COVID-19 has posed ‘stress test’ for EU-Africa relations

The EU's plans for a 'strategic partnership' with Africa have been overtaken by the pandemic. EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET

The coronavirus pandemic has been a ‘stress test’ for EU-Africa relations ahead of plans for an ambitious reset of political and trade ties between the two continents this autumn.

Addressing a webinar organised by the Overseas Development Institute in London earlier this week, Nick Westcott, director of the London-based Royal Africa Society, said the pandemic had been “a stress test for relations between Africa and the rest of the world, and it arrives in the middle of something of a struggle for influence in Africa”.

Officials are starting to prepare for the EU-African Union summit in Brussels in October, originally intended to mark the formal launch of a comprehensive EU-Africa partnership.

In April, the European Commission unveiled a package of budget support and health care funding to a number of African countries, including €502 million in short-term emergency cash, and €2.8 billion to support research, health and water systems.

Meanwhile, funding worth €2.06 billion for sub-Saharan Africa and €1.19 billion was allocated the North African neighbourhood countries from a €15 billion funding package. A further €1.42 billion in loan guarantees was made available for sub-Saharan Africa.

“The EU have been very active and stepped up, Africa is finding who its friend in need is,” added Westcott.

However, none of the funding constitutes ‘new’ cash.

Although Africa has, so far, only had a small fraction of coronavirus cases, its countries are all facing a hefty economic hit from imposing strict lockdown measures. The continent hit 200,000 confirmed cases last week, with the second 100,000 taking just 18 days, prompting concern among World Health Organisation officials that the virus could spread quickly if government’s rapidly ease curfew measures.

Wescott added that China’s response to COVID “has been more gesture politics. Jack Ma sends a lot of masks and PPE but China is not forgiving any debts.”

In April, the G20 group of countries offered to postpone debt repayments from for the remainder of 2020, worth up to $20 billion, but that is still well short of the $44 billion debt relief that the AU team and African finance ministers have been seeking. Further talks on debt forgiveness and private sector involvement have stalled.

Meanwhile, the United States has become increasingly isolationist during the pandemic, culminating in Donald Trump confirming its intentions to withdraw from the World Health Organisation, although the US still owes around $200 million in unpaid fees to the WHO which must be settled before it can leave.

Westcott described the move as “something of an insult to Africa” since the WHO is the main UN agency headed by an African.

For its part, this week’s announcement by Boris Johnson’s government that it will merge its respected International Development ministry into the Foreign Office has been taken by many policy experts as a further sign of the UK’s changing priorities away from development.

Last week, AU officials indicated that the African Continental Free Trade Area will now become operational in January 2021, after its planned July start date was delayed by the pandemic.

“The EU has demonstrated its continued support,” added Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, the mayor of Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, pointing to new funding received by her city.

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