Re-thinking the EU-Africa relations

The relations between Africa and the European Union are deeply rooted in history. Already in 1957, with Art. 131 of the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community (EEC), a system of association was created between the EEC and a number of countries classified as “Overseas Countries and Territories” (OCTs), listed in Annex IV of the Treaty, of which 18 were African.

The purpose of the EEC-OCT Association was to promote the economic and social development of OCTs and to establish close economic relations with them. Regulated by an Implementing Convention annexed to the EEC Treaty, it remained in force for five years, from 1 January 1958 to 31 December 1962, and its objectives were mainly aimed at reducing customs duties on imports from the respective territories until their complete abolition, to be achieved in progressive stages, with a safeguard clause allowing the OCTs to continue to impose customs duties on products originating in the EEC when necessary for their development or for promoting their industrialisation (Art. 133). 

On 20 July 1963 a specific agreement was concluded between the EEC and the 18 African nations already listed in Annex IV of the EEC Treaty, that in the meantime achieved independence. These countries were Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dahomey (now Benin), Gabon, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, Togo and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). This agreement, called Yaoundé Convention (Yaoundé I), entered into force on 1 June 1964 for a period of five years and was based on the principle of free trade between the EEC and the associated African countries. The Yaoundé I Convention also increased the European aid and created a set of common institutions (an Association Council, an Association Committee, a Parliamentary Conference and an Arbitral Tribunal) in which each party was represented equally. On 29 July 1969, a second Yaoundé Convention (Yaoundé II) was signed, which provided for the exemption of import duties for African products imported into the EEC, the lowering of tariffs for products originating in the EEC (so-called “reverse preferences”) and a further increase in allocations to the associated African countries. 

In 1975, the EC signed the Georgetown Agreement (Guyana), that gave birth to the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) States and created the ACP Group, an alliance of 46 states (37 of them African), with which a series of negotiations culminated in the adoption of the Lomé Convention (1975-1980, Lomé I), the first major aid and trade cooperation agreement between Europe and the ACP, whose aim was to promote increased trade and strengthen their economic relations, as well as the economic independence of the associated States. The Lomé I Convention was renewed three times: from 1980 to 1985 (Lomé II); 1985-1990 (Lomé III) and 1990-2000 (Lomé IV), the latter introducing, for the first time, a “human rights clause” to promote human rights, democracy and good governance in the territories concerned. Interestingly, another aspect emphasized by the Lomé IV Convention was the role of women in development, with a specific article (art. 42) pointing out the need to improve the women’s access to all factors of production (land, inputs, credit, extension services and training). 

However, a turning point in the EU-Africa relations was reached only in 2000 with the Cotonou Agreement, a 20-year treaty that introduced a number of innovative approaches to cooperation, encapsulated under five key pillars, namely: (1) enhanced political dimension through deepened political dialogue (2) increased participation by promoting the involvement of the civil society and non-governmental actors (3) strengthened focus on poverty reduction through development cooperation strategies (4) improved financial cooperation through coherence and better coordination of financial assistance and (5) new economic and trade partnerships to provide a new framework for cooperation in trade and pursue trade liberalisation.

The EU strategy set out in the Cotonou Agreement, as reiterated in the Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the European Economic and Social Committee (COM(2005) 489 final) entitled “Towards a Euro-African pact to accelerate Africa’s development”, was based on the principle that the success of an effective partnership between Europe and Africa depends on its ability to cement the ties between the two continents beyond formal political and economic interaction. The Cotonou agreement offers EU and ACP countries the opportunity to negotiate development-oriented free trade arrangements called Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs). So far, Seven Economic Partnership Agreements are in application with 32 out of 79 ACP countries. These include 14 African countries. The other countries benefit from preferential unilateral schemes: the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) or, for Less Developed Countries (LCDs) the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.

In 2004, the EU also adopted the European Neighbourhood Policy, based on a Communication from the European Commission entitled ‘Wider Europe – Neighbourhood: A New Framework for Relations with our Eastern and Southern Neighbours’ (COM (2003) 104 final), whose main objective was to strengthen the stability and security of the EU and its neighbours, that for this purpose were divided into two groups: (1) Eastern Partnership and (2) Southern Partnership, the first consisting of States that were part of the former Soviet Union, while the second included a number of Mediterranean countries of which 5 (Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia) are African. 

