The EU in Africa: will Member States follow the lead?

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2021 could prove to be a special year for Euro-African relations. Since last year’s agenda was essentially postponed, a lot is now on the table: a proposed new partnership, a EU-AU leaders’ summit, and the finalization of the post-Cotonou agreement.

Giovanni Carbone, ISPI and Università degli Studi di Milano.

On assuming office, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen pledged to lead a more ‘geopolitical Commission’ and called for a ‘New comprehensive strategy with Africa’. This reflected the combination of a long and unresolved search for getting EU relations with the continent right, and Africa’s growing geopolitical and economic relevance.

Europeans need African countries as allies in multilateral forums, as partners in managing migration, and for their emerging market opportunities. Africa, on the other hand, needs Europe as its most relevant trade partner, investor and donor, as well as for its key and direct roles in stability and security efforts across the continent. Besides historical and geographical ties or economic opportunities, some key global issues also invite Euro-African cooperation, most notably migration, climate change, and the fight against violent extremism.

The proposed New strategy, issued in early 2020, emphatically envisages a new ‘political alliance’ for the two sides of the Mediterranean to face common global challenges through joint initiatives – backed as a majority bloc in international forums, where needed – and to strengthen rules-based multilateralism. The call, however, was left hanging by the sudden start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Still to come are thus Africa’s reactions on the five partnerships suggested by Brussels’ scheme, namely, on green transition and access to energy; on digital transformation; on sustainable growth and jobs; on peace and governance; and on migration and mobility. All mostly build on well-established fields of cooperation – with the partial exception of “green transition” (if strictly related to climate change issues) and the relative novelty of “digital transformation”. Yet there is no lack of contentious nodes, particularly on migration and trade.

Besides the substantive themes, however, there is a recognised need for EU Member States not only to back the EU’s proposal but also to make sure their national Africa policies are in line with it. This is a necessary requisite – prior to the responses that will come from the other continent involved – for strengthening Europe’s approach and favouring its success.

Today, it is not only countries that have long nurtured relations with African states, primarily based on historical ties, that are looking at the region, but many others too. In recent years, a number of European countries have officially adopted an “Africa strategy”, including Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Hungary. Since last month, even Estonia has one: a country of 1.3 million people devised a policy for a continent of 1.3 billion people.

Part of the motives behind this wave of attention are not much different from Brussels’ own reasons for looking south. Yet the fact that individual countries also do so raises the question of the alignment between the goals and initiatives of individual countries and those defined by the Union. To what extent does Brussels and other EU capitals share the same vision and the same operational approach with regard to Africa?

No doubt there is a lot of shared ground, at least in principle, when it comes to issues such as security, sustainable growth or development cooperation. The common view also posits that managing migration – a key subject – requires broadening the approach to include development and security themselves. But variations do exist both in form as in substance.

The priorities that are set, the channels that are chosen, the narratives that are employed are not the same across EU countries. The very extent of attention and interest towards the region varies. For some – particularly France – both are deep and long established. For others it is about rediscovering the area or expanding their relationships with it, they include Germany and Spain, Italy and Hungary. Neither there is a lack of Member States with no identifiable or no active Africa policy. Several smaller or weaker members, such as Croatia, Greece or Romania, fall into this category. Overall, approaches range from dynamic activism and growing ambitions to inertia and disinterest.

Crucially, there are also differences in Member States’ posturing with regard to issues such as green transition, migration, democracy, and sexual and reproductive health rights. On migration, in particular, the policies pursued by Hungary and Poland (and to an extent by the likes of Denmark and the Netherlands) are blatantly less open than those of, say, Spain, Portugal or Sweden. The very range of subjects addressed or included in their policies varies too. Few, for example, touch upon Africa’s digitalization – Germany does – which the EU proposed as one of the five pillars for the new strategy.

As much as Brussels calls for joint, jointly planned or coordinate initiatives, there will continue to be some divisive or competitive issues driving autonomous actions, particularly on the part of the largest Member States (the smaller ones are more inclined to stress and rely on the role of the EU). But deeper, broader and stronger relations between the EU and Africa demands hard and unrelenting work towards developing a genuinely shared direction.

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