EU-Africa Relations: Delivering on Promises Past

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. 

Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, recently referred to the African Union (AU) as the European Union’s (EU) main partner, stressing that the relationship is key to building peace and security across the continent. French President Macron, as current EU President, has spoken of “completely overhauling” the EU-Africa relationship. And Charles Michel, the President of the European Council sees the summit taking place this week as a “point of departure of a new alliance”. Yet it was only four years ago that another Africa-Europe alliance, with ambitions of being a “coherent economic strategy for EU-Africa relations.” That alliance was intended to deliver on previous commitments for “strengthened economic and trade relations, through sustainable investment and job creation.”  From an African perspective, it is unclear what exactly this new alliance is a departure from?  

We argue here that the Africa-EU relationship does not need yet another reinvention. What it needs is for promises of summits-gone-by to be fulfilled.

Twenty-two years ago, in Cairo, African leaders—under the aegis of the Organization for African Unity (OAU) the AU’s predecessor—came together with the EU for the first EU-Africa summit. Out of that conference came the Cairo declaration, soon followed by the Cotonou Agreement, which, (while extending beyond African countries to Caribbean and Pacific countries) replaced the 1975 Lomé Convention and contained practical tools ostensibly aimed at reducing and eradicating poverty and contributing to the gradual ‘integration’ of the concerned African countries into the global economy. The Cotonou Agreement had three main practical pillars—development cooperation (i.e., aid and loans); economic and trade cooperation (i.e., trade and foreign investment); and lastly, a political dimension covering matters of democracy, peace, security and migration.  Subsequent EU-Africa summits, from Lisbon in 2007 up to Cote D’Ivoire in 2017, resulted in more action plans and strategic declarations, as did other summits between Africa and countries outside of the EU.

But each successive “alliance”, “partnership” and “agreement” is launched without a material evaluation of the previous one, with little acknowledgement of their challenges or successes.

And despite all these agreements, twenty-two years on from Cairo, little in the relationship has changed for the better.

Devex reported earlier this year that some “African countries feel that they would rather be unencumbered with some of the requirements that are typically attached to the collaborations with the European Union.”

And the data suggests their reservations when considering the validity of EU claims to being fully invested in revitalizing equitable geostrategic relations that are based on accountability and mutual respect are entirely fair.

Take trade. While the EU is still (just about) the continent’s largest export and import partner for goods in trade with Africa, the content of that trade has hardly shifted away from raw materials. Extractives still make up over 70 percent of exports from Africa to Europe, while the EU continues to subsidize agricultural and fishing industries—albeit with new labels of environmental stewardship, adding to the challenges of a myriad of non-tariff barriers facing African products entering Europe. Similarly, there is evidence that while Europe has used trade agreements to protect its intellectual property overseas, it hardly protects that of African countries.

Finance from the EU—whether that’s official “aid”, loans or even direct investment—presents similar problems for African countries. In 2018, Foreign Direct Investment from Europe accounted for close to 50 percent of total stocks in Africa. But growth has been slow—barely  keeping up with African economic growth, which has quadrupled since the Cairo declaration—and focused on extractives. Over the last 22 years, loans and grants disbursed globally have never risen above 0.5% of European gross national income (GNI) despite a 1970s UN commitment reiterated in EU policy documents to deliver at least 0.7%, with Africa receiving a declining share of this.

Even the COVID-19 pandemic has not changed this uneven pattern. Not only have vaccination donations been stingy (and often with a short-shelf-life), most European countries continue to oppose the waiver of intellectual property rights for vaccines.

The maltreatment of migrants inside as well as outside European borders has continued, and many European countries have rolled back on paths to legal migration, such as the provision of academic or working visas. In 2018, prior to COVID-19, European countries collectively issued half the number of work permits to talented people from Sub-Saharan African countries than they did in 2008.  Article 13 of the Cotonou Agreement commits each side to improving conditions in countries of origin and transit, legal migration and return of illegal immigrants. But Europe has disproportionately focused on the third, “return of illegal immigrants” at the expense of improving conditions for legal migration. Any new “alliance” must present a substantive corrective to this shortcoming as it is difficult to determine “illegal migration” without a clear pathway for legal migration.

In March 2020, in preparation for the Summit which was postponed due to COVID-19, the European Commission produced a ‘strategic partnership white paper’ which stressed the need to move away from the donor-recipient relationship, and in 2021 launched the “Global Gateway”, a €300 billion worldwide connectivity strategy marketed towards—though not earmarked for—African countries. But Europe’s underlying anxiety over the increase in China’s influence across the African continent is evident in both these proposals. EU officials and diplomats repeatedly single out the “no-strings-attached” financial assistance from China to African governments and refer to their own finance as “responsible”. This ever-present anxiety makes it seem as though these initiatives have been crafted, not with the shared future of the EU and Africa at their core, but with an eye on an external power. It is our view that no proposal created on these terms can deliver real results for Africa, and will only serve to distract from commitments hard-won by African governments in years gone by.

And many of Europe’s newer policies, including its climate “carbon adjustment” tax policy threatens to harm African economies or lock them out of benefits that the within-EU poorer countries would receive.

While both the European and African Unions have internal challenges to deal with—including how to bring Member States on the same page when looking at autonomy of decision making and equitable partnership—the evidence suggests there is just one party that must work significantly harder to uphold its side of the bargain.

Europe can do more to balance terms of trade by increasing market access for African brands, addressing EU agricultural subsidies, and by recognizing Africa’s geographical indications. Europe can do more to push private sector investment into value addition, rather than low-quality extractives. Europe can use its existing financial power within the multilateral development banks and over 100 billion USD worth of special drawing rights to create space for billions more of concessional and unconditional loan financing to address African infrastructure gaps. Europe can be at the forefront of waiving intellectual property on global public goods—from vaccines to environmental goods such as wind turbines or solar panels. Europe can create clear legal pathways for African migrants, and approve hundreds of thousands more of work permits for Africans. Europe could also fund thousands more higher education scholarships. Europe can support African consultative bodies when it comes to coups or other challenges to peace and stability affected countries.

None of the above is outside of what has been agreed in the past. It is not a new alliance or set of commitments the EU-Africa relationship needs, but realistic appraisal of the performance of previous commitments and dedication of resources to ensure that they are met.

Perhaps then, and only then, European and African leaders can look to a new agreement for the future. For now, it is time to deliver on the promises that have been made in the past.


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.