In the past twenty years repeated initiatives to reset Africa-Europe relations have failed and leaders from both continents have not been able to overcome challenges in the key areas of development finance, migration, and trade and investment. Tensions have arisen when leaders from the two continents had divergent interests that they failed to acknowledge and address; when they failed to effectively share risk, responsibility, accountability, and benefits; and when inequalities in resources and expertise determined their relative influence in decision-making. The paper looks to the past twenty years to situate Africa-Europe trade relations within the wider context of Africa-Europe relations and proposes some ideas about how the two continents might work together to address the challenges ahead.
Twenty years of trying (and failing)
Looking back at Africa-Europe relations it is striking how many times leaders from the two continents have announced an intention to fundamentally reset their relationship. In the declaration of the Africa-EU Summit in Cairo in 2000, leaders committed to “give a new strategic dimension to the global partnership between Africa and Europe, in a spirit of equality, respect, alliance and cooperation”. At the second Africa-EU Summit in 2007 leaders agreed on the need for “overcoming the traditional donor-recipient relationship and building on common values and goals”. And just recently President von der Leyen declared the intention to prioritise relations with Africa and work “within the spirit of a true partnership of equals”. However, leaders from the two continents have failed time and again to confront the deep-seated tensions and divergent interests and priorities that undermine cooperation.
Development finance: the push for local ownership
Development finance was one of the first areas in which African and European governments attempted to reset relations. High levels of disaffection among African countries led to a series of pledges from European countries to increase aid, reduce conditionalities, enhance coordination, and reform the aid architecture.
In the early 2000s European donors reaffirmed their longstanding commitment to allocate 0.7% of GDP to aid, and later committed to double aid flows to Africa by 2010. EU countries fell far short of meeting these targets and as at 2019 only 4 of the 28 EU member states were meeting the 0.7% target. In the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness in 2005, European countries formally pledged to align aid with the strategies set by developing countries, provide aid through inclusive and transparent processes, and ensure mutual accountability between donors and recipient governments. However, as at 2011, only one of the thirteen goals set in Paris had been met and commitments were derailed as aid budgets came under pressure in Europe, particularly in the wake of the global financial crisis.
Altogether, development finance relations between Europe and Africa have not been reset and targets have often been missed. While aid flows from Europe remain vitally important for many low-income and fragile countries, many African countries are keen to refocus Africa-Europe relations beyond aid and the traditional donor-recipient frameworks they come with.
Migration: a major and growing source of tension
Migration is an issue that has gained salience over the past ten years and it has emerged as one of the most contentious areas of Africa-Europe relations. Despite the disproportionate amount of attention in the debate about migration in host countries, the rate of African emigration is one of the lowest in the world and migration through regular routes far exceeds migration through irregular routes. European leaders increasingly justify aid budgets on the basis that they will address the root causes of migration, and tackling migration is included among the goals of the EU’s new development framework.
This shift in focus by the EU has been widely criticised and is unlikely to work as most African countries are just entering the stages of growth and development at which emigration begins to intensify. Initiatives to restrict immigration from Africa risk undermining development objectives, too. EU projects to stem irregular migration include projects to increase border-checks between African countries, undermining regional integration and the movement of people within West Africa. Burdensome and arbitrary visa requirements and immigration policies thwart collaborations between African and European businesses, as well as academics.
While Europe focuses on short-sighted restrictive measures that are causing serious frictions with African governments, a wiser set of policies would seek to focus on countering the widespread misinformation and prejudice in Europe about African migrants, open up more legal routes to migration, dramatically improve immigration and visa policies to make them more efficient and less arbitrary, and develop initiatives in the medium term that can generate gains for both continents.
Trade and Investment
Over the past twenty years the EU has been seeking to move trade relations from unilateral preferences to a new trading partnership based on Economic Partnership Agreements. Here again, the relationship has been fractious and the agreements contentious and as the tensions around the EPAs have receded, African governments have focused on bolstering regional trade and integration through a new continent-wide free trade agreement (CFTA).
While debates around how to structure trade relations have received high levels of attention in Africa-Europe policy circles, much less attention has been paid to high levels of capital flight from the continent. African leaders have repeatedly called for more action and recent studies have shown the magnitude of capital flight from the continent. The High-Level Panel found that the activities of large commercial companies drive outflows of capital, and as Europe remains the largest source of private investment on the continent, it is likely that many European companies are involved. However, unlike migration, which is a strategic priority for Europe and has become central to Africa-EU relations, there is still no concerted Africa-Europe cooperation to address illicit financial flows.
Conclusion: towards a strategic alliance rather than a partnership of equals?
Given all the challenges associated with restructuring their relationship, it may be prudent for African and European leaders to put aside any aspiration to work in a ‘partnership of equals’ aiming instead for a strategic alliance. Compared to a partnership, a strategic alliance is a looser arrangement in which African and European countries would cooperate in specific areas where they have a common interest but maintain a high degree of operational independence. New cooperative initiatives could focus on discrete, meaningful initiatives rather than grand plans or frameworks.
Initiatives might include:
Associate Professor, Blavatnik School of Governance, University Oxford