Decolonising EU-Africa Relations Is A Pre-Condition For A True Partnership Of Equals

This blog is part of a series by CGD ahead of the EU-Africa Summit which will begin on 17th February 2022. This series presents proposals for priorities, and commentary on whether a meaningful reconstruction of the relationship between the two continents is likely. 

European leaders should spend some time at the “Human Zoo” exhibition at Brussels’ iconic Africa Museum when they arrive in Brussels for the much-anticipated EU-Africa summit this week.

Some EU leaders may not need a detailed lesson on the cruel reality of Europe’s history of slavery and colonialism. But a quick refresher on how that sombre past haunts Europe’s present and impacts their relationship with Africa would most definitely be useful.

Looking back is not on the EU’s agenda, however, at least not when it comes to Africa.

Instead, they are repeating promises of a “partnership of equals” with Africa and hoping that the upcoming summit will look to brighter future with their “sister continent”. Among the topics they want to discuss are issues like connectivity, climate change and COVID-19.

French President Emmanuel Macron, currently also in the EU presidency chair, has ambitions to revive the EU’s “tired” relationship through a new “New Deal with Africa" while the European Commission has its own army of senior officials tasked with promoting a “comprehensive strategy” for Africa.

However, as EU Council President Charles Michel has noted, building a New Africa-Europe Alliance will require both sides to work harder to free the relationship from “the demons of the past”.

As a former Belgian prime minister, Michel knows the power of colonial ghosts. The Africa Museum and most of Brussels’ majestic buildings, were built by Belgium’s notorious King Leopold II with riches extracted through forced labour, terror and killings from the so-called “Congo Free State”, established as his personal possession in 1885.

Leopold’s ghost haunted the streets of Belgian cities in the summer of 2020 as #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations exploded across Europe following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Angry protesters toppled and defaced statues of the late Belgian monarch, prompting a much-needed reassessment of Belgium’s “civilising” colonial mission.

Since then, Belgium’s King Philippe, an indirect descendent of Leopold II, has written to Congolese president Felix Tshisekedi to voice his deepest regret for the “humiliation and suffering” inflicted during Belgium’s colonial occupation of the country, adding that racial discrimination was still “all too present in our societies”.

Other EU leaders have also gone some way towards facing up to their country’s past. Macron has admitted that France “must look history in the face” and recognise the share of suffering that it inflicted on the Rwandan people during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, while former German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has acknowledged that his country caused “immeasurable suffering” to the Herero and Nama people during German colonial rule of what is now Namibia.

Gestures matter. But these expressions of regret are not formal apologies and come hedged with caveats to avoid any legal liability and demands for financial reparations.

Also, as worsening relations between France and Mali illustrate, tensions over the presence of French soldiers in West Africa are shot through with anger at the former colonial power’s continuing military presence and financial power, as exercised through the CFA franc, across the region.

The French president has tried to change course by ending discredited "françafrique” policies based on personal connections between Paris and African leaders and elites. Before recent tensions between France and Mali, Macron had started to draw down his country’s nine-year old military presence in the African state. His invitation to youth organisations and civil society representatives to a “summit” in Montpelier last October was also an important step in France’s quest to rebrand ties with Africa.

Yet Africans’ grievances over the past are also complicated by anger over the present.

In private conversations, African policymakers say they want more respect from the EU and an end to the bloc’s Eurocentric approaches and post-colonial reflexes. Commentators across the continent accuse the EU, which makes its aid conditional on human rights and other norms, of harbouring “paternalistic” attitudes rather than working as “true equals” with African states.

In Brussels and other European capitals, EU policymakers often underline that for all the talk of China’s role on the continent, the 27 nation remains the leading aid, trade and investment actor in Africa. They are also scathing about many African leaders’ disregard for democracy and human rights. There is concern that the African Union, 20 years old this year, does not have the clout needed to speak for its 54 members. Both sides also complain endlessly of a lack of mutual trust.

COVID-19 has added to existing tensions. Ghana’s President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo spoke for many when he denounced the “unsavoury politics of vaccine nationalism” while South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has condemned "vaccine apartheid" and said Africa so far has received little more than “crumbs” from developed nations. African states are also unhappy with the EU’s opposition to agreeing a patent waiver in the World Trade Organisation which would allow the production in developing countries of COVID 19 vaccines. Most damagingly, African governments are furious at what they view as racist and hypocritical EU reactions to the discovery of the Omicron variant in South Africa last year.

Fortress Europe policies designed to keep out refugees and migrants remain a thorn in the relationship. Instead of investing money in preventing African migrants from coming to Europe, the EU should be spending more to create jobs across the continent, according to President Akufo-Addo of Ghana. Senegalese President Mackey Sall who is also current chair of the African Union has warned that the €1.8bn “trust fund” for Africa set up by the EU in 2015 to tackle the causes of migration is not enough to meet the continent’s needs, saying: “If we want young Africans to stay in Africa, we need to provide Africa with more resources.”

Before they can embark on a new path, Europeans and African leaders will have to discard old habits and out-of-date mindsets. That’s easier said than done, however.

For example, both Macron and Michel, in keeping with past practice, have focused most of their pre-summit diplomatic efforts on courting Francophone states, largely ignoring Anglophone African countries. In December last year, pre-summit gatherings in Brussels hosted by Michel included Sall, DRC’s Tshisekedi and Paul Kagame of Rwanda as well as African Union Commission boss Moussa Faki Mahamat. Sall is also expected to travel to Paris for consultations before attending the summit in Brussels.

Similarly while they decry the EU’s Eurocentric gaze, African demands for more EU money have not changed over the years. Sall has underlined he wants to see a “nice envelope on the table” at the Brussels summit because “we need money, we need resources to cope with these issues to fund the energy transition, to fund the building of facilities and infrastructures, to retain the African youth, to deliver the right training, the right education.”

Not all EU states are ready to pay up, but European leaders know that they are not alone in being attracted to Africa’s economic potential, youthful population and market opportunities being opened up by the trade-enhancing frontier-free African Continental Free Area (AfCFTA).

For all the excitement in EU capitals over the forthcoming EU-Africa summit, the much-delayed gathering—the last such encounter was held in 2017—is only one of many for Africa’s busy leaders.

US President Joe Biden has scheduled his own Africa summit very soon. There was a Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit last December, Japan is holding its African Development Conference in Tunisia this year and not to be outdone, Russia has announced its own top-level meeting with African governments in November. Most importantly, the Forum on China–Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) was organized last October.

If they want to make the upcoming summit different from their past attempts to reset relations, EU leaders will have to admit past failures while also correcting ongoing missteps.

That will not be easy. Changing European attitudes towards Africa requires introspection and soul-searching on both sides and some very uncomfortable but necessary conversations.

As a start, schools across Europe must stop teaching a sanitised version of European history. Museums can speed up work on restituting looted art and objects. Above all, EU policymakers have to shed “white saviour” attitudes and look at the reality of Africa as a dynamic and vibrant continent. African elites, meanwhile, will have to take on responsibility for their own part in creating aid dependencies.

Europe’s fixation on the migration “threat” needs to be replaced by the opening up of legal pathways to Africa’s young people while an EU anti-racism plan adopted last year should be implemented so that African-Europeans can live without facing discrimination, unconscious bias and police violence.

The upcoming EU-Africa summit is a welcome step towards upgrading ties. But a true partnership of equals between the two continents requires a decolonization of relations between the EU and Africa.


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.