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Pathways towards a revitalised Africa-Europe strategic partnership

01.10.2020

Cedric de Coning

The African Union and European Union were scheduled to adopt a new strategic partnership agreement at an AU-EU summit in October 2020, but it had to be postponed due to COVID-19 risks and related delays. This may be a blessing in disguise, as it gives the negotiators more time to adapt the relationship to COVID-19 and to craft an agreement that expands the focus, scope and scale of African-European relations for the next two decades.

The 2007 partnership strategy re-affirmed that Africa and Europe are bound together. Since then several events and trends have further consolidated the recognition that the two continents and their peoples are ecologically, socially, economically and politically interlinked and interdependent. Climate change, COVID-19 and violent conflict in the Sahel, Lake Chad and elsewhere are further increasing the stress on socio-ecological systems whose resilience has already been eroded by poverty, weak governance and external exploitation. The cumulative effect is disrupting people’s livelihood and security strategies, and one of the side-effects is increasing migration in Africa and across the Mediterranean. Strategically, this interdependence means that it is in the mutual interest of Africa and Europe, that both are peaceful, resilient and prosperous, and that both should invest in sustaining each other’s, indeed their common, wellbeing.

Recognising this interdependence does not, however, imply that all the interests and priorities of African and European countries are aligned. Nor is there necessarily agreement amongst them on how best to pursue the relationship. For example, across a number of instruments, the EU differentiates between north and sub-Saharan Africa, and within Africa there is a diversity in approaches towards the EU among least developed and other countries, and both of these dynamics undermine regional integration in Africa. Imposing a distinction between north & sub-Saharan Africa is a typical example of how the developmental bureaucracy’s geography undermines the political relationship between the AU-EU and adds additional stress on internal AU cohesion.

Aligning these interests and working towards shared aims will require a revitalised strategic partnership that recognises and address a number of factors. The current inequalities are, in part, due to the history of colonial exploitation and are sustained in a variety of ways, for example:

These negative aspects of the current relationship need to be addressed head-on, and it is reassuring to note that several of the topics are indeed addressed in the joint communique of the 10th AUC-EC Commission-to-Commission meeting that was held in Addis Ababa on 27 February 2020. This outcome statement is the first comprehensive preview of what a joint AU-EU strategic partnership agreement could cover.

There are also positive aspects in the current relationship that can be scaled-up. These include for instance practical cooperation in the area of conflict prevention, mediation, peace support operations and peacebuilding, geared towards helping the AU achieve Silencing the Guns. During its Council Presidency, Germany could use its Preventing Crisis, Resolving Conflicts, Building Peace  guidelines to broaden the peace and security dimension of the AU-EU partnership negotiations. Instruments such as the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) and the European Peace Facility (EPF) can help ensure that the EU transcends a narrow focus on borders, migration and violent extremism, and instead invests in a comprehensive and integrated triple nexus approach aimed at working in partnership with the AU, and its Peace Fund, to address the underlying structural causes of insecurity. The AU recognizes that there can be no military solution to violent extremism. Instead its approach is to prevent and respond to extremist and other conflicts with a political-led stabilization strategy that connects international, regional, national and local actors, and that consists primarily of a broad range of socio-economic initiatives, supported by security instruments.

Many topics covered in the 27 February joint AUC-EC communique were echoed in the European Union’s Africa strategy published on 9 March 2020. Whilst the themes are largely uncontroversial, the means to achieve them remain contested. Themes such as climate change, digital transformation, migration and mobility, peace and governance, and sustainable growth and jobs are common priorities for both continents. But the AU would like Europe to move beyond the development aid paradigm and re-frame the relationship instead as a trade-led geo-strategic partnership. The AU is increasingly assertive in expressing its frustration with the degree to which the European Commission is still approaching the relationship primarily through its aid, security and migration instruments.

European commentators express concern about the role of China in Africa, but they seem slow to learn from China’s playbook. China’s relationship with African countries is framed around investment in infrastructure and trade, and then leveraged politically at the UN and elsewhere where Africa represents a sizeable block of votes. Europe has significant comparative advantages over China in Africa, including deep cultural entanglements that produced shared values and common languages, geographic proximity, and strong economic ties. Yet but the EU seems unable to turn this advantage into significant gains. Several EU countries and the EC itself appear to be stuck in an old paternalistic development paradigm. It is, for instance, strange that China attracts more African university students than Europe when taking into account the historic, language and cultural interlinkages and the fact that Europe is Africa’s largest trading partner.

Africa does also need development partnerships, humanitarian assistance and security cooperation, but these are no longer Africa’s defining characteristics nor do they reflect Africa’s strategic priorities. As part of the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and via the African Continental Free Trade Area, the Single African Air Transport Market and other such initiatives, the AU is currently laying the institutional foundations and investing in the transnational infrastructure links and energy sources it will need to realise its vision to become a major hub for manufacturing and services in future decades. China, India, Malaysia, Russia, Turkey and others are already making sure they will participate in, contribute too, and benefit from Africa’s potential growth pathway. This should also be Europe’s strategic priority.

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Authors

Cedric de Coning (South Africa) is a research professor with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and a senior advisor with ACCORD. He tweets @CedricdeConing