Pandemic highlights importance of EU-AU partnership

Amb Outlule 3

If there was any doubt about the importance of a strong relationship between Africa and the European Union they have been dispelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, says Samuel Outlule, Botswana’s ambassador to the EU and Belgium.

“The EU has been a very strong and consistent partner and COVID-19 has demonstrated that we need each other more than ever before,” Ambassador Outlule told EURACTIV.

“A problem in one corner of the world is a problem everywhere,” he added. 

Back in early March, the European Commission unveiled its ‘Towards a comprehensive strategy with Africa,’ as part of a shift towards a less paternalist approach to its relations with African leaders. 

Within days of its publication, however, the pandemic swept across Europe and, six months on, the world looks rather different.

Officials have recently confirmed that the next summit between leaders of the EU and African Union – the set-piece event planned for mid-October where the new partnership strategy was supposed to be unveiled – has been postponed until 2021 because of the pandemic.

Although African Union chairman, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, had been keen to hold a virtual summit before the end of the year, not all leaders were persuaded, and a new date in 2021 needs to be set.

For Ambassador Outlule, “we welcome the desire of the EU to have a strong partnership. The Commission proposal demonstrated that commitment.”

While the summit has become one of the diplomatic casualties of the pandemic, it gives African governments space to flesh out their demands for instruments to invest in agriculture, energy infrastructure and domestic manufacturing

Outlule says Botswana’s priorities for the partnership are oriented around trade, industrialisation and digitalisation.

“We are hoping that with time, this partnership will be strengthened to increase trade between Botswana and Europe from the current figure of €1,321 billion (representing the total trade between Botswana and Europe in 2019),” he states. 

Diversification of economy

Despite having one of the region’s more robust economies, in July finance minister Thapelo Matsheka said he was seeking emergency budget support from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to plug a $3.4 billion funding gap over the next three years on the back of lower diamond exports, collapsing tourism receipts, and a drop in farming output caused by the pandemic.

Outlule said Botswana wants to speed up the diversification of its economy, based around investment in broadband Internetinformation and communications technologies, transport and logistics, green technology and the energy sector, with a view to becoming a significant energy exporter.

“We have always been a country that has believed in the private sector,” he says, adding that his government in Gaboarone is prioritising the diversification of its economy.

“We are at the centre of southern Africa and want to be able to take advantage of our location,” he says.

Outlule argues that measures to boost the private sector in African economies will be vital to strengthening the EU-African partnership.

“The goodwill exists to grow the private sector across Africa,” he says.

That is in line with aims of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which becomes operational in January, and is now at the centre of the continent-to-continent partnership. There is a clear wish to do away with distorted trade patterns of African exports to the EU. 

A common criticism by a number of African governments is that its trade agreements with the EU have paid lip-service to this but have created a situation where Africa predominantly exports raw materials and goods rather than finished products with added value.

At the same time, Ambassador Outlule argues that a new partnership promoting trade and the African economy will, in turn, reduce economic migration from the continent.

“Migration (across the Mediterranean) is related to economic opportunity. We need a generational commitment to the development of economies with a manufacturing sector,” the Ambassador told EURACTIV.

“We are convinced that there is a commitment to a partnership that works for mutual benefit. The more economically prosperous Africa is will reduce migration,” he says.

Coping with the pandemic will remain Botswana’s main priority over the coming months and increased resources will need to be found for testing and quarantining, and economic assistance programmes, said Outlule.

The question of how and with what instruments to ease debt pressure on African treasuries following the pandemic will re-emerge ahead of the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

In October, the Group of 20 (G20) major economies is likely to extend debt relief for developing countries, including Africa, affected by the coronavirus pandemic until at least the end of 2021. 

The European Union pledged €15.6 billion towards the global COVID-19 package response. Of this amount, €3.2 billion will be allocated to Africa. 

Ambassador Outlule remarked that while Botswana is “grateful” for the EU’s support, the volume of funds made available is “insufficient”.

“Much more is required to address the challenges brought about by the pandemic,” he added. 

The Ambassador pointed out that Botswana’s total share of the EU funding committed so far is just over €1.8 million, a drop in the ocean considering the huge economic costs incurred as a result of the pandemic.

However, COVID-related support could also include increased mutually beneficial trade, transfer of technology and technical support like contact tracing technologies, he said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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