Time to move to an interest-driven Africa-EU political partnership

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

The delegation of Benin at the 4th EU-Africa Summit, 2014. [European Council]

Geert Laporte proposes eight measures for Europe and Africa to build the strong partnership that everyone seems to want. But is everyone willing to support the tough decisions that these measures would entail?

Geert Laporte is deputy director of The European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM).

Here is the million euro question: how can we make the EU-Africa partnership work in practice? How can we get political traction and move towards a ‘partnership among equals beyond aid’ based on ‘mutual respect’ and ‘strong common interests’?

In the relatively short history of Africa-EU ‘Summitry’, both sides have skillfully avoided speaking openly about the controversial issues that divide both continents. The success of a summit was not measured in the quality of the dialogue but on the number of participating heads of state and how long it took to agree on a Joint Declaration.

While a summit should never turn into a shouting match, it remains important to address the ‘elephants in the room’ in the preparatory process leading to the Summit. A recipe for a solid ‘new-style political partnership’ could be made on the basis of some of these eight ingredients.

1. Foster a more coherent European foreign policy in practice.

Since the Lisbon Treaty, the EU has deployed major efforts to strengthen its external action. While the Global Strategy is a promising guiding document, the reality is sometimes very different. Consistent European efforts towards the African continent are difficult to put into practice because of the different competing silos and vested interests within the EU system.

The Post-Cotonou ACP-EU negotiations are a case in point and provide a unique opportunity to overhaul Europe’s Africa policy. They should be intimately linked to the Africa-EU dialogue. Yet the Joint Communication only dedicates a short paragraph to this: it is not yet clear whether the EU and Africa will have the political courage to address this issue during the Summit and work out solid alternatives to a cooperation model that is no longer fit for purpose.

2. Build stronger and self-sufficient pan-African and regional institutions.

Africa needs strong, legitimate and assertive institutions that are no longer suffering from extreme aid dependency if it wants to be a credible partner in the relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. The 2016 Kaberuka plan has created expectations regarding the sustainable financing for the African Union, through a 0.2% levy on imports entering the African continent. African heads of state committed themselves to implementing this plan from 2017. This would generate a revenue of more than €1 billion a year, to fund the AU’s operational, programme and peace and security budgets. These structural systems to ensure financially autonomous African institutions, both at pan-African and regional levels, are essential but they need to be accompanied by effective enforcement mechanisms.

3. Be clear about interests.

Both parties need much more occasions for frank and constructive discussions on frustrations and interests in the partnership. Instead of presenting itself in a somewhat patronising way as the ‘moral conscience’ and ‘do-gooder’ in Africa, the EU would gain more trust and respect if it would clearly express its interests in Africa, acknowledging that it is not always straightforward to get the right balance between values and interests.

It is easier for the EU to speak out on democratic change in a small country like The Gambia than in emerging African ‘powerhouses’ where economic interests, political stability and security are key priorities. Obviously, the African Union could also be more explicit on why the EU is an important strategic partner for them, on what it could offer to Africa that other partners might not be able to deliver.

4. Work towards a real people-centred partnership.

Official parties in both Europe and Africa tend to stress in their discourses the commitment to create more space for civil society organisations and social and economic actors in all their diversity. ‘Leave no one behind’ is the new buzz expression to stress that vulnerable and marginalised groups should also be benefitting from the partnership.

There are many innovative and worthwhile initiatives mushrooming in Africa, largely initiated by young African generations, which are hardly known. Many of these use innovative technologies to reach out to large groups of society in areas such as education, agriculture and law. However, in many African countries, minimal levels of support for these types of initiatives are lacking.

EU-Africa cooperation modalities and procedures need to provide the right incentives to these start-ups that often operate in volatile and restrictive contexts. This would involve a degree of risk-taking and more flexible forms of direct funding support that go beyond the existing rather heavy systems that no longer fit these new dynamics.

5. Strengthen the knowledge base of the Europe-Africa partnership.

The growing complexity of the global challenges requires different forms of knowledge and expertise beyond ‘traditional’ development issues. We will need to see a fundamental reform of the human resources strategy in both European and African institutions that can reflect the new ambition of mutual interests and help in the various international negotiations.

This ‘knowledge generation’ will have to use innovative, sophisticated and evidence-based methods along political judgement. Political leaders will have to act on this knowledge and take decisions accordingly. You can bring the horse – policy makers – to the water – knowledge – but you cannot force it to drink if vested interests are too strong.

6. Organise high-level political dialogue between summits.

It is essential that Europe and Africa sustain a regular high-level dialogue on key issues. In addition to the already existing Commission-to-Commission dialogue, there should also be more structured high-level engagement between European and African Ministers of Foreign Affairs and at thematic Ministerial levels. Recent initiatives, such as the visit of the EU High Representative Mogherini to the newly appointed Chairperson of the AU Commission Faki in March, are promising political signals that need to be nurtured.

7. Make good use of the negotiations for a new EU multiannual financial framework.

It may sound technical but the 2017 mid-term review of the EU’s financial instruments is a highly political process as this will also have an impact on Europe’s foreign policy strategic orientations. It will be an opportunity to work towards more integrated and consistent policies and instruments, including in the relationship with Africa. This is a strategic opportunity to bring more consistency and political relevance in the – sometimes contradicting – mix of financing instruments and policy frameworks for cooperation.

8. Bold confidence-restoring measures would be welcome.

A crucial element to restore trust in the partnership would be for Europe to back Africa on some of its top priorities. In the international forums, the EU could become the advocate of the African continent on some of the major global themes and the reform of global institutions – such as Bretton Woods institutions, UN Security Council, etc.

In key domains of the Europe-Africa relationship that have soured relations in the past, such as the negotiations for the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) or the management of migration and visa regulations, it would help if the EU were more willing to listen to African concerns to be reflected in more balanced compromises.

Europe and Africa are ‘condemned’ to work together. But it is time to do this in a spirit of renewed mutual interests and shared global agendas, to tackle the enormous challenges ahead – together.

Read the first blog post of this series: ‘Time to move towards an interest-driven Africa-EU political partnership (part one).

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