The EU-Africa relations gained further momentum with the Joint EU-Africa Strategy and its respective Action Plan, adopted at the Second EU-Africa Summit held on 8-9 December 2007 in Lisbon under the Portuguese EU Presidency. The Joint EU-Africa Strategy aims to solidify relations between the EU and Africa on the basis of the principle of “partnership of equals”, characterised by the abandonment of the traditional donor-beneficiary relationship between the two parties, replaced by a strategy aimed at identifying common values and objectives for the pursuit of peace and stability, democracy and the rule of law, progress and development, and the EU acting as a “development partner” of African countries in achieving these goals.

With the Joint Strategy, the EU for the first time approached Africa as a single entity, focusing mainly on eight thematic partnerships encompassing areas of cooperation that go far beyond the traditional spheres of aid and development (i.e. trade, regional integration and infrastructure), represented by peace and security, democratic governance and migration, energy, climate change, science, information society and space. These partnerships are accompanied by periodic action plans, with measurable actions and objectives that are jointly defined by the EU and Africa, and periodic reviews carried out within specific EU-Africa Summits that take place every three years, alternating between Africa and Europe. The purpose of these Summits is to take stock of the progress made in implementing the commitments made by each Party and to provide political guidance for the future of their relationship.

So far, five EU-Africa Summits have been organised. The next Summit, scheduled for 2022, will be an opportunity to rethink the EU’s approach towards Africa, in the face of major new economic developments and transformations that have recently taken place on the continent, most recently with the creation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which aims at increasing Africa’s trade position in the global market and to strengthen its voice in global trade negotiations. 

The ambitions are to take the Europe-Africa partnership to a higher level, in order to jointly address the challenges of the 21st century through the identification of areas of common interest for future partnerships and collaborations. To achieve this, it is necessary for the EU to adopt a coherent approach in shaping the overall policy of EU-Africa relations, as underlined by the European Council Conclusions adopted on 15 and 16 October 2020, which clarify that the principle of mutual partnership requires a balanced, coherent and comprehensive approach guided by the principles of solidarity, partnership and shared responsibility. 

The Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council “Towards a comprehensive strategy with Africa” (JOIN(2020) 4 final) indicates five main areas where the EU’s strategic alliance with Africa need to be strengthened, by building strategic partnerships. These are: a) green transition and energy access; b) digital transformation; c) sustainable growth and employment; d) peace and governance; and e) migration and mobility.  

The October 2020 European Council Conclusions give concrete indications for the future development of the EU’s external relations, reaffirming the high priority the EU attaches to its relations with Africa and the African Union. This is not surprising, given that Africa is the continent with the world’s youngest population, a rapidly growing middle class and a continent with one of the fastest rates of development in the world. This obviously makes it particularly attractive as a market and investment location for European companies, that already since many decades are confronted with problems of saturation of local markets and low economic growth.

The European Council Conclusions emphasise that these relations must be based on mutual interests and shared responsibilities. Specific commitments are aimed in particular at strengthening the EU’s support to health systems in African countries and enhancing their capacity to respond to COVID-19 and other communicable diseases. In addition, the EU Commission is encouraged to develop, in synergy with African partners, a comprehensive multi-sectoral, multi-level and multi-participatory investment programme, with key areas of cooperation and investment in the digital and knowledge economy, renewable energy, transport, health, and agri-food systems. 

All these fields will represent in future important opportunities for the European businesses and will constitute an occasion to give an important contribution to the economic development of Africa, thanks to the strong experience they have gained in these sectors in decades of industrialization, infrastructural and technology development. But on one condition: the approach in doing business with the continent needs to be changed. The traditional role of suppliers of goods and services is not sustainable anymore in a continent that is trying in every way to rely much more on itself for the production of the goods and services it needs. Investing locally and injecting know-how in the industrial and manufacturing sectors can be a win-win strategy, able to build a productive capacity that is crucial for the structural transformation and economic development of Africa. Considering the low level of industrialization and the progressive decline that the manufacturing sector most of African countries have faced in the last decades, this is what Africa really needs.

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