27 Sep 2013

Challenging Europe-Africa Relations: Why question the partnership?

by Sahra El Fassi

This year’s European Think-Tanks Group (ETTG) Conference is entitled “Looking Beyond 2013 – Are EU-Africa Relations Still Fit for Purpose?” While some might ask what leads us to question the partnership, others might wonder whether Africa-Europe relations have ever been fit for purpose?

There is no limit to discuss the links, expectations, challenges and benefits of Africa-Europe relations. Shifting dynamics on both continents, however, give us a reason to channel discussions, reassess the partnership and aspire to a viable and productive vision and strategy for the future. There is currently rhetoric of Africa experiencing a surge of economic dynamism and assertiveness as an international actor while the European geo-political and economic weight on the global scene is waning. Rhetoric of the increased involvement of emerging powers in Africa is having a detrimental effect on Africa’s relations with its ‘old partners’.

Certainly, Africa’s unprecedented trade and finance opportunities paired with new approaches, agreements and possibilities render the dynamics with Europe more complex. The political and diplomatic scene is also changing with African countries increasingly speaking their minds as they become more integrated in the world economy, as their partnerships diversify and as their voice in global governance progressively gets heard.

While Africa-Europe relations have undeniably been challenged since the adoption of their Joint Strategy in 2007, both continents remain relevant to each other in many areas. Europe has an acknowledged comparative advantage in areas such as peace and security, democracy and human rights. Africa is not only a source of extractive materials but also an important partner in the global arena. The next EU-Africa Summit will take place in April 2014. Both partners now have a bit more than half a year left to exchange as effectively as possible on strategic and thematic issues around the EU-Africa partnership. Against this backdrop, the European Think Tanks Group conference aims to fuel policy recommendations and engage a variety of stakeholders in the debate on successful and beneficial relations between European and African countries beyond 2014.

Partners with interests and benefits

Since the first transcontinental summit in 2000 and enhanced by the launch of the Joint EU-Africa Strategy (JAES) six years ago, political leaders of both continents resolved to some laudable aims; a new strategic political partnership for the future, overcoming the traditional donor-recipient relationship; built on shared values, mutual responsibility and common interests. A few months ahead of the next EU-Africa summit, it is valid to question and find out what has become of the diplomatic laudations recurring in regular intervals? On a policy level, the two grand frameworks (Lomé turned Cotonou and the JAES) have been revised and formally adapted to new challenges for EU-Africa relations and might from the outside appear suitable for the continent-to-continent vision.

On a more practical level has the European side been able to understand Africa’s priorities and interests? At the same time, is the African side ready to overcome its perception of European partners as being lecturing, disdainful and preaching principles that it does not comply with? The shifting geo-political dynamics and increasing Africa-owned processes do not only leave room for new approaches of cooperation but also require a mature and trustful partnership.

The EU remains the biggest aid donor to Africa. However, decreasing levels of Official Development Assistance (ODA) are coupled with increasing agreement that ODA is not sustainable. This suggests a reorientation towards intensified private actor involvement and an improved business environment for both continents to cooperate.

At the same time rising Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) requests efficient Africa-EU cooperation that takes into account opportunities created by a growing middle class of more and more educated and skilled citizens.

To remain relevant for each other, both sides have to examine how to balance their interests, and become more important political and economic partners. While staying faithful to its values, Europe has to respect African views when it comes to the promotion and support of good governance, democracy and respect for human rights.

Policies to tackle food security challenges, peace and security, migration or climate change need to be better coordinated, more consistent and more inclusive in order to have a positive impact in Africa and Europe.

If both sides seize their opportunities to initiate and advance dialogue, if they are mindful of the counterpart’s interests and if they are willing to see the gains of their cooperation, Europe and Africa might indeed become partners with the benefit to address and solve challenges of common interest.

Stimulating frank and open debates for successful future EU-Africa relations

In order to give an impetus to a more political and strategic Europe-Africa partnership, the conference will provide an informal platform to key stakeholders to discuss larger strategic questions and zoom into four vital areas of common interest for future cooperation and enhanced partnership that have not yet been sufficiently explored, namely:

1. Private sector development

2. Governance

3. Food security

4. Peace and security

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Photo by EU External Action Service.

Sahra El Fassi is a Research Assistant at ECDPM in the Africa's Change Dynamics Programme. She can be found on Twitter here: @SahraEF

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