Plans for a new EU-Africa partnership, a summit and an updated treaty fell by the wayside in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic was not the only reason why this happened.
There was a sense of optimism about the relationship between the European Union and the African continent in March 2020, when EU Development Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen and EU High Representative Josep Borrell announced their new Africa strategy.
“The European Union is Africa’s first partner in all respects: trade, investment, development, cooperation, security. We want it to stay that way, to scale it further and make it even more effective,” Borrell told reporters.
2020 is expected to be an important year for the two continents to develop their relationship.
The new strategy announcement was seen as a curtain lifter with the planned AU-EU summit ending the year.
In October 2020, the heads of state of 55 African Union and 27 EU countries and their delegations were supposed to celebrate the new partnership at a summit in Brussels.
In addition, a successor to the Cotonou Agreement, which governs economic relations between the EU and more than 70 former colonies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, had to be hammered out.
Read more: EU begins difficult negotiations with developing states
While Germany holds the presidency of the EU Council from July to December, the country would play a crucial role.
“Africa is an important aspect of our foreign policy,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised in a speech in May.
Two continents that need each other
However, things went differently than expected.
The EU-Africa summit has been postponed until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, while a proposal for a virtual meeting could not be supported.
The new Africa strategy has not yet been approved by EU member states.
And a replacement for the Cotonou agreement, which expires in December 2020, is nowhere in sight.
“The EU is very busy with itself – partly due to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Mathias Mogge of VENRO, an umbrella organization for development non-governmental organizations in Germany. “Partnerships with Africa have since faded into the background.”
But it is not just Europeans who are pulling the handbrake. African countries are also frustrated with the current relationship with Europe.
“Relations between Europe and Africa have never been fair. Despite terms such as ‘international cooperation’, it is an unequal exchange where Europe plays the role of a mentor and Africa plays the role of a school pupil,” said Nigerian researcher Lynda. Iroulo from the German-based GIGA Institute for African Affairs.
Those who work for civil society in Africa are the same. According to a recent VENRO poll among 221 employees of various NGOs in Africa, half of them said cooperation with Europe “does not work well” or “not at all”.
Trade and migration conflict
Economic relations are an important issue. With 31% of exports and 29% of imports, the EU is a major trading partner for Africa.
But the relationship is extremely unequal. European countries mainly import raw materials from Africa while exporting valuable manufactured goods to the mainland. African economies hardly stand a chance of escaping a vicious cycle of dependence.
“This skewed structure does not help to eliminate the continent’s problems such as high unemployment rates and a large informal sector,” said Robert Kappel, a political scientist focusing on Africa.
Migration is another very controversial topic. The EU regularly presses African countries to secure their borders to stem the influx of irregular migrants to Europe. Those who do so are rewarded with large sums of money from Europe.
It is difficult for most Africans to migrate to Europe legally unless they are part of specific occupational groups that are in dire need of Europe.
“African governments are certainly not happy about this,” Ghanaian migration expert Stephen Adaawen told DW last year.
Well-educated return in Africa is important for the development of local economies. In addition, governments are benefiting from the money sent by citizens living abroad, Adaawen pointed out.
The EU’s new Africa strategy also did not attract much interest. The EU wants to work more closely with Africa on five key areas: green transition, digital transformation, sustainable growth and jobs, peace and government, and migration and mobility.
But, says Mathias Mogge von VENRO, the strategy is one-sided.
“We want to develop such strategies with the African Union and civil society in Africa and Europe. In that way, the EU does not seem to be prescribing anything to which Africans must respond,” he said.
Whether 2021 will now be the crucial year for EU-Africa relations depends on whether the planned EU-EU summit takes place early in the year.
It is critical that leaders on both continents agree on the objectives of the summit.
“Relations between Europe and Africa cannot continue as they are,” said political scientist Kappel. “A whole new beginning is needed.”