Charles Michel, President of the European Council, calls it a “new alliance between Africa and Europe”. President Emmanuel Macron of France refers to a “New Deal with Africa”. Last week, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, promised € 150bn of investments in the continent by 2027 as part of the EU Global Gateway, its counter-offer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Yet as leaders from both continents descend on Brussels on Thursday for the start of a much-delayed two-day EU-Africa Summit, some African delegates are wondering what the new alliance is all about.
“I think there’s a bit more excitement from the European side than from the African side,” said Lidet Tadesse Shiferaw, associate director of the European Center for Development Policy Management. “The EU is an important partner to the African continent, but it’s no longer the main or the most important partner,” she said. “The EU could be setting itself up for failure by announcing so many flagship projects to woo the African side.”
The summit comes at a time of strained relations. France is preparing to pull troops out of Mali after Bamako’s military government hired Russian mercenaries to fight terrorists and expelled the French ambassador. Europe has watched nervously as generals in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea have toppled civilian governments and as offshoots of Isis and other jihadist groups gain ground from the Sahel to central Africa.
A lot of goodwill has been lost over Covid vaccines with Europe accused of helping to propagate “vaccine apartheid” by snapping up Covid jabs and opposing a waiver of intellectual property rights. Europe has also been criticized for allegedly discriminatory travel bans on countries such as Nigeria and South Africa, the latter of which alerted the world to the Omicron strain of Covid-19 in November.
Many African leaders are also wary of Europe’s green agenda, which they see as an attempt to block hydrocarbons projects that they argue are needed to industrialize and to bring electricity to the 600mn Africans without it. In his inaugural speech as chair of the African Union, Macky Sall, president of Senegal, said ending the financing of gas projects would “thwart our efforts for social development. . . it is legitimate that our countries demand a fair and equitable energy transition. ”
European and African leaders spend much time talking past each other, said Aanu Adeoye, an analyst at Chatham House, a UK think-tank. “It feels like there’s a disconnect in terms of what the priorities for both sides are,” he says, citing as an example differing views on immigration where “Europeans are mostly interested in stopping the flow of migrants, while African countries are interested in talking about growing their economies ”.
“Europeans rightly or wrongly feel the need to talk about human rights. . . and the rule of law, but a lot of times leaders do not want to be preached at, ”said Adeoye, adding that Europeans do not always live up to their own moral standards. “In Libya, the EU is essentially paying for the Libyan coastguard to keep people in check and these guys are employing tactics that would not be acceptable on European soil.”
Apart from concerns about flows of migrants from a continent whose population is expected to nearly double to 2.5bn by 2050, much of Europe’s attempt to recast the relationship is a reaction to China’s perceived success in cementing trade and investment ties. Trade between China and Africa rose in the first two decades of the century, hitting $ 176bn in 2020. Trade between EU states and Africa, though higher at about € 225bn in 2020, has stagnated over the past decade.
“I think Europeans are very nervous about losing ground in Africa,” said Geert Laporte, director of the European Think Tanks Group, adding that not only China but also Russia, Turkey and others have made big inroads.
Laporte voices European frustration at what he characterizes as an essentially transactional relationship in spite of all the talk about shared values and alliances. “The two parties always say we want a partnership beyond finance and beyond aid,” he said. “But always it turns around money.”
Yunnan Chen, senior research officer at the Overseas Development Institute, a UK think-tank, argues that Europe can compete with China “for economic and soft power” but only if it learns what China, which has no colonial baggage, has got right as well as where it has fallen short. “Africa should not simply be viewed as a venue for strategic competition, but one that holds intrinsic opportunity.”
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Michaël Tanchum, a policy fellow at the Africa program of the European Council on Foreign Relations, also makes the case for a different lens on Africa, which he says has 100 cities with more than 1mn people. “When you look at the next 20 years, where is the supply of affordable labor and where are the markets?” he asked. “Any country that does not have a constructive relationship with Africa is going to lose its relative position in the global economy.”
Rémy Rioux, chief executive of the French Development Agency, said Europe is doing better at co-ordinating its financial offering across member states and institutions. “No other region has such a presence on the ground, so it’s really a question of organizing ‘Team Europe’,” he said. “We are progressing very rapidly and this summit will only reinforce that.”
Tadesse Shiferaw of the ECDPM said that the conversation has changed. The decolonization movement and Black Lives Matter have shifted the balance between Africa and Europe, she argued. “There’s been a mental and attitudinal shift globally. Europe understands that, but it is struggling to keep up. “