It’s time to get a grip on Africa-EU relations: a test for two continents

Frankly Speaking

Two authors share two different perspectives on Africa-Europe relations:

Europe needs to clarify its confused thinking on Africa

Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt looks at contrasting views of how the EU can help to meet Africa’s daunting economic needs while ensuring its own security.

Is Africa a threat or a promise? Europeans have mixed views. Some policymakers believe that the EU should protect its vulnerable southern shores against migrants and refugees. Others favour more effective development policies in the hopes that less volatility in Africa would be win-win on both sides of the Mediterranean.

European eyes will be firmly fixed on Ukraine until the conflict there is somehow resolved, yet Africa is arguably as great a long-term threat to Europe’s security as Russia. It’s far from clear how aware public opinion is of Africa’s potential for destabilising Europe, while the need to defuse future dangers through economic cooperation seems little understood.

European Union officials make much of their Africa ‘strategy’, yet in reality there’s little consistency among the member governments. Instead, two strikingly different views predominate. The more constructive one is that Europeans have a moral duty to combat poverty through trade and industrial development.

There’s also a wider consensus on the need for North-South solidarity

Some point to the ‘Guilt Factor’ – the desire of some European countries to compensate for their colonial past. There’s also a wider consensus on the need for North-South solidarity. These considerations have fuelled six decades of EU development policy, with Europe accounting for over half of worldwide development aid and ploughing €25 billion a year into helping Africa.

The second viewpoint is less philanthropic and is chiefly about Europe’s sense of insecurity. Among the reasons the EU spends far more than other aid donors, notably in North Africa, is that since the 2015-16 ‘migrant crisis’ it has mobilised emergency budgets to choke off migration routes across the Sahara and the Mediterranean.

Two recently published assessments offer contrasting scenarios on how Africa’s 54 nation states will fare in the years ahead. If the more pessimistic views of UN analysts prove correct, the EU will be beset by irregular immigration and the ripple effects of worsening civil conflicts within Africa. The more positive view is that economic growth there will by mid-century have generated many new jobs and greatly reduced poverty.

The latest report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) looks at the policies that will be needed as the global population surges past eight billion to nine billion by 2037 and possibly ten billion by the mid-2060s. Despite overlapping crises around the world, it says, “we should not interpret demographic headlines as signs of impending disaster” so long as we adopt resilient policy solutions.

The UN’s 2023 World Water Development report echoes the UNFPA’s call, and underlines the need for a major infrastructure drive in Africa. More than two billion people, predominantly in Africa, lack access to safe drinking water, and the combination of climate change and population growth is seriously exacerbating water shortages.

The EU has for some time flanked its development efforts with increased barriers to immigration

A more reassuring picture is painted by the US-based Center for Global Development (CGD), which forecasts a reduction of extreme poverty from today’s 29 per cent of Africa’s population to only seven per cent by 2050. But experts caution that the CGD’s scenario of growth that’s fast enough to create jobs for exploding populations depends on the implementation of development policies that so far have fallen well short of Africa’s requirements.

To achieve these economic objectives, the EU will clearly have to overcome the ‘aid fatigue’ that some populist politicians have been promoting. The risk is that voters are likely to be swayed by any approach that could insulate Europe from turmoil in Africa. This ‘Fortress Europe’ stance has increasingly characterised EU member states’ agreements on migration policy. Two months ago, the European Council opted for higher walls rather than more constructive ideas for handling refugees and job-seeking migrants.

The EU has for some time flanked its development efforts with increased barriers to immigration. The six-year Emergency Trust Fund for Africa set up in the wake of the 2015-16 migrant crisis was widely criticised for prioritising anti-migrant curbs over development spending. Its successor, the EU’s ‘Global Europe’ 2021-27 neighbourhood strategy for Africa, commits €8 billion to similar measures.

