The inevitable partner: Why Europe needs to re-engage with Africa

EU-Africa relations are characterised by a series of failed beginnings. They continue to suffer from a lack of deep and far-reaching political will, despite being the subject of a series of diplomatic initiatives in the past two decades.

Visiting Fellow
European Union, 2020 ©

The date is 9 March 2020. European governments are rushing to close the borders of their countries, as citizens do their best to return home before travel is suspended. The hysteria created by the onset of the pandemic rises far more quickly than the number of cases. People across Europe look on as the scenes of chaos induced by the new virus spread from country to country.

Buried deep in the flow of information from that day is the following quote from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen: “Today’s strategy with Africa is the roadmap to move forward and bring our partnership to the next level. Africa is the European Union’s natural partner and neighbour. Together we can build a more prosperous, more peaceful and more sustainable future for all.” As these words seemed to have nothing to do with the pandemic, few noticed them. But they could have a significant impact on Europe’s future.

Strengthened ties to neighbours

EU-Africa relations are characterised by a series of failed beginnings. They continue to suffer from a lack of deep and far-reaching political will, despite being the subject of a series of diplomatic initiatives in the past two decades. There are several reasons for this.

European governments’ relations with authoritarian African leaders have long been relatively stable and predictable – and largely devoid of systematic normative pressure designed to consolidate democratic governance. The EU never made a concerted effort to democratise African countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall, not least due to its caution over the legacy of colonialism. For the bloc, security risks emanating from Africa were relatively limited. Only a small number of European governments maintained a deep interest in Africa beyond countries with which they had long-established relations. Economic ties between Europe and Africa were similarly minimal, unevenly dispersed, and lacking in structural significance.

The growing conflict within, and multipolarity of, the international system have pushed individual European states to strengthen their connections with their neighbours – a trend that the coronavirus crisis will accelerate. China has done so for many years in Southeast Asia and, more recently, Central Asia (where it has taken advantage of Russia’s relative weakness).

The United States is increasingly moving in the same direction, despite Donald Trump’s rhetoric and the country’s geographical separation from its competitors. Russia engaged in similar behaviour with the war in Georgia more than a decade ago. In relation to other actors, Russia’s wider purpose has been to re-engage with, and consolidate its influence in, countries on its periphery in an increasingly multipolar world.

The EU is beginning to understand this heightened geopolitical competition – albeit unevenly and in a disorganised fashion, due to divergences of interests and political traditions, as well as personal conflicts, between its member states. The EU has tried to become more assertive in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans, but has largely failed to do so. However, realpolitik and the pandemic will soon force the EU to take action in many parts of its neighbourhood.

A zone of economic and political instability

The EU’s most pressing imperative to engage with Africa concerns long-term instability and insecurity. The Sahel is the home to dozens of jihadist movements, ethnic militias, and other armed groups. A significant part of the region is beyond state control and has become a hub of organised crime, all forms of trafficking, and irregular migration. This zone of instability and violence threatens to create turmoil in West Africa, one of the most stable and developed areas of the continent.

Economic insecurity in Africa looks set to increase, with around one-third of the continent’s 420 million young people out of work. Each year in Africa, between 10 million and 12 million people reach working age, but only around 3 million jobs are created. There remains a risk of territorial conflicts and state disintegration on the continent. And, in many places, regimes’ lack of political legitimacy generates additional instability.

The EU’s most pressing imperative to engage with Africa concerns long-term instability and insecurity.

The economic consequences of the current crisis in Africa are very serious in several respects. There has been a dramatic decline in the prices of key commodities. The fall in oil prices alone could reduce African states’ revenue by around $65 billion. The global recession will drastically reduce remittances. Tourism, which accounts for almost 10 per cent of the continent’s GDP, has been hit hard. The crisis in the eurozone will have a more significant effect on North Africa than any other part of the continent, while China’s economic slowdown could cause the country to suspend many of its planned investments in African projects. With two-thirds of African countries net importers of staple foods, some are already predicting inflation and other difficulties in this sector as well. All these trends will exacerbate African countries’ indebtedness, which has increased a lot in recent years and will require new rescue programmes.

The overall political picture in Africa is one of deterioration, although this is happening quite unevenly. Southeast Africa retains its relatively democratic and functional governance systems. But, in other areas, the decline is evident and instability threatens to spill over into more stable locations. In 2020 the fastest deterioration of functioning political systems is occurring in West Africa. There are a growing number of African countries – including Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – in which autocrats are trying to change constitutions to extend their stay in office.

The combination of economic hardship, demographic pressure, corruption, environmental insecurity, and often dysfunctional governance systems further delegitimises Africa states. And there has been a palpable weakening of external support for democratisation and better governance in Africa.

Many possibilities

In the longer term, however, Africa provides opportunities for Europe in a variety of areas. For instance, European states could relocate various basic industries and parts of their production chains from Asia to Africa. And Africa’s young workforce, growing middle class, increasing consumption, and huge need for infrastructure of all kinds could benefit European economies.

Despite their problems, African states negotiated their first continental free trade agreement, fulfilling many leaders’ long-held ambitions. The continent’s path of development will not be an easy one, but the deal sends an important political signal and is a breakthrough in the creation of dynamic local economies. It is for these reasons that one of the former bosses of Goldman Sachs recently called Africa the “last frontier” of global growth.

The EU’s competitors in Africa

Africa is gradually entering a new era of heightened interest from external powers. The resurgence of geopolitical competition in recent years is one of the main reasons for this. However, China’s growing influence in Africa poses risks for European countries even as they seek out new production capacity and markets on the continent.

Europe is still far from having the political consensus, focus, or development policy it needs for engagement with Africa. The EU does not have an up-to-date or workable formula for the process, appearing to see it as a moral minefield. The bloc usually does the inevitable at the last minute rather than the necessary at the right moment. And current dynamics suggest that this will be the case in its relationship with Africa.

This article first appeared in Svobodna Evropa (Free Europe)

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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Visiting Fellow