Africa: where the trouble starts

The next European elections will also decide Europe’s strategy for Africa – a partner or a problem?

The G20 Compact with Africa promoted by Germany in 2018. The European Union is Africa’s main trade partner, but the value of EU-Africa trade is approximately the same as that between the EU and Switzerland. John MACDOUGALL/Pool via REUTERS/Contrast
The G20 Compact with Africa promoted by Germany in 2018. The European Union is Africa’s main trade partner, but the value of EU-Africa trade is approximately the same as that between the EU and Switzerland. John MACDOUGALL/Pool via REUTERS/Contrast

If we don't deal with Africa, then Africa will deal with us. How often have we said or thought something along these lines? The past years have shown how true this was, not a mere prediction, but a reasonable and realistic assumption. From the foreign fighters, after tasting defeat in Syria, now seeking new hunting grounds in the Maghreb, to the flow of economic migrants and the refugee issue, everything that has generated fear in recent years has blossomed on the other side of the sea. That's why the upcoming European elections will be asking all parties the same question: do you intend to deal with Africa or do you prefer having Africa deal with you?

This is the pressing question posed by day-to-day reality which could jeopardise the future of the European Union itself.

The question as to 'weather' to deal with Africa unavoidably leads to 'how'. This will be a vital and to a large extent existential issue for the future of Europe because it represents a fault line between two opposing camps: the pro-Europeans and the Eurosceptics. The challenge at the next European elections will be between those who consider the EU the source of the problems and those who view it as the promoter of possible solutions. And where Africa is concerned, it will be between those who consider it a continent full of problems, the cause of many European troubles, or a continent full of promise.

Last September, very much under the radar, the EU took a stand by describing the new strategy 'with' Africa and not just 'for' Africa. The Commission communication of 12 September 2018 in Brussels has already spawned a document whose title, "New alliance for Africa", supports the intention of setting up a partnership between the two continents.

Europe therefore is trying to come up with a strategy "for Africa and with Africa", based on the economic potential of that vast area, to be stimulated by means of an innovative plan of action. A few main guidelines, to be  implemented via a series of concrete actions, provide a general direction to be followed: development highways designed to mobilise economic resources to create jobs, enhancing the private sector funding path; investments in human capital, with specific focus on education and skills, which should create the conditions whereby education and training can be brought into line with the labour market; a bolstering of the business environment, by promoting a climate that might promote joint business operations, something that can only blossom in a context of peace, stability and security; full exploitation of the internal economic integration potential within the African continent and stimulation of EU trade exchanges.

Though this may be viewed as a new acceleration, this strategy should not be considered a separate body but should instead be included in a  broader context where Africa and Europe are taken as a whole, tangibly fulfilling the 2030 Agenda of the United Nations and the 2063 Agenda of the African Union for example, in addition to another series of programmes and actions specially devised for that continent.

According to UN statistics, by 2050 Africa will have two and a half billion inhabitants. Compared to these kinds of figures, the European approach has to take stock of three major issues: demographics, climate and economics linked to the underdevelopment of the African continent. These are the crucial issues that produce the migratory flows and the dramas and challenges these pose to Europe. These considerations alone would be sufficient to justify a radical chance in the Community's plan of action, based on the development aid philosophy – which is not to be eradicated– supported by another pillar which involves the mobilisation of the private sector. An element which, along with the concept of "alliance", marks a definite change in approach: a move away from the basic development cooperation understood as a gift, to a partnership, a joint gamble, together.

To improve employment growth and development, it's no longer sufficient to mobilise public resources: it's essential to trigger private investment mechanisms, both European and African, in a dynamic relationship of shared responsibility and joint interests that may guarantee economic advantages for both economic and productive contexts. The new African-European alliance has the ambition of contributing to the creation of 10 million jobs in Africa over the course of the next 5 years.

Africa has the youngest population compared to any other area of the planet and, conversely, the least qualified workforce. However, it is inconceivable to imagine that a labour market can be created unless one invests in skills and education, particularly in the technical, professional and digital skills, as the "strategic manifesto" approved by the EU Commission also points out. And in order to attract investment one has to be reassured about the efficiency of the rule of law, the independence of the legal system and the reliability of the tax system.

Peace, security and stability are key factors that affect the decisions of national and foreign investors. Institutional stability but also, and, more importantly, a macroeconomic and financial one, which should hinge on an effective structuring of credit access channels for the private sector.

Facing the major issues posed by contemporary existence 'together' – whether the migrations or the terrorist menace – means taking the utmost care when coordinating choices. When there's no single voice and discussions are fragmented between 27 states that entertain relations with dozens of African countries, there's the risk of an economic dispersion of energy while political actions can also turn out to be ineffective. Each single state entity obviously carries much less clout than Europe might if it were perceived as a single and independent source of support, but also of political and institutional relations.

The EU is already the main investor on the African continent, but this claim is the result of the sum of the foreign investments of the individual members states. This is one of those cases in which the algebraic sum does not express the same political force because each state acts separately and the political power of the EU in Africa is unable to represent the total force of the investments of the 27 countries.

By the same token one can state that the EU is Africa's main trade partner, but the value of EU-Africa trade exchanges is approximately equal to the trade exchanges between the EU and Switzerland. Once again the EU can boast a leadership that is not politically marketable and provides an indication of how much ground the EU has to make up if it decides to push forward with its plan with sufficient resolution. To this one has to add that the continental African free trade area, which includes a single air transportation market and a protocol for the free circulation of people was introduced just last March. These are far-sighted choices which have been backed by the EU which has provided economic support for the negotiations and in the long-term is aiming to set up an intercontinental free trade area (EU-AU) that would be unparalleled worldwide.

The job at hand is still huge if we consider that, according to figures provided by the Commission since 2009, the foreign investments in Africa have represented less than 5% of the total foreign investment worldwide. If this is deemed an element of weakness, one can say that it provides confirmation of the correctness of the approach adopted by the Commission when it aims to call on private investments alongside public funding. The key is mobilising private resources.

An ambitious Europe, with the courage to act as a united Europe, is needed. This would enable the community dynamic to secure large areas of leadership and geopolitical influence and obtain direct benefits in terms of the drop in the migratory flows and the creation of the conditions for an area of joint prosperity and greater integration such that the Mediterranean could then be seen as a unifying sea.

At a moment in time when competition in terms of influence over the Mediterranean is getting tougher, Africa represents a geostrategic challenge that can be won or lost.  But one can't just sit still, unless one intends to become irrelevant, compared to the other major actors on the international stage who are playing their hands with great determination. China for example, is acquiring increasing credit from African peoples and governments. Are we so sure that it's advisable to let others exercise leadership in a part of the world that represents a natural basin for the projection of a stabilizing influence and growth by Europe? The two continents, joined by a stretch of sea that resembles a small lake, are in reality inextricably connected. By history, culture and life experience over and above the major emergencies that currently fill the agenda of governments and alarm public opinion.

With the European elections on the horizon it's worth recalling that the relationship with Africa and how we decide to implement this New Alliance shall be an essential watershed between pro-European parties and future European alliances, and it is fitting to ask anyone standing to represent European peoples and govern EU institutions: do you see Africa as just a problem or more of an opportunity?

The outgoing Commission has chosen to see it as a strategic opportunity for Europe's future: it will be up to the European citizens to confirm or reject this option.

@angealfa

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

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