Tens of millions of Africans will try to come to Europe. What’s the EU policy?

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

African migrants, who were rescued by the Libyan coastguard in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast, arrive at a naval base in Tripoli, Libya, on 26 May 2017. [EPA]

Demographics suggest that Africans taking the perilous journey to Europe will be in their millions, and perhaps their tens of millions, writes Giles Merritt.

Giles Merritt is the founder and chairman of Friends of Europe. He first published this op-ed on the Friends of Europe website, under the title “Missing: A beefed-up plan for Africa’s population explosion”. We re-publish it with his permission.

Where is Europe’s relationship with Africa headed; where is the Grand Bargain they both need? When EU leaders, who included France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel, met their African Union opposite numbers at the end of November, their summit was billed as the “defining moment” for the re-shaping of EU-AU relations. Since then, there’s been a deafening silence.

So where’s the beef? The summit produced little or nothing in the way of a strategic vision of how the two partners intend to jointly tackle problems like migration and Africa’s under-development. That’s probably why it didn’t receive much press coverage.

Lack of media attention doesn’t diminish the importance of planning to cope with the population explosion underway in Africa. Over the next 25 years, the number of Africans will double to some two and half billion people, far more than Africa’s backward farms can feed or its struggling businesses employ.

European governments seem lulled into a sense of security by a fall-off in migrants. The UN’s Institute of Migration (IOM) in Geneva recently reported that the number of people crossing the Mediterranean to Europe by boat in 2017 was, at about 170,000, half the level of the year before. Both were a trickle compared to 2015, when well over a million refugees fled from Syria and other conflict zones.

The issue of migration was discussed at Abidjan, although it’s far from clear if anything was agreed. The president of the 54-nation AU, Guinean leader Alpha Condé, spoke of “points of divergence” on migration, adding: “It’s obvious we Africans cannot accept that Europeans should tell us to take back our children.”

No one can tell how many Africans may try to make the perilous journey to Europe in the years ahead. The demographics suggest they will be in their millions, and perhaps their tens of millions. A report to the World Economic Forum, organisers of the annual Davos event, has warned that by 2050 there will be 800 million new working age people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Right now, only one young African in six is in a regular, paid job. Although there’s much talk of “Africa Rising” thanks to some countries’ GDP growth rates of 8%, that won’t be enough. The handicaps common to much of Africa are so great that for most, annual growth of at least 7% is needed just to stand still.

For the EU, the centrepiece of the Abidjan summit was the European Commission’s plan to funnel €44 billion in new investment into African business start-ups. Labelled by some as a ‘Marshall Plan for Africa’, the idea is to leverage €3.3 billion in EU seed money into fifteen times more private sector funding.

It’s an admirable idea, but it is wholly inadequate in terms of Africa’s problems. The ‘funding gap’ between Africa’s needs and what it gets is estimated to be €2.3 trillion yearly.

The platitudes uttered on both sides in Abidjan contrast uncomfortably with grim reality. Half of sub-Saharan Africans ‒ 600 million people ‒ either don’t have reliable electricity, if they have it at all. A third of the region’s children will never go to school. Climate change and drought increasingly affect the 90%  of African farmers who, without irrigation, must rely on rain.

The AU’s president Condé has spoken of “replacing China as the factory of the world”, but, in fact, manufacturing in Africa has shrunk since its high point in 2007. An enormous effort is needed to stabilise and perhaps reverse Africa’s ebbing economic and social fortunes.

At the same time, Europe’s steadily ageing workforce is going to require more African manpower to cover snowballing pension costs. The elements are present for a mutually beneficial Grand Strategy, so where is the EU’s imaginative leadership with the political courage to tell Europeans and Africans they cannot do without each another?

Ambitious and far-sighted initiatives of breath-taking dimension are, after all, what the European Union is about.

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