An EU-Africa 'equal partnership' must tackle past and present
By Shada Islam, The Euobseprver, 19 January 2022
BRUSSELS - Expectations are high for the EU-Africa summit on 17-18 February.
French president Emmanuel Macron is leading efforts to revitalise the EU's "tired" relationship with African states and - so far - hard-to-get African leaders seem ready to play ball.
A sombre past and persistent present-day irritants weigh heavy on relations between the two continents, however.
With France in the EU presidency over the next six months, Macron will seek to thrash out an economic and financial "New Deal with Africa".
Vying for the spotlight in Brussels is EU Council president Charles Michel who has waxed lyrical about establishing a New Africa-Europe Alliance which is "freed from the demons of the past".
Meanwhile, the European Commission has its own army of senior officials tasked with promoting a "comprehensive strategy" for Africa.
'Africa' in demand
Competition is fierce and getting African leaders' attention is no easy task.
US president Joe Biden has scheduled his own Africa summit. There was a Turkey-Africa partnership summit last December, Japan is holding its African development conference in Tunisia this year and not to be outdone, Russia has announced its own top-level meeting with African governments in November.
Most importantly, the Forum on China–Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) was organised last October, with Beijing promising one billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Africa, and pledging to boost Chinese imports of African products.
Much like the EU, China is also focusing on facilitating African nations' green development and digital innovation.
Plans for creating an ambitious EU partnership of equals with Africa are certainly more exciting than the modest talk of building a "mutually beneficial relationship" which dominated the EU-Africa summit in Abidjan in 2017.
The challenge now is to bury old habits and abandon out-of-date mindsets.
In private conversations, African policymakers say they want more respect from the EU and an end to the bloc's Eurocentric approaches and post-colonial reflexes.
Their European counterparts are equally scathing about many African leaders' disregard for democracy and human rights.
There is concern that the African Union, 20 years old this year, does not have the clout needed to speak for its 54 members. Both sides complain endlessly of a lack of mutual trust. Grievances over the past are complicated by anger at the present.
Casting a shadow over the relationship are the toxic legacies of colonialism and slavery as well as modern-day racism and discrimination against African-Europeans and rising hostility towards African refugees.
Covid-19 has added to existing tensions. Ghana's president Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo spoke for many when he denounced the "unsavoury politics of vaccine nationalism" while South African president Cyril Ramaphosa has condemned "vaccine apartheid".
Their anger is understandable. Less than 10 percent of Africans are fully-vaccinated and despite initial pledges of solidarity, the international Covax initiative to supply vaccines to developing nations has been plagued with problems.
Crumbs from the table
President Ramaphosa has said Africa so far has received little more than "crumbs" from developed nations.
The EU has plans to build vaccine production capacity in Senegal and Rwanda but European countries remain opposed to South African and Indian demands for a waiver on some intellectual property (IP) rights for vaccines and medicines at the World Trade Organization.
Most damagingly, African government are furious at what they view as racist and hypocritical EU reactions to the discovery of the Omicron variant in South Africa last year.
Given Africa's fragilie economies, the continent's focus now is on securing access to $100bn [€88bn] in Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) from the emergency $650bn fund launched by the International Monetary Fund in August 2021.
'Fortress Europe' policies remain a thorn in the relationship.
Instead of investing money in preventing African migrants from coming to Europe, the EU should be spending more to create jobs across the continent, according to president Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana.
For many African governments, Europe's Green Deal is a double-edged sword.
Anxiety about the impact of the EU's proposed carbon border tax and the expected decline in European demand for fossil fuels is mixed with more upbeat assessments of an expected rise in EU demand for African cobalt, nickel and other critical minerals.
EU plans to label specific natural gas (and nuclear projects) as 'green' and sustainable could mean more financing for African gas projects, hope some experts.
Africa's economic potential, youthful and optimistic population and the trade-enhancing opportunities created by the frontier-free African Continental Free Area (AfCFTA) will keep the continent high on the global agenda for years to come.
Re-setting Europe-Africa relations requires that both sides jettison out-of-date perceptions of each other and that the EU corrects a damaging existing "cognitive gap" about Africa's rich and complex history.
Meetings among leaders and elites must be backed up with authentic, more frequent and more sustained engagement among younger generations as well as between women's organisations, entrepreneurs, universities and think tanks.
Above all, both sides must confront the past, possibly through a joint statement which recognises the toxic history of Europe-Africa relations as well as current prejudices but also looks ahead to better times.
The upcoming summit is important but it is what happens after the meeting that will decide the future of EU-Africa relations.
Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. She is also the new editor of the EUobserver magazine.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver or CEMAS.