US steals EU’s thunder in West Africa

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

Hillary Clinton's recent visit to West Africa highlights that despite the EU's higher spending on development aid, it is unable to sell itself as a champion of human rights or make its voice heard internationally, say Christina Barrios and Paul Nolan of the Madrid-based FRIDE think tank.

Cristina Barrios is a researcher at the Spanish think tank FRIDE who has written on French and EU policy towards Africa. Paul Nolan is a freelance journalist.

"US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's two-day tour of Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire, Cape Verde and Togo has shown that the US still shines on the African stage. No European dignitary could compete with the heat and warmth generated by Clinton.

Whereas the US brings hope and a 'yes-we-can' attitude to the African continent, Europe shies away, cowered and apologetic. The EU foreign policy of choice is to keep a low profile and, as a result, it fails to register – even in a region such as West Africa, where the EU actually does quite a lot.

Instead of sending its chief diplomat Catherine Ashton to the inauguration of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso sent a congratulatory message. The EU is once again missing out on the symbolism.

Sirleaf, winner of the 2011 Nobel peace prize, was Africa's first female president. The Obama administration's decision to send Hillary Clinton shows its understanding of a sense of history and narrative – something that has escaped European diplomatic circles.

For Europe to regain a standing on the world stage, it needs to support its own narrative of human rights beyond Commission communications and light criticism of imperfect elections. Clinton also met with Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, while the EU has only sent Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs in the past months. Despite the EU's broader role in the Côte d'Ivoire peace process and political transition, it continually chooses to don its development hat in bilateral relations.

Clinton's high-profile visit to Cape Verde is another example of 'smart' diplomacy in action. This will win points in international circles even if it results in small material gain. The country has recently been in the limelight after former leader Pedro Pires was singled out for the Mo Ibrahim award and its musical talent showcased by the sad loss of singer Cesária Évora.

The US will be hoping that the stardust will be rubbing off on them. Once again, this is about promoting good will, which is something that has bypassed the EU. In October 2011, Ashton formally congratulated Cape Verde for its ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court – but how much will this win the people's hearts and minds?

It is to Europe's detriment that it does not recognise its potential in gaining influence as a key player in international relations. The US shines in West Africa, and EU policies are often behind the scenes. But until it emerges from the shadows and shares an idea of 'destiny' and a human – and not just bureaucratic – dimension, Europe will forever have to play second fiddle to the US.

The EU also continues to shy away of defending interests, boasting a 2012 allocation of €640 million for humanitarian aid, with some 15% per cent going to what it terms 'forgotten crises'. They are surely battles too remote to hold any interest for the White House.

Whilst acting in the interests of blighted populations, the EU doesn't even have the right spokesperson to make these facts real in the wider world. By contrast, Clinton sought to advance US strategic interests with a quick visit to Togo.

Since 2007, the EU has awarded €384.7 million in development cooperation to this country, and supported the electoral process with €2.5 million. Yet, it is the United States that welcomes the country's steps towards greater democracy.

Ashton has boasted getting speaking rights at the UN General Assembly in the last months, but as Togo historically takes a seat at the Security Council for the next two years, it is the US that gets its voice heard and not Europe."

Subscribe to our newsletters