnership areas: green transition, digital transformation, sustainable growth, peace and governance, and migration. The strategy covers three agreements and initiatives: 1) the post-Cotonou Agreement, currently in negotiation, 2) the new Neighbourhood Development and International Cooperation Instrument (also known as NDICI – be prepared, the acronym’s actual pronunciation is a hot topic in trilogue negotiations), and 3) the European Peace Facility (EPF), replacing the actual APF into a broader financial scheme. Less than a new strategy, it actually suggests an update of the 2007 Africa Strategy. The Commission also exports its projects and priorities: the planned strategy includes strong climate and digitalisation commitment, aiming at a sustainable but rapid development of African economies.

Alongside political guidelines, the proposal also underlines the transformed relation between the EU and AU. Gone are the days of the EU’s paternalism towards Africa: the former has decisively shifted towards constructive realism. Indeed, AU members nowadays benefit from the renewed interest of both the Commission and other international actors.

Ethiopia’s situation, in fact, reflects the current political environment. Heavily dependent on Chinese investment and loans, it has recently received financial support from Western donors including the IMF and the World Bank, writes Politico. The country can therefore build on strong economic growth to rebalance its international relations, and seeks a new equilibrium between reliance on China and self-owned and shaped development.

For the European Union, the partnership with the AU addresses geopolitical, security, economic and migratory challenges. At the global level, the Commission is trying to reinforce its position in multilateral fora through closer cooperation with African states. Yet much remains to be done. In the United Nations, for example, during a recent vote on a cybercrime resolution called “Countering the use of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes”, most African countries sided with China and Russia. The EU opposed the resolution, raising concerned about its possible impact on online freedom of expression and human rights.

With the US’ increasing isolation, the BRICS countries’ growing independence and China’s ever-growing influence, Africa also represents one of the last possible partners for the EU. With efficient political coordination, an EU-AU alliance in the United Nations General Assembly would provide both organisations with strong leverage.

No less importantly, the EU is stepping up its economic competition with China and intensifying its efforts to prevent Russian deeper military involvement. It is actively supporting African peace and security efforts through its 10 CSDP missions (including the new EUNAVFOR IRINI to control the arms embargo on Libya) and its African Peace Facility. The EU’s security approach to Africa rests on three pillars: (1) the empowerment of local forces, (2) post-conflict peacebuilding, and (3) conflict prevention. The aim is to avoid direct engagement, instead supporting the AU to provide “African solutions to African problems”. Security is considered the highest priority, with the AU initiative “Silencing the guns” aiming at ending all armed conflict in the continent by 2020. Ensuring a conflict-free continent - which is also a key European interest is a top priority to foster their own economic development, they argue.

Building on its own experience, the EU is strongly backing the AU project of African Continent Free Trade Agreement. With the EU development and trade policies aiming at enhancing the African economies and market digitalisation, it goes without saying that many European countries, not only former colonial powers, would share the benefits. According to Eurostat, former colonial Member States are the ones most involved in Africa, at least when it comes to trade volume. However, African emerging markets are also important for Romania, Cyprus, and Malta, for whom African partners account for 15 to 25% of extra-EU trade. Interestingly, both Czechia and Poland are among the European Member States with the most positive trade balance (in terms of goods) with Africa in 2018.

Since the 2015 crisis, migratory issues are of great concern. They affect both countries situated at the EU borders and countries of migrants’ preference. No less importantly, it has become central in the political debate in some EU members (e.g. Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands). Leaving aside the issue of refugees, which is a matter governed by international law, the EU is trying to regulate what it calls “economic migration”, as well as combatting human trafficking, through its system of “managed migration”. Considering that the flows are mostly internal, the EU commits to helping the African Union in achieving stability and economic development, thus tackling the root causes of migratory movements.

For the many, or for the few?

The European Union and its Member States have numerous interests in Africa. The proposed Africa Strategy is ambitious, even though practicalities are still to be defined. Clearly, in the long term, closer cooperation with African countries could prove key to securing both European prosperity and a greater influence on the multilateral stage. The improvement of those relations will not only benefit the Member States with existing ties: it will also offer new economic opportunities to all EU Members. If the 2004 enlargement brought about a shift eastward in EU foreign policy, will the 2020 Africa Strategy lead to a shift to the South?

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