Close EU-Africa relations more important than ever, says Socialist group leader

Briefing of the S&D group ahead of the plenary session

This article is part of our special report EU-AU relations – A prosperous partnership of equals.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of strong EU-African relations, Iratxe García, the leader of the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament, told EURACTIV as her political group launched its Africa week (13-15 October).

Iratxe García spoke with EURACTIV’s Benjamin Fox.

We were expecting the EU-African Union summit to take place this month. Has the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of close EU-African relations?

Indeed! The pandemic shows that this bi-continental relation is more important than ever. That is why the decision to move the summit to next year is just to allow a better environment to examine issues beneficial to both. To the existing agenda we now have to add new challenges posed by the effects of the virus. We also expect to have more certainty in respect of trials on vaccines and other interventions. This will help the summit to discuss with a clearer picture than we have now. In any case, we are hosting Africa Week, which in itself reflects the importance we place on the EU-Africa relations.

African leaders expect better trade relations with Europe and the ability to build up their own domestic and regional manufacturing capabilities to export more ‘finished’ goods rather than raw materials. What is the S&D group’s position on this?

We are advocates of value addition and inclusion of Africa in the global value and supply chains; we have in the past, made input to this effect towards the EU-AFRICA strategy. We are of the strong belief that shifting economic models from extraction to manufacturing benefits both continents. More importantly, our values have a pro-worker bias and we therefore view this as a step towards the creation of millions of decent jobs proportionate to projected population growth.

Having said that, it is also important to ensure that the natural resources are used to the benefit of the population, and not just a few. Our group has organised in the past several conferences on the “The resource curse”, and the problem is still there, and it is unfair. We all have a responsibility to turn natural resources into a blessing. Economic growth must be both inclusive and sustainable, and extractive accumulation models are neither. Often basic human rights are not respected.

Besides, the sale of minerals is susceptible to price shocks on the global markets, it creates instability and uncertainty. We do not want our African neighbours to make progress today and regress the following day because metal prices have changed overnight, just like we witnessed during this era of COVID-19.

You talk about Africa “becoming a world leader in the production and use of renewable and efficient energy that respects environmental standards”. What should the EU do to facilitate that?

Africa has huge deposits of natural gas, and most of it receives up to 10 hours of sunshine a day for the greater part of the year. These two factors place Africa in an advantageous position. Since there is already an energy and power deficit in Africa, it would be very easy to phase out the environmentally unfriendly energy. On top of that, power sources like coal are not benefiting the majority of the people, especially in Sub Sahara Africa, therefore the cost of the transition is low.

The EU could offer technical assistance in the transition. In Europe we already have big solar projects – some of them in my own country, Spain – and the experts who can help the transition to self-management in Africa. We also have to bear in mind that companies in the EU can partner with Africans in rolling out the energy infrastructure. This would not only generate energy but jobs on both sides.

The Commission has just published its plans to overhaul the Dublin regulations on EU immigration and asylum. Many African governments want the EU to move on legal pathways before agreeing to do more on migrant returns. What is your position on this?      

Let me first say that our goal should be to create opportunities in Africa. I am all for legal pathways for migration, and we are working for that. It is a priority for the S&D. However, I wish that people would not have to leave their home and their families because they need to escape from conflict, or famine, from persecution or simply for desperation for the lack of decent jobs for a decent livelihood. We cannot just accept the brain drain of African youth, because Africa also needs all that energy and ambition. So we have to work both ways: to build a future for the young in Africa, and also to improve the EU response to migration.

The Dublin Regulation only relates to the distribution relocation of asylum seekers who are already on EU territory, while the proposal for an EU resettlement regulation which has been on the table since the last legislature remains a priority, as well as our S-D legislative initiative for a humanitarian visa, regretfully remained unanswered so far.

My Group is also very active to facilitate legal migration. In the Committee on Civil Liberties, our members are leading negotiations to revise the EU Blue Card Directive, to simplify procedures and improve intra-EU mobility. Our vice-president Miriam Dalli is also drafting an own-initiative report on legal labour migration, and she will present it in only two weeks.

How have the plans for an Africa–EU Partnership been affected by the pandemic?

Obviously, the foundation of the programmes we were targeting has changed. Well, the socio-economic circumstances have changed, and in most cases, we have to wait longer to reach certain milestones we were targeting in the short to medium term. In other words, most goals are now long term, the short-term goal is now entirely that of surviving COVID-19 and protecting our population. The medium-term is the management of the transition. This also means we have to redirect resources otherwise meant for other projects to deal with an emergency of the pandemic, unfortunately.

The S&D group talks about a ‘more mature and contemporary’ EU-Africa partnership. What would this look like?

It should be mutually beneficial with shared responsibilities and decisions made by both sides. it is about treating each other with respect, not having plans imposed on the other. I think that this is important because any relation is built on trust and equality. This is something that Europe has not always understood in its relations with Africa. No one should feel short-changed or manipulated because they negotiated from a point of weakness. This is our target.

What is likely to change from the Commission’s paper on the ‘EU-Africa Strategy’ published in March, and what influence can the European Parliament have over it?

In the short term, all the focus will be on dealing with COVID-19, and on working together to see it through and continue to protect the people in our two continents. That also includes redirecting resources in the long term to promote civic engagement and participation. it also includes the urgent response to the pandemic and associated issues like feeding vulnerable populations whose livelihoods were affected by the measures meant to combat the virus. Providing these safety nets costs money which was not budgeted for when the strategy was initially drafted.

The aftermath, of course, involves dealing with a recession which will affect the entire globe. Therefore that also changes priorities for us. It is important to get people back to work so that they can provide for them and their families. Millions of jobs have been lost in Africa, and the most affected industries are travel and hospitality.

The World Bank has just stated that two of Africa’s biggest economies, Nigeria and South Africa, will shrink by double figures, which means it will be even harder for smaller economies. Where we were focusing on creating new decent jobs we now have to start by the restoration of the old ones.

Our influence is to help put together priority areas, which are beneficial to the people and in particular to women. The pandemic has even tougher consequences on women and girls, so they need special attention. For us, it is important to strengthen contacts with civil society and political cooperation. We must avoid vaccine nationalism while emphasising border closures should be a last resort and acknowledge the important role played by civil society, opposition parties, an independent judiciary and a free press in holding governments to account during this crisis.

What is the status of the EU’s post-Cotonou negotiations? What will happen if there is no new agreement by the end of 2020?

On the post-Cotonou, we have been informed that negotiations have made significant progress hoping to conclude soon. Both negotiating parties are satisfied with the results achieved so far. Although there are some sections, including the multiannual financial framework (MFF), which is still in progress. So we are still working to improve the outcome.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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