Migration control still trumps African ‘partnership of equals’

Guinea's President and chair of the African Union Alpha Conde speaks with President of the European Council Donald Tusk during a joint news conference after the closing session of the 5th EU-Africa summit in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, 30 November 2017. [LEGNAN KOULA/EPA]

Less than a month after Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union talked of the need for a ‘partnership of equals’ between Africa and the European Union, migration control was once again the main prism through which the EU views Africa at the European Council summit

In their final summit conclusions, EU leaders said that relations with Africa were “of paramount importance in a rapidly changing global landscape”.

But the meatiest part of the summit conclusions on EU-Africa relations refers to “the importance of further preventing illegal migration and of strengthening cooperation with countries of origin and transit, particularly in North Africa, as part of a broader partnership.”

A Commission official told EURACTIV that member countries were still not provided the amounts they have pledged to the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa.

Juncker: Member states contributed too little to Africa Fund

Speaking to the press after the first round of talks of the EU summit yesterday (19 October), Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned that the EU action was “reaching its limits” due to insufficient financing.

“EU leaders are once again being short sighted when looking to our neighbour Africa,” said Friederike Röder, EU and France Director at The ONE Campaign, in response to the Council conclusions.

“They say EU-Africa relations are of ‘paramount importance’ and that cooperation should be taken ‘to a new level, underpinned by the necessary resources’, and then in the same conclusions they decide to use development aid for the return of migrants,” she added.

The Austrian presidency has confirmed that it will host an EU-Africa summit on 17 and 18 December, but migration remains the key preoccupation of EU leaders when it comes to African relations.

But they are finding that African governments are playing hard-ball.

Morocco has led African rejection to the EU’s idea of setting up ‘regional disembarkation platforms’ or ‘hot spots’, with foreign minister Nasser Bourita accusing European leaders of over-playing their hand in an interview with German media on 3 October. Around 78,000 migrants have entered Europe by sea so far this year, compared to 131,000 in 2017 and 300,000 in 2016.

However, talks between Brussels and Fatah El Sisi’s Egyptian government were launched last month with a view to striking some kind of ‘cash-for-migrants’ agreement, with a deal hopefully ready to be finalised by an EU-Arab League summit scheduled for next February in Cairo. El Sisi will take over the presidency of the AU in January at a summit in Addis Ababa that will also be focused on migration.

A deal with Libya modelled on the EU’s migrant agreement with Turkey, under which Ankara has received €4 billion from Brussels in return for keeping Syrian refugees from reaching European soil, has also been mooted. Italy is pushing hardest for a Libya deal ahead of next May’s European elections, EURACTIV understands.

In return for the migrant control deals, the EU is offering the prospect of increased private sector investment through its External Investment Plan and, in the long-term, of a continent-to-continent trade deal.

However, few observers believe much progress will be made before the Juncker Commission leaves office.

“It was an important piece of political signaling, but it is too late in the Juncker Commission for it to come to anything,” admitted one EU official to EURACTIV.

Juncker’s offer, which was drafted in part as a direct response to the offer of $60 billion (€43 billion) of additional investment made by President Xi Jinping to African nations at the China-Africa forum on cooperation in September, has been met with a lukewarm response.

“When you get to the negotiating table it is very clear that we are not equals,” says Patrick Chinamasa, Zimbabwe’s veteran former finance minister who left office in September.

He adds that there has always been a combination of “dictation and prescription” in EU-African relations

“You (the EU) mix trade and economics with politics…and ask about my country’s human rights record. China does not do that,” he added.

That spells out the dilemma facing the EU as it seeks to draw up a new political and trade relationship with the African continent through the successor to the Cotonou Agreement, which expires in 2020.

The EU executive has become increasingly rattled by the growing perception that it is losing ground to China in the new race to Africa. An EU official told EURACTIV that China was “fueling a new crisis of debt dependency”.

China pledges $60 billion to Africa, fends off accusations of setting a debt trap

China is helping Africa develop, not pile up debt, a top Chinese official said on Tuesday (4 September), as the government pushes back against criticism it is loading the continent with an unsustainable burden during a major summit in Beijing.

“The question of sexual orientation, which is culturally sensitive, nearly brought down the negotiations on the SDGs,” an African diplomat tells EURACTIV. He added that attaching more conditions to investment and aid could do the same to post-Cotonou.

That leaves the EU in a difficult spot.

“We have specific values in our treaties that we cannot just deny. The two things go together. You don’t just sacrifice values for economics,” said Domenico Rosa, EU-Africa head at the Commission’s DG DEVCO, at an event on Wednesday.

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