Partnership with a purpose: EU-Africa relations in 2021

European Commissioner for International Partnership, Jutta Urpilainen, speaks at the 9th African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Summit in Nairobi, Kenya on 9 December 2019. [EPA-EFE/Daniel Irungu]

The EU’s plans to strike a ‘strategic partnership’ with Africa were one the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. After the European Commission set out its stall in a March 2020 strategic paper, summits were cancelled and it is unclear whether EU and African Union leaders will agree on an agenda with the ambition needed for a genuine ‘strategic partnership’ this year.

Portugal, which holds the rotating EU Council presidency until July, is keen to push the agenda.

“Africa should and could be a key partner of the EU”, a Portuguese diplomat said on Tuesday (5 January).

“We need to initiate a dialogue without taboos – security, migration, trade, development etc,” the diplomat added.

However, while both sides should be able to agree on low-hanging fruit such as greater co-operation on digital policy and agriculture, the elephant in the room is likely to be trade.

The AU sees the ‘partnership’ process, likely to culminate in a summit in Portugal in May or June, as an opportunity to overhaul the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) and give its governments and regional blocs more leeway to build up industrial capacity and markets.

The EU’s focus appears to be more on leveraging the environmental and economic policies in its Green Deal. There is little sign that the EU will improve its offer on trade, though a group of countries, led by Germany’s Angela Merkel, have called for the EPAs to be re-opened or scrapped.

One piece of EU-African business that moved close to conclusion last year is the successor to the Cotonou Agreement between the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific community,  finalised by negotiators in December after being delayed by over a year.

The new pact, which will begin its ratification process this year, leaves trade relations unchanged but does include tougher text on migrant re-admission and return, and a new structure, which will create three new parliamentary assemblies – the African Union’s pan-African parliament will provide members for a joint assembly with EU parliamentarians.

Carlos Lopes, the AU’s influential adviser on the EU talks, is certain to demand much more from the ‘strategic partnership’ process.

In the meantime, the much-vaunted African Continental Free Trade Area started life on 1 January as intra-African 2020 trade volumes have been projected to have decreased by 8% for exports and about 16% for imports.

The first priorities of AfCFTA will be to increase the size of regional markets and intra-African trade, and to reduce the trend of growing reliance on food and agricultural imports. If it is able to make progress quickly, that could also drive political momentum for more ambitious EU-Africa trade ties.

Elsewhere, both European Council President Charles Michel and High Representative Josep Borrell have led calls for the G20 to agree on an ambitious debt relief programme for African countries hit hard economically by the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a growing number of African countries likely to face debt distress or default following the pandemic, they will be under pressure to step up their advocacy.

A leaders’ summit by videoconference planned for December was cancelled at the last minute and Michel said on Tuesday that a new date had not yet been set.

“The EU must be very engaged with the ensemble of African countries because there are lots of things we need to do in common — stimulate the investments, support the development, the sustainable development in Africa, develop the operational partnership, and our priorities concerning climate, and concerning digital agenda, are also priorities that we have to translate in this capacity of developing exchanges with Africa,” said Michel.

While China remains the EU’s chief diplomatic rival with regard to Africa – Beijing’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi departed for a five-country tour of the continent on 4 January – the UK and the incoming Joe Biden administration in the United States could also emerge with rival offers to Africa in 2021.

Early indications suggest Biden is unlikely to pursue the bilateral trade pact with Kenya that the Trump government had begun talks on. Instead, it is thought likely that Biden’s team could maintain or possibly improve the terms of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) which offers tariff-free trade to most of the continent. Trump had been a staunch critic of AGOA.

The UK, meanwhile, is likely to focus on its promise to become Africa’s investment partner of choice, rather than on trade, where its main aim has been to roll-over the EU’s EPAs with African regional blocs and individual countries.

This unambitious approach was described as ‘problematic’ by UK lawmaker Chi Onwurah, who chairs the cross-party Africa group in Westminster.

EU leaders became increasingly sensitive to claims that they were dictating the format and agenda of the partnership process in the closing months of 2020.

“The EU needs to rethink its approach to the consultation process,” a senior official involved in the partnership talks told EURACTIV following the scrapping of the December video-summit, adding that EU officials needed “to take the African side seriously.”

The African Union’s powers and mandate are not close to those of the European Commission. Even so, the AU and African leaders will need more equal treatment if the partnership is to have a purpose.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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