Europe has much to recover in its relations with Africa

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder

The views expressed in this Frankly Speaking op-ed reflect those of the author and not of Friends of Europe.

 


Giles Merritt discusses in the first of a three-part series the need for a stronger EU riposte in Africa to the increasing influence of Russia and China.

Africa is Europe’s backyard. The relationship famously reflects troubled colonial pasts with most western European countries and now, more positively, their longstanding business and development interests there. Why, then, are so many African governments proving lukewarm to Europe’s stance on the Ukraine war, with some of them even openly hostile?

The European Union prides itself on its special relationship with Africa. Not long ago it presented a renewed ‘strategy’ to accelerate development there. Yet the signs are that more and more of Africa’s 54 countries are being wooed away from whatever European loyalties they once had. Instead, more are looking to Moscow and Beijing for friendship and economic support.

The growing presence in Africa of China and Russia has been on European radar screens for some time. But China’s involvement tended to be dismissed as the opportunistic asset stripping of raw materials, while Russia was seen as an unscrupulous supplier of weapons to a few tinpot African dictators. Both characterisations are wrong because for many Africans Beijing and Moscow make positive contributions. This European prejudice also under-estimates the speed and degree with which Europe’s influence has declined.

Russia is becoming a major security player, accounting now for a third of all armaments and surveillance equipment supplied to African states

An unequivocal message that Europe should no longer expect broad support from African states for its stance on major international issues came at the UN in March, when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was just a few weeks old. Only half of Africa’s governments backed the UN Resolution that President Vladimir Putin’s forces should immediately withdraw. Worse, in April only ten supported the suspension of Russia from the UN’s Human Rights Council, with 44 either abstaining or opposing.

The reasons for these refusals to join the West’s opposition to Putin are complex and sometimes historical, harking back to Soviet Russia’s support for anti-Apartheid guerrilla movements. They should nevertheless prick the bubble of European complacency that its trade and aid efforts are a guarantee of African loyalties. The €75 billion a year the EU spends on development assistance represents more than half of all the aid Africa receives, but it is clearly failing to win hearts and minds.

The red carpets were rolled out for Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in July when he visited Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of Congo. Pro-Russia sentiments had previously been voiced by the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, Sudan and South Africa. Russia is becoming a major security player, accounting now for a third of all armaments and surveillance equipment supplied to African states. It is also a sought-after source of mining expertise and contracts.

European commentators often criticise China for being a cynical stripper of Africa’s mineral resources, but that’s not how Africans see things. An ‘Afrobarometer’ opinion poll in 35 countries a few years ago showed that almost two-thirds of respondents held a positive view of Chinese investments. The Belt and Road Initiative launched by Beijing in 2013 and the equally ambitious Global Development programme it unveiled last year are seen by many Africans as proof of friendlier intentions than those of Europe or America.

A beefed-up European investment drive on greener energy is beginning to take shape, but it should be flanked by a banking and financial services strategy

Showmanship is notably absent from the EU’s efforts in Africa. Brussels isn’t good at packaging its development efforts in ways that appeal to public opinion. EU policymakers know they need to make a splash, but with all the constraints of collective decision-making they are at a loss about how to do so. The doubling of the African population to 2.5 billion by 2050 is said by some to promise rapid economic growth, but it also portends widespread insecurity in the shape of famines, tribalism and wars.

Europe’s first step in countering Russian and Chinese charm offensives should be to recognise unequivocally how much lost ground needs to be made up. The second would be to leave the bulk of physical infrastructure to the Chinese and concentrate European efforts on neglected but very important areas – financial muscle and energy.

Fewer than a third of sub-Saharan Africans have reliable electricity although it is the lifeblood of economic development. And the under-funding of businesses is an equal handicap. A beefed-up European investment drive on greener energy is beginning to take shape, but it should be flanked by a banking and financial services strategy. Boosting the capital fluidity of credit-starved African companies would do much to kick-start sustainable growth and would also do much to raise the EU’s standing.

This is the first of a three-part series on the EU’s role in Africa.

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