These attempts to stem irregular migration and asylum applications nevertheless seem doomed to fail; last year saw a 50 per cent increase in both. At the same time, France’s decision to withdraw militarily from the Sahel, leaving a continent-wide swathe of poverty-stricken sub-Saharan countries vulnerable to militant Islamists like Boko Haram, portends a deepening African security crisis. The unpalatable truth must be that only a redoubling of Europe’s economic development assistance can secure the EU’s southern borders.


Reshaping the EU’s partnership with Africa at the nexus of climate and development

Pascal Lamy

Vice-President of Paris Peace Forum, Coordinator of the Jacques Delors Think Tanks, former Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and EU Commissioner, Trustee of Friends of Europe

Pascal Lamy writes there is an urgent need to dispense the notion of a Global North-South divide, restore trust in Africa-Europe relations and transform our model of cooperation, with climate as its new backbone.

Political relations have worsened since last year’s long-awaited summit of AU and EU leaders and following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the deterioration of relations stems from fault lines that have emerged since 2020. The ‘vaccine apartheid’ and mounting criticism of ‘green imperialism’ have highlighted the clear economic and power imbalances between our two continents. Additionally, the colonial shadow still marks approaches and viewpoints on both sides, trapping dynamics and models of development cooperation in the past.

Several EU policies are creating serious worries in Africa, including the latest Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), the deforestation-free products directive, the latest policies on pesticides and neonicotinoids, as well as the draft corporate sustainability due diligence directive or calls to sever financing for gas infrastructures. The EU is right to green its global trade relationships, but it cannot do this without re-inserting the development dimension into the trade and climate nexus.

Priority must be given to climate action as seen from both sides, in the spirit of a true partnership

The Global Gateway – the EU’s vehicle to achieve these goals – is not yet delivering for Africa. Mostly infrastructure-focused, the Global Gateway should also focus on climate adaptation and the pressing needs identified by Africans. It is a question of priority, listening and trust-building.

Africa already receives support through Regional Economic Communities or from international players, including the United States, Türkiye, China, India and Russia, among others. The EU should reflect on the added value of its offer to Africa. Cooperation with Africa as a continent and all emerging and developing countries needs to be demand-driven. Avoiding a top-down approach, the EU needs to listen to partners to rebuild trust and truly revise the Africa-Europe partnership.

Positively, the Global Gateway and its Team Europe Initiatives have enabled greater integration and cooperation amongst EU actors, notably policymakers and practitioners. It is now time to take a step back and understand that priority must be given to climate action as seen from both sides, in the spirit of a true partnership.

Despite being at very different stages in their transitions, the two continents can support each other by working together, notably on issues related to investment climate, securing access to critical minerals, building a just and equitable energy future, and forging a joint platform for cooperation on ocean governance and blue economy. Both sides could benefit from the combination of EU experience and expertise around climate, development and trade-related policy, its available capital for investment and Africa’s enormous potential.

This year represents a significant milestone towards recalibrating and enhancing a close climate and development partnership between Africa and Europe

The 6th EU-AU Summit provided a valuable opportunity to recast and repurpose the cross-continental relationship away from a donor-client relationship focused on development aid alone. However, the EU must do this together with its partners to design a meaningful offer that can contribute to resilient, sustainable investment in partner countries.

Hence the importance of the calls for reform of the global financial architecture, from the forthcoming Macron Paris summit and the Africa Climate Action Summit in Kenya to the COP28 Global Stocktake and subsequent revision of nationally determined contributions. This year represents a significant milestone towards recalibrating and enhancing a close climate and development partnership between Africa and Europe. However, there is an urgent need to address the mismatch between the climate and biodiversity promises made by governments at cross-continental and international levels and evidence of the delivery of such commitments.

At September’s SDG summit, leaders are expected to reconfirm their commitments to the 2030 Agenda and announce new initiatives to accelerate its implementation. This represents a unique opportunity to re-ignite EU and AU commitments to advance the SDGs. Aligned with the AU’s own Agenda 2063, Agenda 2030 currently serves as the best plan for peace and development. It should be the starting point when the EU engages with the rest of the world, starting with Africa.


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

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