Europe-Africa relations after Corona

Europe-Africa relations after Corona

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Twenty-twenty should have been the year of a fundamentally new Africa-Europe partnership, culminating in the sixth EU-AU summit in October in Brussels. Ursula von der Leyen, with a delegation of some 20 European commissioners in her wake, recently traveled to Addis Ababa for meetings with their African Union counterparts. In early March, the European Commission and European External Action Service presented a joint communication for a comprehensive strategy with Africa

Simultaneously, the European Think Tanks Group and UNDP Africa organised a two-day seminar in Addis Ababa, during which independent thinkers and changemakers from Africa and Europe discussed some of the longstanding and unresolved divergences and tensions between both continents.

But then the COVID-19 health crisis completely blew all that up in the air. The new Africa strategy proposal of the EU has fallen off the radar – and has perhaps even become obsolete. In the abundant list of priorities and key areas of attention for the future, there was one word missing: ‘pandemic’. Experts and policymakers are now trying to anticipate the effects of the pandemic for countries in Europe and Africa, but not yet for Africa-Europe relations. Will the two continents be able to jointly deal with the expected health, economic and political consequences? Will the crisis also open new windows of opportunity? And who will be the winners and losers of this crisis?

There is a lot of speculation on how COVID-19 will impact the global world. Based on what I have heard and read in the past weeks under ‘house arrest’, I would like to add some personal views on how the Corona crisis may affect Africa-Europe relations, focusing on ten critical areas. It is not all doom and gloom, and the post-pandemic period could also provide opportunities. 

1. The EU is losing geopolitical credibility and influence in Africa

The ‘geopolitical’ ambition of Ursula von der Leyen’s European Commission may have suffered a blow in this crisis. The European leitmotif that no global challenges can be solved by any single country or group of countries makes many Europeans feel sour right now.

Just a few years after the migration crisis, we are again witnessing a lack of EU solidarity and cohesive action, with different – and sometimes contradicting – measures taken, closed borders and blame games. But hypocritically, those EU member states first to criticise ‘Brussels’ for its lack of action have always opposed initiatives to strengthen EU competences. You cannot have your cake and eat it, to borrow a phrase from the UK’s Brexit campaign!

China and Russia have skilfully exploited the internal EU divisions. Old school propaganda methods accompanied the delivery of much-needed expertise and medical supplies to some of the most-affected and desperate European member states. In this war of perceptions, hardly anyone seems to remember that the EU and several member states did the same for China in the early days of the virus outbreak. France, Germany and Italy sent planeloads of protective equipment to the Chinese Red Cross, with financial support and coordination from the EU civil protection mechanism.

In the past few days and weeks, the EU and its member states have also taken various initiatives to support Africa in facing the outbreak of the coronavirus – directly, but also indirectly via UN agencies such as the World Health Organization. While the EU has failed to take a lead role early on, it is slowly becoming more responsive both internally and in Africa. But as soon as this crisis is over, the EU will need to draw lessons from it to restore trust among citizens within its own borders and in Africa.

2. Africa-Europe economic relations could take a different turn

The EU strategy with Africa underlines that “the close ties and geographic proximity between the EU and Africa make them natural allies in bringing about inclusive and sustainable economic growth on both continents”. While the EU is by far the largest investor in and trade partner of Africa, economic prospects are rather grim.

Europe will be hit hard by the expected global recession, but Africa is likely to suffer even more. Countries that are heavily dependent on natural resources, oil and extractive industries, such as Nigeria, Angola or Libya, risk losing a major part of their revenue. Corona-related lockdowns will also slow down infrastructure and construction works, and many of the promising start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises across Africa will be confronted with closures of business and loss of jobs.

The ambitious African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) that should have become operational as of 1 July 2020 will inevitably face delays. Beyond the immediate and critical health issue, it can be expected that the already high levels of poverty and inequality on the continent will increase. But also here the glass could be half full: in the longer term, the current crisis could also create the necessary incentives to diversify economies and make sure that Africa produces what it consumes, a long-term ambition of many African leaders.

