An Erasmus for young Africans and Europeans

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Smiling happy African school girls and boys at their high school graduation day in Accra, Ghana. [Nataly Reinch/Shutterstock]

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

On 29 and 30 November in Abidjan, Africa and Europe have a date with destiny. It may sound a rather audacious statement in the face of the international community’s growing interest in the African continent, but it is not, writes Gianni Pittella.

Gianni Pittella is the leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament.

In the framework of the fifth African Union – European Union Summit, which will for the first time take place in Africa, the heads of states and governments will be pressed to respond to the crucial challenges felt by both continents in the face of deep economic, social, political and security changes.

On one side, an old continent weakened by the financial crisis, terrorist attacks and the disastrous management of the refugee crisis, which did nothing but fuel populism. On the other side, a young continent boosted by unprecedented economic growth, embodied by a booming middle class, but still overshadowed by countless threats, including extreme poverty, diseases, terror, conflicts, climate change and bad governance.

These are the scourges that, together with a lack of opportunities on the labour market, push thousands of young Africans to engage in terrorist movements or to flee their countries in search of a better life abroad, often risking their lives.

But the human tragedies that take place under our noses every day could end up being fairly minor compared to what could happen in the next 30 years. By 2050, the number of people under the age of 25 in Africa will jump from 232 million to 452 million. And 2050 is just around the corner!

While the decision to make youth the central topic of the AU-EU Summit seems to be forward-looking, the outcome cannot be business as usual.

Surely it will not be limited to the usual quid pro quo, whereby the Africans are only interested in asking for more funds from the EU, including funds to contribute to halting the migratory flows, while the Europeans are prepared to negotiate behind the scenes on security measures or return policies.

The controversies and the tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea confirm exactly what we can no longer allow to continue: looking at Africa merely through the lens of an emergency response. It is both useless and illusory to envisage the building of a European fortress that the likes of Salvini and Le Pen will never be able to set up, fortunately.

This is why if the illegal channels are rightly locked up, the opening of legal channels for migrants remains a crucial challenge in order to offer people willing to move to Europe safe routes to take. We should never forget that Europe needs migrants to maintain our economic, health and pension system.

It is not, however, just an economic issue. We have to imagine new ways to strengthen our partnership with Africa. The future of this partnership belongs to youth. We need to do everything we can to create real links between young Europeans and Africans. This year, the European Union celebrates the 30th anniversary of Erasmus, one of the most successful projects in terms of cooperation among European countries and citizens.

Today, we need to get inspiration from this unique experience to launch an ambitious exchange programme between universities and research centres on both sides of the Mediterranean, by also supporting traineeships in companies: a “Europe-Africa Erasmus” for a partnership that is not one-way only anymore.

Concretely, this will mean welcoming through this programme students and researchers from Africa in Europe, but also push young Europeans and academics to go to Africa to learn and innovate.

We also need to support the exchanges between African and European start-ups, by creating “VISAs for start-ups” to facilitate the entry in the Schengen area of African entrepreneurs. These are the bridges and not the walls that we need to build between Europe and Africa, together with a real partnership based on equality.

Finally, Europe must respond to one of the strongest needs of its African partners: development aid, yes, but also and foremost – investments! The adoption of investment funds from outside the EU for Africa (and neighbouring countries), strangely omitted by Juncker in his State of the European Union speech, is going in the right direction.

We thus need to urgently put it in place, while respecting its main objective: supporting the development of social and economic sustainable infrastructures and of SMEs, both European and African. This should by no means support multinationals who are already champions of tax evasion, or the ones who prey on mineral and natural resources.

The missions that have led me on the African continent in the last few years, and the political battles conducted at the heart of the European Institutions on issues such as conflict minerals, convinced me that a multidimensional approach, centered on development, democracy, security, investment and cultural diplomacy – the very one proposed by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini – can respond to the aspirations of millions of young Africans but also Europeans.

The second edition of the Africa Week organized by the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, in Brussels, between September 25-28 will be the occasion to put the young generation at the heart of our debates and to send clear messages to leaders of both the African Union and of the European Union.

There is no other continent that compares to Africa when it comes to diversity or richness of cultures and opportunities. The whole of next week will be dedicated to meeting African leaders and intellectuals, discussing, questioning and challenging ourselves about how we can work better together and empower especially the youth to profit from the opportunities offered by the digital revolution.

It is time to breathe new life into the relationship between our two continents. The summit in Abidjan must be the “Summit of audacity”. As the Franco-Senegalese writer, Fatou Diome, whom we will welcome at the Africa Week, said so well: “Stop hypocrisy, we will be rich together or we will all drown together.”

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