Europe-Africa: the Indispensable Partnership

Published on 10th November 2008

At the dawn of the 21st century, the world is changing under the combined influence of the globalisation of the economy and the "multi polarisation" of power. And Africa is evolving and changing more than many other regions of the world. Africa is once again being courted by all the global powers, with the United States and China leading the way. It is no longer regarded as a "burden", but as an opportunity, a "new frontier."

Where does Europe stand in the African Great Game?

Europe occupies a unique position vis-à-vis Africa, by virtue of its geography and history which has left us a common multifaceted legacy: there are the languages we share and the common, sometimes painful memory of the colonial period; there are the cultural exchanges; and then there is the role of the diasporas which have developed such personal human links between the two continents.

Economically, Europe is not only Africa's biggest trading partner but, above all, the biggest importer of African agricultural produce. It accounts for 68% of the value of foreign direct investment in Africa. But the other unique factor that strengthens these ties is the steadfast support shown by Europe over 40 years as the leading donor of official development assistance.

The European Union and its Member States do not appear to be taking advantage of their unique position. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, there is the attitude of the Member States. The colonial heritage and the power instinct have created a situation where some Member States have strong bilateral links with their African partners. This only serves to complicate Europe's position as a global partner for Africa. Then there are those who would live off past dominance. Yet the erosion of European positions in the face of international competition and Africa's relative shrinkage are clear for all to see. Despite an increase in the international financial flows related to the activities of European contractors from $53 billion to $120 billion since 1990, the proportion of these activities in Africa over the same period has fallen from 15% to 5%.

Afro-pessimism is still too prevalent in Europe, not just in the circles of power, but in public opinion too. Africa continues to be regarded as a "problem". In counterpoint to this perception is the moralising, charitable approach that ultimately provides a blinkered view of the relationship with Africa.

Africans are taking a much more assertive and demanding attitude towards Europeans: African leaders criticise European countries and Europe more frequently for their overcautious, backward-looking approach and make it clear that Africa is no longer Europe's private domain.

Africans also expect the EU to be ambitious and committed in its approach to Africa. Senegalese President Wade, despite some very critical comments directed at Europe, reminded us of the importance for Europe and Africa to forge a common destiny by laying the foundations of an objective alliance based on our complementarities.

The challenge facing Europe therefore is to change the nature of its relationship with Africa, to create its "strategic revolution" on Africa. That is what the European Commission started in 2005 when it proposed its strategy for Africa and stated its desire to make Africa one of the top priorities of the EU's external action. The key to this is to radically re-form the partnership between Europe and Africa.

There are three main components to the new Europe-Africa partnership.

One, a renewal of the principles of our relationship on the basis of a balanced sharing of responsibility between partners with equal rights and duties.

We must turn the page on the Congress of Berlin once and for all. Not to change the maps written at Berlin- but to change the donor-recipient patterns of behaviour which generate on each side paternalistic or supplicant attitudes and reflexes. Together, we should engage in a more honest, a more open political dialogue, where each party assumes its responsibilities.

We should not be defensive on issues such as the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), the situation in Darfur, nuclear energy, migration, Zimbabwe or the International Criminal Court. Yes, these are difficult subjects. The quality and strength of our partnership will depend on our capacity to tackle together even thorny issues in a climate of respect and trust, not drama and dogma.

Two, developing our relations around an ambitious, operational agenda.

The Joint Strategy and Action Plan drawn up by the EU and the AU for the Summit embodies this approach. It proposes a comprehensive partnership that goes beyond development. This involves the establishment of dialogue and political and economic cooperation on issues of common interest such as governance, trade, the private sector, culture and new technologies, not forgetting energy, climate change and migration. Africa can no longer be the exclusive preserve of foreign or development ministers. It also proposes a comprehensive partnership that goes beyond institutions. The whole of civil society, including the social partners and the private sector, will be fully involved in the implementation of the strategy.

A comprehensive partnership which is projected outwards. Our cooperation must enable us to define jointly our common interests and to make a joint case for them in international institutions and frameworks, so giving us greater potential influence. Is it so hard to imagine Europe and Africa combining forces at the next conference on climate change in Bali to push for an ambitious post-Kyoto agreement? The other aspect of this outwards projection will be to put Africa more systematically on the agenda of our meetings with other partners active in Africa.  Here I am obviously thinking of China, India, Brazil, Japan, not forgetting, of course, the United States.

The Joint Strategy and Action Plan proposes a comprehensive partnership which is operational and pragmatic. Our partnership is backed up by an Action Plan for 2008-2010, which in turn is structured around eight strategic partnerships designed to achieve action and results:

- Africa-EU Partnership for Peace and Security
- Africa-EU Partnership for Democratic Governance and Human Rights
- Africa-EU Partnership on Trade and Regional Integration
- Africa-EU Partnership on the Millennium Development Goals
- Africa-EU Partnership on Energy
- Africa-EU Partnership on Climate Change
- Africa-EU Partnership on Migration, Mobility and Employment
- Africa-EU Partnership on Science, the Information Society and Space

Three, a new, up-to-date approach to development in Africa.

Aid is never an end in itself.  Only growth, which produces wealth, can reduce poverty effectively and sustainably and achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Development aid should be a way of supporting African countries' development strategies, not of imposing our charity and our view of development.

The President of Rwanda, Paul Kagamé, summed up this dual requirement of governance well when he said, and I quote: "actions will only bear fruit when Africa substitutes external conditionality – that is, doing what the donors tell us to do – with internal policy clarity – that is, knowing ourselves what we need to do and articulating this vision clearly to our development partners."

Any change provokes resistance. It is therefore our common responsibility to overcome such fears and to promote our partnership. It is now up to each one, European or African, to make their choice. But I hope and believe that together Europeans and Africans will be able to rise to these historic challenges.

Excerpts from Louis Michel’s remarks at a conference organised by the European Policy Center (EPC) in Brussels. Louis Michel is European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid

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