Europe could make a useful contribution to this ambition by supporting the development of a sustainable African domestic economy. Knowledge and technology transfer, development of human capital, local value chains, green economy, small and medium-sized enterprises and job creation should now be given priority over huge investments in extractive industries and big infrastructure projects. At the invitation of African leaders and in the urge to copy China, the European private sector and policymaking world may have overemphasised these big investments in the past years.

3. This is the time to rebuild economies in a climate-friendly manner

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, emissions have decreased spectacularly in many parts of the world. Paradoxically, in spite of the many coronavirus victims, there could be more lives saved now because of less emissions and pollution – although this won’t be a sustainable reduction.

The EU has put a “low-carbon, resource efficient and climate-resilient future” as the key priority in its strategy proposal. It also intends to support African efforts on climate change mitigation and resilience as well as adequate adaptation measures, while carefully monitoring the social implications.

The current Corona shock and expected economic recession could contribute to achieving the climate goals for this year in some EU member states, including Germany as the economic powerhouse of the European economy. Some would see this as a promising stepping stone for a radical sustainable transformation of the European economies in line with the EU Green Deal.

But this may still be a distant dream, as economic incentive packages and low fossil fuel prices may again increase emissions, similarly to what happened after the financial crisis of 2008. It will be a huge challenge to ensure a climate-neutral ‘Marshall Plan for Europe’ and comprehensive joint Europe-Africa strategy.

For Africa, these future challenges will be even greater. It will be an enormous endeavour to realise economic growth and pro-poor development for a rapidly expanding population in parallel with a smooth transition to low-carbon economies and green industrialisation. In its strategy proposal, the EU expresses a strong commitment “to continue working with countries in their efforts to mobilise and align a wide range of financing sources with their sustainable development priorities”.

In a context where the ongoing negotiations for the 2021-2027 EU budget could be severely affected by the Corona pandemic, it will be particularly difficult to keep up these commitments.

4. Time for ‘slowbalisation’

Integration of the global economy via international trade and investment, and free movement of people and labour, have improved the livelihoods of many people on this planet. But the COVID-19 crisis has also exposed the weak underbelly of globalisation in Africa and Europe alike, such as the dependency on long global supply chains, just-in-time production and the lack of strategic stocks of medical materials.

Few will object to the continued integration of the global economy, but slowing down the pace of globalisation with a stronger role for an effective public sector, with greater self-reliance and less external dependency of African economies, will be inevitable.

The Corona catharsis could also provoke a mentality shift. Now that work and leisure have come to a standstill, there is more time to reflect on our way of life and work – an area where we may have lost the balance. Some of the adaptations made to continue work while minimising virus transmission may come to be the norm when the crisis has subsided. The challenge will be how to turn these short-term changes into more radical and sustainable transformations.

5. An incentive to push digital agendas

The EU made a strong plea in its Africa strategy “to support the African aspirations to build a single African digital market”, as a way to boost growth across all economic sectors. For obvious reasons, the Corona crisis provides a real opportunity to boost the digital agenda in both continents. In Europe, the current restrictions on social distancing and isolation are rapidly influencing our behaviour when it comes to work, education and travel. Technology is helping us to re-organise our lives with teleworking and virtual meetings all over the world.

In Africa, the younger African generations have embraced this digital agenda. Particularly in major urban regions such as Lagos, Nairobi, Kampala or Kigali, creative entrepreneurs are building their Silicon Lagoon and Silicon Savannahs, booming ecosystems of startups.

These initiatives should be given priority in the partnership, as they can contribute to professionalising the public sector and key economic sectors. E-commerce and digital financial services could also considerably reduce the costs of doing business and strengthen economic integration in goods and services in Africa.

But the digital agenda could also be a double-edged sword, as it could create more inequalities if the poor populations are not given access. For obvious reasons, it could also be misused by undemocratic leadership to control its citizens and spread fake news and desinformation. Issues like taxation, already a challenge in the real economy, would need renewed efforts to adapt to the digital economy. It should become a key priority for the EU-Africa partnership to tackle these types of threats, by developing appropriate regulatory and legal frameworks.

