Why Europe has made boosting Africa ties an urgent priority 

Why Europe has made boosting Africa ties an urgent priority 

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Ursula von der Leyen and Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Courtesy European Commision)

The new European Commission is this week marking its first 100 days in office with key achievements, including a new industrial strategy to underpin its digital and geoeconomic ambitions. Yet it is on the foreign policy front that Brussels has put in perhaps the most effort, with its goal to begin making post-Brexit Europe stronger in the world.

One of the key focal points for this agenda has so far been engaging in areas from trade disputes with the US through to climate change diplomacy, five years after the Paris treaty, as Europe seeks to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050 and promote its European Green Deal. However, it is specifically in relation to emerging markets, including India, China and Africa, where this prominent European international policy stance may be taking root the most.

This Friday, for instance, Brussels was scheduled to host an EU-India summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, before it was postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak. The EU (with a population of just under 450 million) is India’s biggest trading partner and it wants to turbocharge ties, including agreeing a new trade deal with the emerging markets giant, which has a population of more than 1.3 billion.

Brussels is also making final preparations for the March 30-31 summit with the similarly populous China, hosted by Prime Minister Li Keqiang in Beijing. This will be followed by an unprecedented second summit in a year, when President Xi Jinping travels to Germany in September to be hosted by Chancellor Angela Merkel and the other EU-27 leaders. It is hoped that a big investment treaty will be signed during that visit.

Yet, critical as India and China are to Europe’s future, it is the approximately 1.2 billion people on the African continent who have assumed priority in the new commission’s foreign policy focus. This was symbolized on Monday, when President Ursula von der Leyen launched the EU’s new Africa strategy.

Africa has become an urgent EU priority for a range of both political and economic reasons. Last month, new European Council President Charles Michel alone had some two dozen bilateral meetings at the African Union summit as part of Brussels’ attempts to reshape relations with the continent. Michel’s visit follows Von der Leyen’s trip to the continent in December — her first month in her new post. 

Building on the Africa-Europe Alliance, which was created in 2018, she is promoting a relationship increasingly based on investment rather than aid, rivaling China’s focus on providing infrastructure capital. As is apparent in the new strategy that Brussels released on Monday, the EU increasingly sees itself as a counterweight in the continent to other prominent world powers, and it wants to encourage Africa as a champion of its rules-based, multilateral approach to the world order. 

As much as Brussels sees Africa as a political partner, however, it is also aware of the continent’s economic growth potential. The International Monetary Fund asserts, for instance, that, in the years to 2023, Africa’s overall growth prospects will be among the best in the world, with an increasing number of key emerging markets. The growing economic weight of the continent is illustrated by the fact that it houses six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies.

Yet another reason for Europe’s designation of Africa as a high priority is that it knows it is playing catch-up in the region compared to China and Russia, while other Western allies such as the US and post-Brexit Britain are keen to steal a march too. The most extensive diplomatic serenading of Africa lies with China, which is aiming to better connect its huge Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the continent’s development. Trade between the two powers has risen dramatically and about 40 African countries have already signed up to the BRI.

Von der Leyen is promoting a relationship increasingly based on investment rather than aid, rivaling China’s focus on providing infrastructure capital.

Andrew Hammond

With Africa rising, others are taking notice. Take the example of Vladimir Putin, who hosted last year the first ever Russia-Africa summit, seeking to restore Moscow’s influence in the region after it had faded following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin is keen to entrench Russia’s economic and political foothold on the continent and he wants to double bilateral trade in the next five years. 

Post-Brexit Britain, fresh from its departure from the EU, is also courting the continent and in January held a major UK-Africa Investment Summit. London increasingly wants to enhance its economic ties with the continent, as shown by last September’s economic partnership agreement with the Southern African Customs Union.

Even the US is getting in on the act after largely neglecting the continent during Donald Trump’s presidency. Last month, Mike Pompeo finished his first trip to Africa as secretary of state to reassure allies of Washington’s commitment.

It is this combination of strategic rivalry, plus the big economic and political opportunity that Europe sees in Africa, that is driving its upsurge in attention to the continent. From the great power game underway between the EU-27, Russia, China, and the US, among others, interest in the continent is only likely to grow, and Brussels is determined to double down to try to get ahead of the game.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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