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Europe’s pivot to Africa: Shaping the future of the strategic partnership

Marco Zeiss

Date: 16/10/2020
With the 6th African Union-European Union Summit postponed, the leaders should use the upcoming months to forge a true strategic partnership which goes beyond the archaic donor-recipient relationship. Only then can EU-Africa relations become a building block in Europe’s quest to obtaining geopolitical power, and can Africa fully benefit from its longstanding yet so far disappointing relationship with Europe.

2020 seemed set to be “a pivotal year” for EU-African relations. In February, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and a delegation of 22 Commissioners participated in the 10th Commission-to-Commission meeting between the EU and African Union (AU). Subsequently, on 9 March, the European Commission and the European External Action Service laid out the principles for a renewed comprehensive EU Strategy with Africa. Finally, the 6th AU-EU Summit, initially scheduled to take place in October 2020, was intended to be the culminating moment when the two ‘sister continents’ redefine their strategic framework for the next decade.

However, the Summit was postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also remains unclear whether the negotiations for a post-Cotonou Agreement between the EU and the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) can still be concluded by the end of the year.

Europe’s renewed interest in Africa

During the Juncker Commission, the focus on Africa was framed by the EU’s ‘migration crisis’, and hopes that access to money, creating jobs and accelerating economic growth would stem the rise in African migration to Europe. Under the aegis of the current Commission, Africa has ostensibly become a cornerstone of Europe’s geopolitical aspirations. On her first foreign trip in December 2019, von der Leyen visited the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa and reiterated the EU’s commitment to building a “partnership of equals”. The fact that her visit took place less than a week after she assumed office is a clear testament of Africa’s growing strategic relevance for the EU’s foreign policy agenda. This strategic shift towards Africa is also underpinned by a plethora of recent diplomatic initiatives by EU member states, including Germany’s Marshall Plan with Africa (2017), and former President Juncker’s call for an Africa–Europe Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs (2018).

Europe’s renewed interest in Africa comes at a critical moment for global geopolitical competition, EU-Africa relations, and the African continent itself. Despite immense challenges, Africa is increasingly perceived as a continent of opportunities. In addition to an abundance of natural resources, Africa’s high demographic and economic growth rates in the last two decades have contributed to this new narrative of Africa. Moreover, it has gained further momentum thanks to the AU’s institutional reform process, and particularly the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which will be operational as of January 2021. The AfCFTA brings together 54 countries and 1.2 billion people, thus forming the largest free trade area in the world since the creation of the World Trade Organization.

However, that is not all. Africa’s growing geostrategic significance has also triggered a “new scramble” for the continent’s emerging market, natural resources and votes in international institutions, particularly the UN. Both traditional and new powers, such as China, the US, India, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf states, are racing to increase their political, economic and military footprints on the continent. The burgeoning great power competition, primarily between the US and China, bears the danger of Africa being caught up between two major geopolitical blocs once again. At the same time, global powers’ heightened interest in Africa also gives African countries much more room to manoeuvre and could eventually reduce their dependence on a single external power. In other words, Europe is no longer the only game in town.

From crisis to opportunity: Moving beyond a donor-recipient relationship

Against this backdrop, the Union’s renewed interest in Africa should also be understood as an attempt to catch up with the ongoing transformative processes and changing power dynamics on the continent. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated these trends further and made a redefinition of EU-Africa relations even more necessary. While the current crisis may provide a unique opportunity to boost some of the key priorities outlined in the comprehensive EU Strategy with Africa (e.g. digitalisation, green transition), it also underlines the need to move EU-Africa relations into a bold, new direction. Clinging on to an outdated, North-South aid-driven relationship will no longer suffice to face the challenges created by COVID-19. European and African leaders should therefore use the additional time gained by the postponement of the AU-EU summit to develop and spell out a more political and strategic relationship, based on these new realities.

Firstly, a renewal of the AU-EU partnership must consider the problems exacerbated by COVID-19. Although Africa has thus far weathered the pandemic much better than experts initially expected, it has taken a toll on the continent’s economies and threatens to reverse years of progress. Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing its first economic recession in 25 years. In the wake of the crisis, 18 African and EU leaders published a joint article in the Financial Times, stressing that “only a global victory that fully includes Africa can bring this pandemic to an end”. Furthermore, the EU has pledged €3.25 billion from existing external action resources to Africa under the Team Europe response package.

However, considering the difficult financial situations of many African states even before the crisis, the question of further debt relief will be of utmost importance in the upcoming months. In 2019, a third of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa were already in debt distress, or at high risk of debt distress. African finance ministers thus called for $100 billion immediate financial assistance to battle the detrimental effects of the pandemic earlier this year. The Group of 20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative, launched in April 2020, is a first step in the right direction. However, it only postpones debt service obligations and does not apply to the private sector nor include middle-income countries which have also been severely affected by the crisis. To avoid another ‘lost decade’ like the 1980s, the EU and other international stakeholders and actors should push for substantive debt cancellation for African countries.

Secondly, the COVID-19 crisis also offers an opportunity to forge a relationship built on mutual interests. The bitter truth is that African and European interests on various issues differ greatly, including international criminal justice, agricultural policies, governance and values, and, above all, migration. As some have recently pointed out, economic transformation is now at the heart of African integration efforts, not security. Supporting the implementation of AfCFTA should therefore be a top priority of the future AU-EU joint strategy. The AfCFTA will not only be a central pillar of Africa’s post-COVID-19 recovery but also represent a major opportunity to overcome the traditional donor-recipient relationship.

Finally, the EU must streamline parallel policy frameworks for approaching Africa and African countries, namely the OACPS-EU partnership (which does not include North Africa) and the European Neighbourhood Policy. These overlapping forms of cooperation have caused three significant obstacles for the future of EU-Africa relations. First, they remain a major impediment to Africa’s regional and continental integration as they contribute to the political fragmentation among African countries in their relations with Europe. Second, on the EU side, the competing frameworks are increasingly inconsistent with the idea of an integrated and comprehensive European approach to Africa. Third, and most importantly, upholding the 45-year-old OACPS-EU framework stands at odds with the declared objective of moving beyond donor-recipient relations towards a genuine partnership with Africa.

The OACPS embodies the traditional aid-centred relationship between the two continents like no other institution. In order to form a truly strategic, continent-to-continent approach, the EU should further support the integration efforts of the AU and Regional Economic Communities instead – not least in its enlightened self-interest. As the world’s most advanced integration project, the EU could also play on its strengths and contribute to the design and promotion of African integration based on its own wealth of experience.

Africa is at the heart of the EU’s geopolitical conundrum

Africa’s transformation presents the EU with both an opportunity and a challenge: it may either diminish Europe’s role in the global power contest further or, on the contrary, pave the way for its geopolitical ambitions. Europe still holds the crown of being Africa’s primary trading partner and source of foreign investment and development aid. However, the geostrategic landscape of Africa is shifting rapidly, and Europe risks losing credibility and influence in its wider southern neighbourhood if it does not recognise the changing nature of their relationship.

Building a partnership that exceeds a donor-recipient relationship requires recognising the non-equal footing of the EU and Africa and acknowledging the economic and power asymmetry that continues to persist. Only then, and without embellishment, can EU-Africa relations move beyond rhetoric and mealy-mouthed declarations and to the next level: a truly strategic partnership. The postponement of the AU-EU Summit, the COVID-19 crisis and a strengthened AU offer a unique opportunity to make Africa a genuine partner and hence EU-Africa relations a building block in Europe’s quest to becoming a geopolitical power – and perhaps one of the last.

Marco Zeiss is the former Programme Assistant of the Europe in the World programme.

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