6. A step towards (temporarily?) ending conflicts

The EU strategy proposal continues to underline a commitment to ending conflicts in Africa. The jury is still out as to whether Corona could reduce conflicts or intensify crises in different parts of the world, including in Africa.

Past experiences suggest that major disasters could lead to reducing tensions and conflicts among sworn enemies. Right now this is happening on a modest scale between Iran, severely affected by the Corona crisis, and some of the Gulf States. A pandemic is a leveller among belligerents, strong or weak. Fighting a pandemic therefore might become more of a priority than fighting one another. But this could be more wishful thinking than reality. It remains to be seen whether UN resolution calls for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire to respond to the threat of COVID-19 will have a real impact.

Momentum should now be built to intensify EU support to African peace efforts and to step up EU-AU-UN cooperation, particularly when it comes to strengthening the links between humanitarian, development and peace and security efforts.

7. Risks that democratic processes will be affected

The EU strongly underlines its ambition “to step up cooperation on democratic governance and rule of law on both continents”. This is a promising sign of growing reciprocity in dealing with these political agendas and an implicit recognition that the EU is also confronted with governance problems at home – as we have seen just recently in EU member states such as Hungary.

Corona could put increasing stress on democratic systems in several parts of the world. According to International IDEA, in March 2020 only, 30 countries around the globe postponed more than 12 national and 20 subnational elections scheduled between March and May. In almost all cases these postponements were absolutely needed to protect the health of people. This could, however, give rise to major political tensions and delayed elections if ruling elites continue to postpone elections when COVID-19 is under control.

In the longer term, the effectiveness of ‘liberal democracies’ in handling this type of crisis could also be questioned by certain leaders. There is a narrative, sometimes nurtured by propaganda, that authoritarian states such as China have managed this crisis better by enforcing heavy rules on social distancing, controlling citizens and applying repression. These practices could become a source of inspiration for undemocratic leaders in Africa and Europe to limit personal freedoms and impose heavy controls on opposition movements and citizens.

In combination with the expected economic depression, the COVID-19 crisis could become an explosive cocktail of frustration, mainly among younger Africans. In a context where also European countries are taking freedom-restricting measures, it will be increasingly difficult for the EU to stress value and democracy agendas in its partnership with Africa.

8. Europe-Africa alliances in the multilateral system still a distant dream

The EU consistently presents itself as a strong defender of a rules-based multilateral system. To realise this ambition, it cites Africa as the ‘twin continent’ and ‘closest neighbour’. In a world where the EU has few allies left, the EU strategy calls for “collective action and outreach in support of the international rules-based order and the multilateral system by all EU and African Union members”.

For the time being this is just an aspiration, as most African countries tend to vote with China in the multilateral arena. To convince a rather sceptical African continent, the EU will have to show concrete solidarity now, as well as in a post-Corona era. More importantly, some EU member states will also have to take distance from the clientelistic relationship with authoritarian African rulers, who have been in power for several decades with the explicit support of leading European leaders.

This is the time for the EU and Africa to do away with the old-fashioned post-colonial cooperation agreements of the past century and to build something new that could appeal to the social movements and the dynamic African younger generations. Joint action in the multilateral fora should not be limited to issues related to health and pandemics. In the world of 2100, where Africans will make up almost half of the global population, Europe should have an interest in advocating a strengthened African position in the multilateral institutions, including the UN Security Council.

When the dust of the Corona crisis will have cleared, Africa will judge its external partners on their actions, not just on nice intentions and media campaigns.

9. Towards new partnerships beyond aid-driven North-South arrangements

If there is one thing this pandemic has taught us, it should be the awareness that this is no longer about ‘us’ and ‘them’. While the Ebola outbreak in West and Central Africa a few years ago was felt as a ‘distant’ problem for many Europeans, we are now confronted with a global challenge that risks affecting everyone in this world, regardless of region, race, colour or wealth.

