In DepthColumnsEuro-African divorce


Posted on Wednesday, 25 April 2012 09:41

Euro-African divorce

Patrick Smith

Should Africa and Europe be heading for the divorce courts? This bad marriage first consummated over half a millennium ago now looks beyond redemption. In reality, the partners have long since separated but tried to keep up appearances in front of the neighbours.

The causes of the breakdown are obvious enough. Serial infidelity on both sides, not to mention several cases of assault and battery by Europe against its spouse. Europe's eyes started wandering after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Suddenly, it was courting the old communist one-party states that had started reciting the capitalist credos. Africa, dismissed as profligate and uncompetitive, was left at home. Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland went to the ball instead.

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And when Europe's tribes started killing each other in the former Yugoslavia, its armies sent in a rescue mission. But when the killing started in Rwanda, Europe called for the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers. A decade later it was the beautiful African bride's turn to play the field. This time the suitors – from China, India and South Korea – queued up with promises of unlimited housekeeping money and no tedious lectures about behaviour. Europe has to stop fooling itself: the African-Asian romance is more than a fling. It is one of three major drivers – the other two are better economic management and information communications technology – that are powering Africa's economic leap forward.

The Euro-Africa relationship is descending into terminal grumpiness. Both sides are shouting at each other over the breakfast table

Meanwhile, the Euro-Africa relationship is descending into terminal grumpiness. Both sides are shouting at each other over the breakfast table. Kenyan governments – President Mwai Kibaki's included – have been among the most fawningly pro-Europeans until now.

But in March, Nairobi couldn't resist a swipe at some self-important European diplomats who complained the good President wasn't granting them an audience. In stilted diplo-speak, delivered with a mild smirk, the Europeans were told that under the new world order they could no longer expect to jump the queue.

Like a serial philanderer whose wife suddenly rejects his bedtime entreaties, Europe is not adapting well. Firstly, it is squeezing its wallet tighter than ever. The latest data from the OECD showed foreign aid to developing countries fell by nearly 3 percent in 2011 and is set to fall much further this year. Some distressed European economies – such as Greece – are cutting aid by as much as 40 percent.

Far more important for Africa is Europe's curmudgeonly approach to trade negotiations. After breaking up the old trade preference scheme under the Lomé agreement, European states have been trying to persuade African governments to sign up to a set of what they call European Partnership Agreements.

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In effect, these deals prise open Africa's growing markets for European manufacturers and services – but allow Europe (and the USA and Japan) to continue subsidising their own cotton, rice and other agricultural commodities, so undermining the price of Africa's key exports by billions of dollars a year. In fora such as the World Trade Organisation, European diplomats continue to undermine credible trade reform. In most areas of aid and trade, Europe – despite its long association with Africa – is a worse offender than the USA.

As they face this seemingly irreversible relationship breakdown, Africa and Europe could still pick up some of the pieces. Europe should start by rethinking its rules on trade and investment: it should stop agonising over the relatively insignificant aid it sends to African countries and look at serious economic cooperation on equal terms.

European diplomats could start taking African culture seriously again, learn the languages, and expand, not cut, the budgets for valuable cultural cooperation. They should end the offensive Fortress Europe immigration policy, and not just because it's self-defeating and unjust. If Europe's downward economic trajectory continues as surely as Africa's ascent, we could be seeing equally formidable immigration rules policing Africa's borders. Imagine the expression on the face of a Brussels bureaucrat turned away from Guinea-Bissau because he is judged to have no visible means of support.

This article was first published in the 2012 May edition of The Africa Report, on sale at newsstands, via our print subscription or our digital edition.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 25 April 2012 10:35

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report. He has edited the political and economic insider newsletter Africa Confidential since 1992 and was associate producer on a documentary about the 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea commissioned by Britain's Channel 4 television.


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