Proposing an alternative in Europe-Africa relations

, by Thomas Buttin

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Proposing an alternative in Europe-Africa relations
Paul Kagame and Jean-Claude Juncker, 4 June 2018. Photo : © European Union , 2018 / Photo: Etienne Ansotte

“Africa does not need charity, it needs true and fair partnerships. And we, Europeans need this partnership just as much.” Jean-Claude Juncker declared that he would undertake to conclude agreements on an equal footing between the European Union and the African countries in his last State of the Union address.

Relations between African countries and Europe are old. They are based on a heavy colonial history, important cultural and commercial exchanges, and obvious economic and political links. Europe’s external action is still finding its feet in the relationship to be established with the African countries: the colonial past of some EU member states sometimes creates an additional difficulty, while it can be the root of privileged relationships. The European institutions seek a balance between their willingness to pass on democratic values, and economic expansion. This is in the Union’s interest, as the EU represents 80% of the public aid intended for African countries and is its main commercial partner. The Euro-African political dialogue thus looks like a unilateral negotiation that often runs up against African countries’ national interests.

Euro-African economic and diplomatic relations cannot be based on a donor-recipient principle. This is what Jean-Claude Juncker and Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda and of the African Union, agreed on. Mutual investment in closer relations is positive and even imperative in view of China’s increasingly conquest-like settling. Yet, the neo-colonialist logic resists in both continents’ public opinions: the Europeans have the duty to think differently about African countries, to change this dominating perception and to reinvent a model now running out of steam.

A salutary “new alliance”?

Europe and Africa share many common interests, such as a favourable economic and business climate or security issues. The President of the European Commission proposed an Africa-Europe Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs, which aims at stimulating strategic European investments and enhancing trade between partners. These projects make the most of the potential represented by the creation of the African Free Trade Zone (AFTZ) and seem to bring new logics to this relationship. The creation of this free trade area is designed to replace the old Economic Partnership Agreements, particularly criticised by the African agricultural sector. Likewise, this alliance pursues the objective of creating jobs and investing in education: the European Union wants to open the Erasmus programme to 75,000 students and academics from Africa.

However, care must be taken to ensure that neo-colonial drifts and reinvention of these different projects won’t happen. Indeed, the various objectives oddly recall the Chinese initiatives presented in the Beijing declaration. This “new alliance” found between the European Union and the African countries nonetheless appears salutary. Europeans seem to have learned from some of past mistakes, especially regarding unbalanced economic agreements and unequal diplomatic relations. However, these commitments appear derisory in view of Europe’s tarnished image in some African regions and regarding China’s aggressive policy.

An inappropriate institutional architecture

The Africa-EU partnership is based on a formal dialogue consisting in meetings organised between African and European counterparts. Heads of State and Government meet every three years at African Union-EU summits, during which the political orientations of the cooperation are discussed and defined. Ad hoc meetings and parliamentary meetings exist, as well as specific thematic dialogues. However, the relationships’ institutional architecture is marked by the meetings’ (in)frequency. A greater regularity should be allowed to get the two continents closer together in the different issues they have to face.

The tensions triggered by migration issues

The control of migration from African countries is a hot topic in our European societies. European and African leaders are very divided on the subject, and on how to address migration policy. The European Heads of State and Government would like to conclude agreements with African countries on the return of migrants, within the new Cotonou agreements whose talks have already started. The European Union has expressed its intention to prioritise migration control in future agreements by conditioning aid and future financial investments to African countries. This paternalistic and even subjugating position recalls a brutal neo-colonialist behaviour towards Africa.

The Euro-African agreements are characterised by a striking inequality in the ratio of power, mainly because of African countries’ dependence towards Europe. All structures (financial, technical, political...) maintain or create a relationship based on structural dependence, economically speaking. If the “new alliance” proposed by the European Union partially seems to free itself from this process, European neo-colonialism is not likely to disappear. Europeans must ask themselves the right questions. Is our presence in Africa really beneficial? For us, obviously! But for the African people?

The Euro-African agreements of the last decades have been characterised by a unilateralism conditioning the grant of development aid to the establishment of European companies. However, this European economic expansion is not beneficial to a sustainable economic development in Africa. How to free ourselves from our common history by parting from this neo-colonialism? The main difficulty lies in our incapability to imagine a world devoid of the dominant and the dominated, understood as a constraining relationship. We should probably be more attentive to the people of Africa to avoid the repetition of past mistakes, be it neo-colonialism following from the colonisation of some European states or the difficulties to respect the non-interference principle in African countries, for instance.

Yet, a European awareness would be insufficient to reinvent Euro-African relations. Neo-colonialism is not enough to fully understand this domination. African countries as well need to become more aware of their responsibility in this unbalanced relationship, in which they voluntarily accept the Western systems of values and thinking, as well as economic models. It might be time to understand our common interests, and the elites should include a psychological dimension (regarding the populations’ mutual perception on both continents), as well as a social dimension (through an awareness of the African people’s well-being) in Euro-African economic and diplomatic relations.

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