It is no longer possible to do business as usual after Corona. A traditional North-South way of dealing with this crisis therefore no longer makes sense. This crisis won’t be solved by unilateral aid transfers and technical assistance provided by ‘donor’ agencies to ‘recipient’ countries. The fight against a pandemic can only be solved through joint action, reciprocal and mutual exchange, knowledge sharing and peer learning between a multitude of stakeholders in Europe and Africa. In that respect, Europe can learn from African countries in handling similar pandemics, such as the Ebola crisis.

As the EU strategy underlines, “the strategic importance of the EU-Africa partnership must also be matched by the resources mobilised to support it”. Budgetary constraints in the EU may have an impact on the outcome of the negotiations for the EU budget for 2021-2027 and the proposed Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) that reserves close to 30 billion Euros for Africa in the coming years. Other countries (like China) might pick up the pieces and further extend their influence in Africa.

But this could also be an opportunity for African states and institutions, including the AU, to ‘go cold turkey’ from the aid addiction and invest more in domestic resource mobilisation. For the EU and Africa, it could be a wake-up call to actively cooperate to address the perverse issue of illicit financial flows and to re-orient the sometimes abundant resources that are leaving the African continent to those groups in societies that have the commitment and potential to make a good use of it.

10. The critical importance of a strong public service with quality healthcare

In this last critical area of the partnership, we are back to where it all started. The EU strategy proposal devotes only a few words to healthcare, rather vaguely proposing to “upgrade its support to the strengthening of health systems” – essentially a footnote on the long list of priorities. There is not a single word on how the world, Europe and Africa could manage the possible outbreak and the devastating impact of pandemics.

Global influencers like Bill Gates have warned repeatedly that the world is not ready for an outbreak of a highly infectious virus that could kill millions of people in the next decades. As Gates put it, “we have invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents, but we’ve actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic”.

One might go a step further: neoliberal approaches with a predominant focus on economic growth, investments and trade may have insufficiently contributed to sustaining and strengthening public services, including well-performing and accessible health care systems.

For the time being, the Corona crisis has not hit Africa as hard as it did Asia and Europe. But the overall feeling is that this is just a matter of time. Though several African countries may be more used to dealing with disease outbreaks, Africa’s overpopulated cities and high poverty levels may also be a ticking time bomb for the spread of COVID-19 infections.

To prepare for a possible worst case scenario, major humanitarian support should now be mobilised. At a moment in which all EU countries are struggling to keep the coronavirus under control, it is encouraging to see that some of them are mobilising support for the work of the World Health Organization in Africa.

But this may be a plaster on a wooden leg. In the short and medium term, substantially more efforts should be made in the EU-Africa partnership to restore the balance between economic development and the strengthening of an effective public service and quality healthcare that should also be accessible to the most vulnerable groups in European and African societies. That requires a focus on improving institutions – a long-term agenda, but fundamental to the outcomes being sought.

Hopefully the policymaking world will remember this lesson after the Corona crisis, when priorities must be set in a context of major budgetary deficits.

A new partnership after Corona?

This Corona crisis will have a major impact on the Europe-Africa partnership. It will redraw the lines of geopolitical competition in Africa. While the EU is now in the eye of the Corona storm, it cannot afford to fully drop its outward perspective. Before March 2020, the EU was obsessed with the global race for investment and economic opportunities in Africa. It will now have to focus on economic recovery and (re-)building state capacities.

This institutional, or ‘governance’, dimension should again become a key priority for all aspects of the partnership. It is now more relevant than ever, but the challenge will be to deal with governance in a different way than in the past, by ensuring openness, reciprocity and avoiding unilateral approaches.

As far as Africa is concerned, this crisis could be a unique incentive to present its own proactive strategic vision on the partnership with the EU and its other global partners – beyond the ‘wait and see’ dependency relationship, that for far too long has characterised Africa’s relations with the rest of the world.

When the crisis has subsided it would be good to seize some of the opportunities outlined above and seek a new basis for EU-Africa relations. That will only happen if we already start looking beyond the current crisis.


Author: Geert Laporte, Director of the European Think Tanks Group and Deputy Director of ECDPM.

Photo courtesy of Etienne Ansotte, European Union 2020, via EC – Audiovisual Service.

The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ETTG.


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