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Has the EU missed the boat on Africa?

Ludger Schadomsky
February 18, 2022

The EU-African Union summit in Brussels had the whiff of a last chance for "old" Europe to get its relations with Africa back on track. As Ludger Schadomsky writes, other competitors are waiting in the wings.

South Africa's president Cyril Ramaphosa (left) shaking hands with President Emmanuel Macron
The smiles cannot disguise the underlying problems between the EU and AfricaImage: Olivier Hoslet/AFP/Getty Images

It was somewhat of an understatement for French President Emmanuel Macron to say that relations between Europe and Africa have become "a bit tired."

"Deadlock" describes it best. To be fair, the Europeans showed a fair amount of effort before the summit, putting together investment and infrastructure packages and vowing vaccine equity. However, the relationship currently resembles a long-standing marriage in which partners keep breaking new promises while the frustrated bride turns to other suitors: China, Russia, Turkey, Japan and the Emirates.

The African Union has had more than enough of the EU's policies cloaked in the guise of a "partnership on an equal footing," when all Brussels, Paris and Berlin really care about are markets and migration deterrence. Most of the EU funds that have been earmarked for African nations are merely relabeled. This is not fresh capital and that is seen as an affront from Nigeria to Ethiopia.  

The race is on

DW's Ludger Schadomsky
Ludger Schadomsky heads DW's Amharic Service

A neocolonial "scramble for Africa" has long been in full swing. With the use of cheap loans, China is building highways and ports by the dozen. Ethiopia's prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has for quite some time procured his deadly drones from Turkey. And Mali is kicking Danish special forces out of the country and hiring Kremlin-affiliated mercenaries instead. The message from Africa here too is that paternalism was yesterday: Today, we have a choice. 

Europe's answer was to draft a joint Vision 2030 for the summit, yet it "forgot" to involve its African partners in advance.

Undoubtedly, China, Russia and Turkey have a competitive advantage: Unlike a heterogeneous Europe, they speak with one voice. As long as Hungary's migration policy is diametrically opposed to Spain's, as long as human rights and those of minorities, climate policy and good governance cannot command a majority, "old" Europe will continue to lack a coherent Africa strategy. Even little Estonia has its own Africa policy.

A new type of honesty is needed

If Europe wants to take the partnership "to the next level," as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen put it, then the EU must now act honestly. This is more important than Macron's "New Deal." Trust and the — albeit burdened — common past are the assets that Europe can use to its advantage.

On migration policy, this means facilitating legal immigration instead of supporting an illegitimate, brutal Libyan coast guard — orderly immigration should be in Europe's interest anyway, given the shortage of skilled workers and aging societies. 

Investment capital should no longer be used primarily as guarantees to help European companies but to create jobs and added value in African economies. Subsidized meat and poultry from EU farms must no longer destroy the livelihood of African farmers; export barriers must fall.  

A map of Africa showing debt-to-GDP ratio

Just how great the Africans' frustration is over "vaccine apartheid" was apparent in the blunt exchange between South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and von der Leyen at the press conference on Friday. Referring to the Global North's refusal to release waivers on COVID-19 vaccine patents, Ramaphosa said "We are talking about the lives of hundreds of millions of people, rather than the profitability of a few companies."

Against that backdrop, the EU's latest pledge to provide €1 billion ($1.13 billion) is overdue as at least a help in providing protection against possible new variants. Rapid assistance in knowledge transfer and the establishment of local vaccine production should follow to foster more trust.

African leaders will continue to tell German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and other European leaders that they can't go round in circles forever promising a new beginning between the two partners. Russia is planning a major Africa conference at the end of 2022. Russian mercenaries are likely to hand out their business cards there as well. It is time for a new type of honesty.

This piece was originally written in German.