1 Apr 2014

Europe-Africa relations: Well-intentioned diplomatic disaster?

African still perceive Europe as a patronising continent writes Faten Aggad-Clerx

The 4th EU-Africa Summit takes place in Brussels on 2-3 April. For months, there seemed to be a cascade of challenges that have, at different times, threatened the holding of the summit. Starting with tensions related to the push by the EU to force African countries to sign Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), the source of the tension shifted to the issue of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the case against the Kenyan leadership.

Diplomatic issues have also coloured the pre-summit preparations after the EU announced that it has not invited Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and representatives from the Sahrawi Arab Republic, a member of the African Union, due to Morocco's participation at the summit.

Now, just few days before the summit, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has announced that he will boycott it due to the failure of the EU to grant a visa to his wife. Besides diplomatic hiccups, leaders attending the summit will need to work around - or with - two key issues that are likely to influence the discussions in Brussels.

Trade issues back on the table

The question of the EPAs, thought to have been resolved after West African negotiators came to a technical agreement with EU negotiations in February, is now back on the table. Just days before the summit, West African leaders, gathering in Nigeria, failed to come to a political agreement to back the technical agreement. This leaves the trade negotiations in limbo.

The trade negotiations are a long-standing controversy between Europe and Africa. The EPAs have been dubbed a "well-intentioned diplomatic disaster". On the African side, the key concern is that the trade agreement offered by the EU is not in line with the WTO regulations, nor is it in line with the African priorities notably on industrialisation. From the European side, the trade is seen as a way to modernise trade relations with Africa.
The EPAs are no longer considered a technical issue but a political one. For a few years, observers have called on the EU's political leadership to take over the negotiations. At the EU-Africa Summit of 2007, African leaders called for a thorough discussion on the EPAs to take place so as to defuse the tensions. But that summit took place without the issue being discussed. African leaders and the African Union are now arguing that the Brussels summit will not be a success, unless the issue of economic agreements is properly tackled.

Old controversies, new issues

On March 25, Ethiopia became the latest African country to announce its intention to introduce tougher measures targeting homosexuals making its already existing anti-gay law, as enshrined in the Criminal Code of 2005, more stringent. Ethiopia is the third African country to announce such measures this year after Nigeria and Uganda. More African countries, including some communities that accept homosexuality - as is the case in Kenya - are said to be drafting similar bills.

The laws triggered several reactions from within Africa. Some lauded the new laws, arguing that it is against "African culture" and religious beliefs. Others criticised them, such as South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who equated the laws to the apartheid regime's attempt to legislate love by forbidding inter-racial marriages. Health activists also argued that it is not only a matter of protecting individual rights but that the laws would compromise progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Some in the international community, especially in Europe and the US, have expressed their concerns. A handful of European countries, such as the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Sweden have gone further and have suspended aid to Uganda in protest. The European Parliament also called for "targeted sanctions" towards Uganda and Nigeria. Such targeted sanctions, it suggested, include travel bans and visa bans against "the key individuals responsible for drafting and adopting these two laws".

The EU has launched a political dialogue with Nigeria to discuss the law and has held its first political dialogue meeting with Uganda on Friday. For many in Europe, civil society and leadership alike, the reaction is an attempt to reflect European values in Europe's international relations.

A number of Africans, officials and non-officials, have admitted that there is a need to tackle attempts at alienating entire sections of the society. A West African parliamentarian told me: "We cannot deny the existence of homosexuality in Africa. But culture is dynamic and there will come a day when homosexuality is no longer a taboo. But maybe now is not the right time." She argued that Europe is pushing for an agenda without allowing for a natural progression in African societies.

Some in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexuals and Transgender (LGBT) community in Africa are also concerned. The reaction of the West seems to have resulted in "an unpleasant and contagious backlash". It has indeed diverted the attention from the human rights question at hand to the political bickering between African and Western leaders.

The issue of LGBT rights, therefore, adds to the mix in an already bumpy road. It has reignited an old debate around conditionality: a traditionally controversial issue in EU-Africa relations. Africans feel times have changed and they are no longer obliged to rely on relations with Europe and therefore comply with externally imposed values. African and European policy-makers alike are increasingly embracing the argument that Africa's new fortunes and its close relations with a new set of emerging global powers have provided it an alternative to Europe.  
The tensions that the anti-gay laws have generated are a reminder of the long-standing tensions between Europe and Africa. Despite some positive cooperation that is scattered across different sectors such as agriculture, the two continents still have a long way to learn to move beyond old stereotypes and patronising attitudes to modernise their partnership in a way that meets the modern-day needs and interests of both.

Mistrust will need to be slowly abated. Africans still perceive Europe as a patronising continent. They would also be quick to note that Europe is inconsistent in the application of its so-called principles within Africa and between Africa and the rest of the world.

Europe's engagements to strengthen its partnership with China despite human rights violations is a reoccurring example. In Europe, many will equally be quick in arguing that Europe is the largest aid donor to Africa - even though this approach is criticised by many who feel aid dependency should not be the main anchor of the partnership. In many ways indeed, the tensions between Europe and Africa are of psychology.

A summit that meets expectations

On March 27, African ambassadors to the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia advised their presidents not to attend the summit, partially due to tensions around LGBT rights. So far only Mugabe has withdrawn.

But the success of the Summit will depend on how important issues will be address. West African countries, such as Nigeria are expected to want to push for a debate on the economic partnership agreements. The EU is reportedly less keen on it. Divergence on the way forward on this issue therefore risks derailing the summit.

The EU has also tried to downplay the tensions around homosexuality in order to secure a smooth running of the summit. There is also a sense among some African policy-makers, closely associated with the preparations of the summit, that it would be best to focus on long-term cooperation between the two continents and use the opportunity to discuss the added value of the partnership, considering that this is the first international gathering that African leaders will take part in this year before they head to the Japan-Africa Summit in June and to the US-Africa Summit in August. However, they noted that, should the EU raise the issue at the summit, African leaders would respond strongly.

Faten Aggad-Clerx is an Africa analyst covering African development issues. She is currently the Program Manager for Africa at ECDPM. She writes in her personal capacity. 

This post originally appeared in Al Jazeera

This is a guest post; views may not represent that of ECDPM


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