Measure EU clout where it counts – and that’s Africa, not the Middle East

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

It’s been a sobering start for ‘Geopolitical Europe’. America’s killing of Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s top military commander, spurred frenetic EU activity. Phone calls, meetings, statements, tweets and intra-European turf wars came fast and furious as Europeans grappled with their first geopolitical test of the year – and came out looking weak and frazzled.

Is anyone surprised? The EU’s clout in the volatile Middle East is limited. Valiant efforts made to preserve the Iranian nuclear deal are just that: valiant. The agreement didn’t really have a chance once the US turned its back on it. Libya is equally complicated. Despite geographical proximity, Europe’s role there remains peripheral.

Judging Europe on the basis of its frenzied but lacklustre performance last week is unfair. Realistically, Europe’s geopolitical ambitions should be limited to regions – and measured in regions – where it is (still) a significant player. And that means in the Western Balkans, to some extent in Asia – and in Africa.

Yes, Africa. Despite the reality of Russia, China, Japan, Turkey and others vying for power and influence across the continent, Europe is still a heavyweight in most parts of Africa. Keeping it that way won’t be easy. But it can be done. Here are some suggestions.

Mindsets, language, automatic reflexes and references need a fundamental reset

First, Europe must craft an authentic, fresh narrative on Africa. Inconvenient truths have to be faced head on. Mindsets, language, automatic reflexes and references need a fundamental reset.

With his decision to rename the CFA (it’s now called the Eco) and cut some of the West African currency’s financial links with Paris – and his apology for the “grave mistake of colonialism”, French President Emmanuel Macron is trying just such a narrative reboot.

So is the new EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Old instincts die hard, however. Despite good advice to the contrary, the Commission chief keeps talking about crafting a “partnership of equals” with Africa.

Europeans, with their colonial history and traditionally self-righteous view of Africa as a junior partner, understand her important message. Many in Africa, however, find the statement patronising.

Stop the labelling of Africans as victims waiting for ‘white saviours’ or ‘Asian saviours’ for rescue

An entire Western industry has been built up around Africa’s problems and hoped-for remedies. But it really is time to move beyond group think and simplistic, single, one-dimensional narratives.

Stop the labelling of Africans as victims waiting for ‘white saviours’ or ‘Asian saviours’ for rescue. Stop viewing the continent as a burden or threat and a source of migrants. Russia, China and Japan have long recognised Africa as a place of transformation and opportunities to be seized now.

The tech revolution is one example of how Africa is generating new market opportunities, improving labour productivity and enhancing its comparative advantage in global production networks. African tech start-ups are not waiting for any inspiration or help from outside. They already have the ideas and the knowledge; what they need is easier access to funding and less meddling by governments.

Still, there is reason to hope. Von der Leyen’s first official trip as European Commission President was to Addis Ababa, headquarters of the African Union. The European Commission department working on Africa is now in charge of ‘international partnerships’, not ‘development cooperation’.

Importantly, these are also areas where EU-African interests are aligned

Second, the EU will have to become more cooperative in developing its Africa policies. Within the EU, the focus must be on a ‘whole-of-Commission approach’ to deal with different facets of EU-Africa relations. Stronger coordination with the External Action Service and cooperation rather than competition among EU member states – and post-Brexit Britain – must be ensured.

This is essential given the flurry of Africa-related activities taking place in the coming months. The European and African Commissions will meet in Addis on 28 February. There will be an EU-Africa foreign ministers meeting. The French government and the Germans, who take over the EU presidency in July, will have their own multiple summits with African leaders. And in October the EU-Africa summit in Brussels will bring all 27 EU states and 54 African countries together for a mega fest.

Variety is good but only if there are common themes and priorities, including questions linked to the climate crisis, Agenda 2030, digital opportunities, new start-ups and initiatives to silence the guns. Importantly, these are also areas where EU-African interests are aligned.

And then there is a need to clarify how the post-Cotonou EU relationship with African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries and the Europe-Africa partnership will function side by side and the latter’s links with the European Neighbourhood Policy.

Almost 60% of Africa’s youth population is under the age of 25, making Africa the world’s youngest continent

Third, Europe should get excited about what excites Africa. This includes the ambitious plan to create the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) where the EU help can help tackle Africa’s connectivity challenges and regulatory weaknesses.

Fourth, the EU must move beyond traditional interaction with the AU and African governments to a wider conversation with local and regional authorities, business leaders, civil society, female groups, young professionals and students.

Almost 60% of Africa’s youth population is under the age of 25, making Africa the world’s youngest continent – with some of the world’s oldest leaders.

Finally, Europe cannot afford to be complacent. Africa is all about the future, not the past. It is brimming with confidence, ideas and money as domestic and foreign investors fill African capitals in a bid to cash in on ‘Rising Africa’.

It’s simple: Europe will have to revise its views of the continent. Today, despite prevailing European perceptions, not many young Africans look to Europe for inspiration or funding. African pupils study in Russia, China and Japan. They flock to China to meet and learn from tech entrepreneurs. They are wooed by Indian and Korean investors.

Africa’s leaders may lay out the red carpet for visiting European dignitaries. But the EU’s real geopolitical challenge in Africa is to convince young Africans that Europe still matters.

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