Africa, a key partner for the European Union

If you want to go fast, go alone.

If you want to go far, go together

So goes a well-known African proverb, which could also be a useful warning for the European Union. It is a simple and direct reflection on the importance of the unity of minds, a fundamental prerequisite for building roads that lead to prosperous and sustainable visions of the future. Africa is Europe's closest neighbour and the bond that unites them has its origins in history and common interests.

What common interests?

Beyond geographical proximity and common history, the shared desire to construct a thriving future will lead Africa and Europe to collaborate further. The topics of discussion now transcend mere collaboration, however, with several important issues to be addressed. First, we have development and innovation. Together, we are facing the mammoth tasks of managing climate change and the digital revolution, and dealing with the occupation of a young, extremely populous continent that is about to baptize an important free trade area that will facilitate relations with external partners. Secondly, the management of migration and mobility in a multifaceted reality, which in itself presents areas of conflict and extreme fragility.

Sixty years of agreements

The origin of the relationship between the European Union and the African continent dates back to the 1960s and is marked by a series of agreements: the Yaoundè Convention (1963), the Lomé Convention (1975-2000) and finally the Cotonou Agreement (2000-2020), a real framework agreement. These agreements have defined the scope of co-operation, with an approach oriented towards co-operation and development through technical and financial aid with the aim of "reducing and finally eliminating poverty". Since 2007, these have been supported by the common Africa-EU strategy, adopted as a formal channel for relations.

2020: a possible turning point

Europe today aspires to change the narrative and aims to move from development aid to a true partnership. The two-year period 2020-2021 could prove to be fundamental due to the simultaneous occurrence of three different processes that could determine a significant evolution in the political and economic relations between the two continents.

First, a continental free trade area is being established in Africa, namely the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). It will enter into force in January 2021 to promote the development of intra-African trade, removing tariff and non-tariff barriers on goods and services in order to contribute to the economic and social progress of the continent. This, from a European point of view, can be read as an intermediate step to constitute an EU-AU intercontinental free trade area, an almost ever-present desire, hidden in all the conventions to-date.

In March, the European Commission presented "Towards a comprehensive Strategy with Africa", containing the bases of a new strategy for Africa, which demonstrates how the EU and African Union relationship is a priority for Europe, strengthened further by the Covid-19 pandemic which has shown the world the urgency of the climate crisis and the interdependence between continents. The strategy aims to strengthen collaboration through partnership in five key areas: green transition; digital transformation; sustainable growth and jobs; peace and governance; and migration and mobility. These five sectoral areas correspond to ten concrete actions that will be undertaken by the EU Commission to take the current collaboration to the next level.

Finally, the EU is engaged in negotiations for the evolution of the 'Cotonou Agreement, which expires in 2020 and has been extended to December, that redefines long-term relations in the areas of political, commercial and development aid with the countries of the ACP (African, Caribbean, Pacific) group.

The strategy of the European Commission

There have been numerous diplomatic visits by European Commissioners to African countries between 2019 and 2020, which testifies to how much the new strategy represents a geopolitical priority for the Commission under the leadership of Ursula Von Der Leyen.

“Today's strategy with Africa is the roadmap to move forward and take our partnership to the next level. Africa is the natural partner and neighbour of the European Union. Together we can build a more prosperous, more peaceful and more sustainable future for all”.

Ursula von der Leyen, (9 March 2020).

At the tailend of 2020 there was a strategic exchange of views on EU-Africa relations, preparatory to the sixth EU-Africa summit. The summit, scheduled for autumn, was postponed until 2021 due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, delaying an encounter that could have been fundamental.

The five partnerships: three "easy", two "difficult"

The themes of the strategy are fivefold and are divided into the same number of partnerships: the first three will likely find both Unions on common ground and the last two, in all likelihood, will set the tone for discussions between the partners.

The first partnership concerns the ecological transition and access to energy. It raises the question of the fragility of the African continent in the face of climate change, recalling the need for a comprehensive approach to maximize the benefits of the green transition and minimize the threats to the environment in line with the Paris Agreement.

The second focuses on digitization and the challenges and opportunities that the digital revolution is generating in Africa. It identifies two main factors: the growth of investments in digital infrastructures and forms of sustainable access to electricity; and the definition of an adequate regulatory context, with the long-term goal of an African digital market.

The third, and first potentially difficult, partnership focuses on sustainable growth and the creation of job opportunities, with particular attention being paid to young people and women. The suggested actions to proceed in this direction are: to substantially increase sustainable investments from an environmental, social and financial point of view, that won’t be hindered by the consequences of climate change; to foster regional and continental economic integration, in particular through the continental free trade agreement with Africa; and finally, to attract investors by supporting African states in adopting policies and regulatory reforms that improve both the business environment and the investment climate.

Next, the focus shifts to peace, security, governance and resilience. Here, things get complicated. The EU indicates that priority should be given to strategic co-operation in the main crisis areas, maintaining an integrated approach to the entire cycle of conflicts. Co-operation should also focus on improving governance as a precondition for security and development, and on actions to increase the resilience of African countries.

Finally, we have the fifth partnership, which focuses on migration and mobility. The Commission recognizes that the majority of migratory flows occur within the African continent and that their careful management constitutes an opportunity for economic development. Consequently, it is emphasized that a “balanced, coherent and comprehensive” approach with African partners is necessary for an orderly management of the migration phenomenon. Another extremely thorny issue that emerges is that of repatriation, which clearly remains one of the main European objectives.

Taking time

The postponement of the EU-AU summit could give partners more time to untangle internal knots. The African Union’s aim of expanding the legal pathways for managing travel and the underlying issue of remittances are just two examples. Furthermore, of the green transformation, the African cohort is in favour but fears the imposition of new non-tariff barriers that could limit access to European markets.

Just as Europe is a rich but old continent that risks losing its role in the world, Africa is a poor but young continent, rich in raw materials, populous and looking for channels at which to direct its development potential. The conditions for a fruitful dialogue are certainly not lacking.