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EU/Africa: Relations in a funk over China, trade and post-Cotonou

By Ben Fox
Posted on Monday, 7 October 2019 08:31, updated on Tuesday, 22 October 2019 14:16

A family photo during the High-Level Conference on the Sahel 23 February 2018. REUTERS/ John Thys/Pool

A new team is taking over at the European Commission. But there are few signs it will lead to a major shift in how Brussels works with Africa.

[This is the first in our 5-part series on Europe/Africa relations, with stories to come on the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Spain]

After plenty of speculation that Ursula von der Leyen’s new European Commission would include a commissioner specifically for Africa, the final list of designated portfolios was something of a let down for development observers and Africanists in Brussels.

  • The development commissioner has been replaced with a commissioner for international partnerships, a nod, say Commission insiders, to the EU executive’s focus on boosting trade relations and private investment in Africa.
  • Meanwhile, migration control will fall within the remit of Margaritis Schinas, a Greek nominee, whose designation as commissioner for the clumsy sounding ‘Protecting Our European Way of Life’ portfolio has raised eyebrows.
  • Jutta Urpilainen is almost certain to be confirmed as the EU’s commissioner for international partnerships after a relatively painless hearing with members of parliament on the European Parliament’s development committee.

All Commission nominees go through a parliamentary hearing, and Urpilainen, Finland’s former finance minister and parliamentary envoy to Ethiopia, offered a commitment to the jargon-heavy United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and to the EU’s recent policy of increasing private sector investment in Africa.

  • “The future of Africa is the future of Europe. There are 1.2 billion [people] living in Africa and more than half of them are under 25 – it’s a continent of opportunity,” she told MEPs.

In China’s shadow

Outgoing president Jean-Claude Juncker’s European Commission took four years to show interest in Africa. In his final ‘State of the Union’ speech in September 2018, Juncker surprised many with the offer of a ‘partnership of equals’, based around a continent-to-continent trade deal.

The EU executive has rapidly become concerned that China has usurped its position as Africa’s main partner when it comes to trade, investment and politics.

The paragraphs on EU-Africa relations had been hurriedly drafted within a few days of China’s President Xi Jinping offer of $60bn in additional aid, loans and investment at the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation just weeks before.

Commentators put the emphasis on ‘long-term’ nature of the commitment, however, and the agenda has barely advanced beyond the EU executive providing €50m (to fund technical support for the African Union’s team tasked with drawing up regulatory standards for the African Continent Free Trade Agreement.

Cotonou conflict

In the meantime, the Commission is preoccupied with finalising the successor to the Cotonou Agreement with the African, Caribbean and Pacific community (ACP) which includes 51 of the 54 African states.

  • The Cotonou Agreement expires in 2020, and a June deadline for agreeing a new accord was missed. Talks moved slowly in the first six months of 2019 and will not begin in earnest until the new European Commission takes office in November.
  • The delay is, in part, because of disagreement among both EU member states and African countries, over whether to keep the ACP format or push for a continent-to-continent arrangement with the African Union.
  • “There is no choice to be made,” insists Koen Doens, Deputy Director-General of the Commission’s Directorate-General on Development Co-operation. “It is possible to construct EU-Africa relations within the ACP framework.”
  • But many observers question the value of retaining the ACP – which the UK and Germany are keen to scrap. The salaries of the ACP’s secretariat are paid by the EU. The EU-ACP is a “post-colonial configuration”, says Geert Laporte, deputy director of the European Centre for Development Policy Management.

Eventually, negotiators agreed to keep the ACP format with separate ‘regional pillars’, but little progress has been made. There is still confusion on whether there will be separate ‘Africa specific’ protocols.

  • “The Europeans will have to decide for themselves on how they want to engage,” Carlos Lopes, the African Union Commission’s high representative on Cotonou, told media.

The rhetoric is fine said Lopes, “but these promises are not grounded in a continent-continent instrument.”

Observers to the talks say that Cotonou will now require an extension of at least one year.

  • “The longer it goes on the more likely it (post-Cotonou) is to get totally torn up,” says Laporte.

Institutional battles

The EU is mired in its own internal institution battles on the future direction of EU-Africa policy.

The European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s diplomatic service, is anxious to establish a more strategic relationship between the EU and the African continent, and is embroiled in its own power struggle with the Commission’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development (DG DEVCO), which has tended to take a more traditional donor/recipient approach, for control over EU-Africa policy.

DEVCO is leading on the post-Cotonou talks, a source of frustration to EEAS officials who complain that Cotonou is primarily focused on aid and perpetuates a donor/recipient relationship between the EU and Africa.

Yet the Commission is unlikely to abandon the ‘conditionality’ to its funding and investment instruments that frustrates African leaders. “We have specific values in our treaties that we cannot just deny. The two things go together. You don’t sacrifice values for economics,” says Domenico Rosa, the EU executive’s head of unit on EU-ACP relations.

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