S&D chief: ‘Employment for young Africans is a huge challenge’

Gianni Pittella, S&D chief in the European Parliament. [European Parliament/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Youth and the future of Africa.

On the eve of the EU-Africa Summit, Gianni Pittella says that European short-termism in migration policy will not address its root causes, and looks at sustainable investments and agribusiness to leverage the continent out of poverty – “but not at any cost”.

Italian MEP Gianni Pittella is the leader of the socialist (S&D) group in the European Parliament.

Africa is rising fast on the EU’s agenda. Why now?

Africa has been largely ignored by the European Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in favour of the strategic importance of the United States, Russia or the Middle East in the EU’s external relations, and a focus on enlargement policy. Today, migration flows are upsetting the relations between Europe and the African continent, which – in the wake of the migrant tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea and the political crises within the European Union – has returned to the heart of the Union’s political agenda. Some people still think it is a passing phenomenon, but they are wrong!

With its geographical proximity, its unprecedented demographic boom and the impact of climate change, Africa is a reality that we will have to deal with for decades to come. Only an ambitious European policy, developed and implemented with our African partners, will enable us to meet the immense, shared challenges ahead. In Abidjan, the heads of state and government of both continents have an appointment with history and the decisions they take will be judged by their citizens!

EIB president Hoyer noted that the number of unemployed African youth is likely to triple (from 35 m to 100m soon) – but the EIB only raised €2.6bn for investment and the annual funding gap is €2.3 trillion. We know the problem. What’s the solution?

Employment for young Africans is a huge challenge that first of all concerns the Africans themselves. The European Union alone cannot solve it, but for the reasons I have just explained, it cannot be ignored. We all know that development aid is not enough, nor is the new EU External Investment Plan for Africa that our Group has called for.

That would require more funds, as the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini reminded us. Nevertheless, this plan can make a difference in the fragile states, provided that it achieves its goals, namely to support the African private sector, especially SMEs, and sustainable projects, and to create decent jobs.

There is no question of helping multinational predators to plunder resources on the African continent or facilitating tax evasion. Dialogue with African partners and access to finance for their businesses is a real challenge – as is getting the financial support promised by member states, who, I would like to remind you, were supposed to contribute €1.8 billion to the EU Trust Fund for Africa but only gave crumbs. It’s unacceptable!

Critics pointed to the fact that the EU’s emergency trust fund for Africa prioritises “quick fixes” over a country’s own development priorities. Is there a risk that the EU’s focus on Africa is short-sighted and self-interested?

We have been saying for months that a short-term strategy on Africa, based solely on a security-based approach, will not solve the root causes of irregular migration flows. On their side, Africans are asking for more investment to provide a better future for their young people. These two agendas are not compatible. But reconciling these points of view is possible, even necessary, because the challenges are shared. The terrible images of slaves sold in Libya have awakened consciences, especially in Africa, where leaders have for too long ignored the tragedies of their citizens.

We must continue to save lives in the Mediterranean and the Sahel, put an end to barbarism in Libya and open legal channels for migration. At the same time, we must provide the means to fight effectively against poverty in Africa and promote sustainable investments, especially by working to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, rather than bowing to the pressure exerted by some Member States to make our aid or our investments conditional on the readmission of African migrants to their countries of origin. This is what the Trust Fund should be used for.

What do you think of Germany’s “Marshall plan for Africa”?

There have been too many Marshall Plans for Africa announced in recent years, and I fear that in Berlin and Brussels the effects of such announcements may have a limited impact, or even tire our citizens as well as our partners. The German presidency put Africa at the centre of the G20 agenda, but what are the amounts announced by the German Chancellor at the Hamburg Summit to support and implement the plan? Nothing. And even if we mention figures, we must be able to point to a clear and sustainable roadmap. Today, this is not the case.

What is the best way to keep young people in Africa?  Do you see agriculture as Africa’s future?

When you talk about agriculture, the first challenge that needs to be addressed is food insecurity. Today, almost a quarter of the African population suffers from hunger, 20 million people need humanitarian assistance. But this human crisis also has an economic impact: experts estimate that malnutrition costs African economies about 11% of their GDP every year.

The priority is, therefore, to increase agricultural production while reducing food waste and losses. This requires industrial transformation of the Africa’s largest economic sector, which represents 15% of the continent’s total GDP and employs 60% of the African labour force. Unfortunately, more and more young people are abandoning the fields and villages, attracted by the bright lights of the city, while some of them head for Europe.

Agribusiness is an important player that can contribute to fighting hunger, curbing the rural exodus and providing work for young people – but not at any cost. Our Group is very concerned about the fact that African governments are being pressured by multinationals such as Monsanto to allow the cultivation of GMOs in their countries.

Could the rise of right-wing extremism affect EU-Africa relations?

The fear and hatred that the far right is fuelling amongst our citizens by accusing African migrants of being the cause of all our problems are likely to have a very negative impact on our relations with Africa. Our duty is to respond to the concerns of European citizens, especially on employment, but not in this way! Globalization needs to be regulated, protecting the interests of our citizens and the foundations of our democracies.

We can do this if we adopt adequate integration policies, coherent management of migration flows and, in this case, a different perspective on Africa. This continent should not be seen as a source of plagues, but as an opportunity for our companies in search of new markets.

Do all party families in the parliament share your views?

Since I took over the presidency of the S&D Group, Africa has become our top priority, regardless of the agendas of other political families that in certain cases we do not share. Your readers may remember our successful campaign for the traceability of mining resources from conflict areas, where we won the battle, against strong opposition from the EPP.

On the eve of the AU-EU Summit, I had the opportunity to meet with high-level African officials, including the president of the Central African Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadéra. These exchanges have confirmed for me that our strategy on Africa, focused on development, sustainable investments, the security of African States, the defence of fundamental rights and the rule of law or the fight against terrorism and tax evasion, can help to positively strengthen the political dialogue and the co-operation between the two continents.