The importance of engaging with Africa

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

S&D Africa Week - 13 to 15 October 2020 [S&D Group]

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

To paraphrase the words of the American political activist Ralph Nader – if you’re not turned on to Africa, Africa will turn on you.

Udo Bullmann is the S&D group Coordinator on the European Parliament’s Development Committee.

Carlos Zorrinho is an S&D MEP and Co-President of the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly. 

For decades, the Socialists and Democrats have been turning on to Africa, as a constant theme of our political engagement in the European Parliament. Far from seeing the African continent as a problem, the S&D Group sees the opportunities and every year we curate a fully-fledged event on Africa-EU relations with African personalities, politicians, young people and representatives of civil society joining us to discuss and outline our common future. This year is no exception – despite the global Covid-19 pandemic.

The S&Ds’ 2020 ‘Africa Week’ will mainly focus on democracy, digital transition, inequality, decent jobs, climate change and a new Africa-EU partnership for sustainable development.

The fact that the fourth edition of Africa Week is organized in a hybrid, half on-site/half remote way sets the tone for the new challenges we face.

The pandemic has hit the two continents like a hurricane. Millions of jobs are being lost. Inequality and poverty are growing, small businesses are closing and many countries are experiencing the worst recession since WWII. Covid-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities within and between countries, and has put at risk the progress made so far in reducing poverty.

A socially just approach is the only way out of this crisis. Our values of solidarity cannot change. On the contrary, they should be our compass to foster a sustainable economic and social transformation.

We will be working to ensure that the new Africa-EU partnership is based on equal footing, respectful dialogue, mutual ownership and shared responsibility, respecting the interests of both sides. In a continuous and bold multilateral effort, we need to work together with the EU Commission and with the African Union to combat the pandemic and overcome its social, economic and health consequences through fair and sustainable growth and cooperation, implementing all aspects of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Multilateralism, Joint Assemblies and fair and trustful exchanges of experiences and best practices are the basis for a common understanding which will benefit all citizens of both continents.

This crisis has shown the precarious nature of today’s economy, with 700 million people living in extreme poverty and 1.3 billion unable to meet their basic needs. The vast majority of people living in countries in sub-Saharan Africa are employed in the informal sector and receive no unemployment, sickness or other benefits. And more than a third of all jobs and incomes in Africa could be lost as a result of Covid-19.

While it is true that the population of sub-Saharan Africa is projected to double by 2050, this needs a strategic approach if we are to turn a potential vicious circle into a virtuous circle of opportunities.

To this end, the individual policies the EU is putting forward cannot stand alone but must have a coherent approach across all policies. Each of them should have a positive impact on climate. Each of them should have a positive impact on fighting socio-economic inequalities. This can only be done by empowering younger generations through massive investment in education, human rights, health, digitalisation and democracy.

First and foremost, the EU should invest more in education for all – especially for girls – as it represents not only one of the pillars of the SDGs but the base for decent work and decent lives. We also have to provide digital knowledge and digital skills to young people in schools and colleges. No one must be digitally left behind.

It will not be sufficient to create jobs. They have to be decent jobs. This means ensuring that the right employment and labour policies are set, the health systems in all African countries are reinforced in order to address the needs of the population and the supply of skills is boosted, as well as the levels of wages and social protection coverage.

It is essential, in considering meeting basic needs, to identify responses that also take into account the new challenges of energy and climate change.

CO2 emissions, global heating, floods and drought know no boundaries. The paradox of climate change lies in the fact that the region that has contributed the least to global emissions, which is also the world’s poorest region and the least able to adapt, is the continent set to be worst hit by extreme weather. 70% of Africans make a living through agriculture, so changing weather patterns, loss of biodiversity and destruction of the natural environment have immediate effects on a huge part of the population.

The EU Green Deal provides a good opportunity to reshape Africa-EU relations based on coherent, fair and climate-proof cooperation. A green recovery in Europe that doesn’t take Africa into consideration risks failing to achieve the overall objectives of the Paris Agreement and the SDGs.

We need predictable, accountable and transparent EU support in scaling up climate action and adaptation in African countries. The EU should demonstrate fair burden-sharing and scale-up technical and innovative financial support for the climate-risk-management mechanism in order to address losses and damage on the African continent.

On energy and raw materials, we can no longer turn a blind eye. Due diligence should play a role here and instead of continuing to exploit African raw materials and developing fossil fuel industries in the region, the EU should invest in renewable energy in Africa, in order to counterbalance Chinese economic penetration as well.

Hence, relying on our experience and values, we should urgently assist African countries in developing their Free Trade Area agreement to include a customs union, allowing young people with skills across Africa to seek opportunities without the hindrance of borders.

We are at a crossroads where tough decisions need to be taken. The next Africa-EU summit will be crucial to open a just, progressive and sustainable chapter of our relationship. If we were waiting for an opportune time to demonstrate that progressives, not extremists and the far right, are the solution to the current global challenges, now is the time.

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