Africa Needs a Stronger Europe, Europe Needs a Stronger Africa

September 10, 2020

In a world of rapidly shifting power configurations, Africa is attempting to increase its economic power by combining its 54 countries into a single economic bloc through the new African Continental Free Trade Agreement. The success of that bloc will, in part, depend on its ability to forge a productive and equitable partnerships. With both the United States and China emerging as spoilers in the international system, Africa’s efforts will only succeed if met with a more expansive European foreign policy, backed by an increase in resources to match such ambitions.

The Great Power competition underway between the United States and China is not without cost and will become increasingly expensive even for bystanders. Long before the economic disruption from COVID-19, it was the US-China trade war that weakened the global economy and posed the most risk to international trade. Even now, Bloomberg News reports that “companies in Europe increasingly risk becoming collateral damage in the crossfire of new rules and restrictions not necessarily designed for them.” Similar risks exist for Africa, for whom China is the second-largest trade partner. For smaller nations caught in the crosshairs of an escalating tit-for-tat between China and the United States, access to another, equally substantial partnership is desirable.

It was thus reassuring to read an op-ed by Gerd Müller, Germany’s federal development minister, and Manfred Weber, chairman of the European People’s Party Group in the European Parliament, making a similar argument about the future valence of the Africa-Europe partnership. Their argument for a more powerful, singular European Union also indirectly makes the case for a single African bloc by highlighting the advantages for Europe: “In the global game of forces, even the large EU member states alone have too little weight. The EU must therefore align its institutions and finances to assert European interests and values ​​in the world.” Ditto for Africa. It is evident that the “America First” foreign policy of the United States has made it an unreliable partner, prone to destabilizing the global order by actively undermining multilateral institutions even as the world faces issues requiring multilateral action. Future partnership with the United States would thus include a huge risk premium. So too would partnership with China. China’s assertive moves in the South China Sea, on its border with India, and in Hong Kong reveal a rising power with an independent agenda that need not align with shared global interests. This is the moment for a comparable power focused on providing leadership on global public goods and shared prosperity—a role Europe can fill.

Müller and Weber are right that Europe should focus on global stability and prosperity, but that pursuit must first be reflected in Europe’s neighborhood, especially Africa. That oversight is reflected in how Europe’s top foreign policy experts think and talk about the continent: Müller and Weber’s tone is oddly sterile and their language borderline ahistorical. They write as if Africa and Europe simply appeared, results of two independent, divergent paths that have never overlapped.

To be ahistorical in a space fraught with history is to be perceived, at best, as insensitive. Europe only began rethinking its position in Africa after the aggressive expansion of Chinese trade and commerce with the continent. Former president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker spoke to this in his 2018 State of the EU speech, noting that Europe must stop seeing its relationship with Africa solely through the “prism of development aid.”  “Such an approach,” he said, “is beyond inadequate, humiliatingly so.” This refocusing of the Africa-Europe relationship is long overdue; Africa is far more than just a recipient of European aid. For an example, the EU-27 remain Africa’s largest trade partner in goods (31 percent of exports and 29 percent of imports). But Africa is yet to realize the full potential of proximity to European prosperity. Most African exports are unprocessed agricultural and mineral products and its imports are largely finished goods. Since value is concentrated higher up the chain, Africa is perennially at a disadvantage in its trade relations, including with Europe.

A new African-European partnership

This period in international affairs, when the two largest economies pursue their self-interest to the point of risking a rupture of global balance, provides an opportunity for Europe to focus closer to home and present a material partnership with Africa to remedy that disadvantage. There is an emerging opportunity for Africa, with European partnership, as high-income countries attempt to diversify supply chains from Asia by reversing offshoring. While some of those supply chains can be reshored domestically, labor-intensive sectors will struggle in a Europe facing existential de-population. Africa thus presents an opportunity as a destination for restructured value chains, especially labor-intensive sectors. Africa’s attractiveness for such investment, however, will depend on a combination of low-cost, skilled labor and efficient infrastructure, areas in which European partnership can have considerable impact.

A more aggressive use of combined European multilateral and bilateral development finance institutions can be leveraged to work with African partners to invest in the architecture required to make this possible. Targeted partnerships in both infrastructure development and knowledge transfer could lead to a more prosperous Africa, especially through the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement. A wealthier Africa is a larger market (beginning at a combined $2.7 trillion in January 2021) for European exports. A more prosperous Africa will also expand the types of European exports that can be directed toward Africa. Rising prosperity in Africa, reflected in the sophistication of African exports to Europe, will also raise the continent’s earnings. A stronger Africa benefits Europe and vice versa.

The Eurafrica relationship already has substantive pillars that can be deepened and expanded to form a stronger and more equitable partnership. The EU-Africa summit is one such mechanism. In the build-up to this year’s event, some of my colleagues at Center for Global Development and I will publish a series of policy recommendations to be considered during the summit. The recommendations will cover a range of substantive areas that should be on the table for discussion: migration; strengthening the technology ecosystem; building, expanding and “greening” supply chains in Africa; and agriculture and agro-processing in pursuit of a more prosperous Eurafrica. In the words of Josep Borell, high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy, “A part of Europe's future is at stake in Africa. To face our common challenges, we need a strong Africa, and Africa needs a strong Europe.”


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

Image credit for social media/web: Dominic Chavez / World Bank