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‘Africa wants a balanced partnership, and that is what we are offering’, Jutta Urpilainen

By Olivier Caslin
Posted on Tuesday, 28 July 2020 12:13, updated on Wednesday, 29 July 2020 12:55

Belgium EU Economy
European Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen speaks during a video press conference on the EU's multi annual financial framework at EU headquarters in Brussels, Tuesday, June 2, 2020. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool Photo via AP)

While she is not officially the “Madame Africa” of the Von der Leyen Commission, Jutta Urpilainen is at the heart of numerous negotiations with the continent, starting with the post-Cotonou trade agreements with the ACP countries.

The 44-year old former Deputy Prime Minister of Finland also presented on 13 March the eagerly awaited new European strategy for Africa, just a few days before the arrival of the global pandemic.

The Africa Report / Jeune Afrique*: What is the main change introduced by the new European strategy?

Jutta Urpilainen: With only three months to prepare this document, we didn’t want to reinvent everything. The priorities defined during the 2017 Abidjan summit remain valid, in terms of ecological transition, digital transformation, sustainable growth and employment, peace and governance, and finally issues related to migration and mobility, which are the five key areas of our future cooperation with Africa as identified by the Commission.

The main change will perhaps be in the message. We want to make the point both in Africa and Europe that it is time to leave this donor-recipient prism behind and establish balanced partnerships around the world, particularly with Africa.

Doesn’t the current pandemic make this new strategy obsolete?

The context has changed significantly over the last two months, but this strategy has lost none of its relevance. The underlying trends concerning climate issues and digital innovation are still the same. Of course, the urgency of the situation demands that we focus on combatting the virus, but the needs of a cooperation policy in the broader sense in Africa remain.

The presentation of our strategy is just the start of the process, and we have begun extensive consultations with our African partners, our Member States and numerous organisations present in Africa and Europe. Despite the difficulties related to the pandemic, these consultations are on-going, and we expect to know the African positions so that we are able to present a common policy approach at the summit we are still planning to hold in Brussels in October.

Would this pandemic not have been the perfect opportunity for the EU to confirm that it really is the special partner it claims to be for Africa?

Africa is a priority for Brussels, and we are fully mobilised, alongside our African partners, to get through this crisis together, in the short, medium and long term. I note that, since 2014, we have distributed 1.1 billion euro to support the health systems in fifteen countries on the continent. And I personally consider that the [nearly 7] billion euros we have just redirected to provide emergency aid for Africa is a significant example of our solidarity with our partner countries.

Do you already have an idea of the African expectations?

Before presenting our strategy, all – or almost all – of the College of Commissioners went to Addis-Ababa precisely to listen to the proposals of the AU. We have had numerous discussions with the different African leaders over recent months, and their attitude to this new strategy appears to be very constructive. They want a balanced partnership, and that is what we are offering.

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Many of them would like to see some simplification of the European financial instruments to provide for greater clarity and efficiency.

This is indeed necessary. The European budget currently under negotiation for the next seven-year financial cycle contains the proposal made by the Commission in 2019 to merge eleven existing financial instruments into a single instrument. If the principle of this Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) is accepted, this will be a major development in the financing of our external cooperation, whose architecture will become much clearer for our partners. The NDICI could take shape once the new budget has been approved and be implemented next year.

Can we also expect a redirection of European investments to Africa?

We are a major investor on the continent and plan to remain so. Our goal is to develop private investment in Africa. We can’t achieve the sustainable development goals (SDG) without the private sector. To invest more, in more projects, we need the support of businesses in both Europe and Africa.

*Interview was originally published in French on Jeune Afrique 31 May 2020

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