It’s Africa’s Turn to Leave the European Union
The EU doesn’t treat the African Union as an equal partner. Unless the AU resets relations, it’s in for decades more of the same.
On Jan. 31, Britain left the European Union, bringing to an end nearly three years of tortured, all-consuming negotiations. With terms of severance agreed and a path forward with the United Kingdom still to be charted, Brussels now faces another deadline that could redefine its place in the world: The EU’s framework agreement with a 79-country bloc of African, Caribbean, and Pacific states is due to expire on Feb. 29.
While simply extending the terms would be convenient for the EU, the global context is a world away from that of 2000, when the Cotonou Agreement with the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States was signed in Benin. And as African heads of state wrap up a two-day summit that began on Sunday at the 33rd Ordinary Session of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, they should reconsider whether it’s wise to remain party to an arrangement that is not helping them achieve their development goals, undermines the African integration project, and does not respect them as equal partners.
African visions of an integrated continent with political solidarity and interlinked prosperity are as old as decolonization, but until recently there were few indicators that it was heading in the right direction. The Organization of African Unity, founded in 1963, was widely regarded a mere dictators’ club and was succeeded in 2002 by the African Union, whose reputation fares marginally better. Modeled to a fault on European Union institutions, the AU remains both overly centralized and lacking in capacity and accountability. But in the last three years, the AU has begun to emerge as a globally relevant actor because it overcame a major hurdle to pan-African progress.
In 2018, the African Union adopted the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the largest trade agreement concluded since the World Trade Organization in 1995. At more than $2.5 trillion, the economy of the African Union is nearly the size of the British and French economies, which rank sixth and seventh in the world. Trading under the single continental market for goods and services begins on July 1, when most of the 30 ratifying countries will drop tariffs on at least 90 percent of their products and progressively reduce tariffs to a maximum of 3 percent by 2035.
Developing in parallel to this trade liberalization and harmonization is a treaty on continentwide freedom of movement, which together paves the way for a customs union and gives political momentum to the African Union passport project, which would allow visa-free travel among the AU’s 55 member states. These developments are expected to boost industrialization and exports, cut nontariff barriers and transport times, attract foreign direct investment, diversify the commodity-driven economy, create jobs, reduce the prices of goods and services, allocate resources more efficiently, and increase intracontinental trade—an area in which Africa lags far behind the other continents.
While the AfCFTA will not transform Africa overnight, and its long-term prospects are contingent on successful implementation, it heralds a new era in which the AU can finally leverage its collective economic clout in its political relationships with the rest of the world. Now is the time for African leaders to take stock of their existing relationships and examine whether they are helping the AU achieve its Agenda 2063 vision, a 50-year strategic plan with goals closely linked to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 that were adopted in 2015.
Since 2000, progress on the Sustainable Development Goals and their predecessor, the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, has been slow and unevenly distributed. The 2019 Africa SDG Index finds that “Across the board, African countries perform comparatively well in terms of sustainable production and consumption as well as in climate action … but perform poorly in goals related to human welfare” such as poverty, hunger, and affordable and clean energy.
As African leaders consider their post-Cotonou Agreement options, they must weigh the merits of continuity against unsatisfactory development progress in light of evidence that EU priorities for African development do not correspond to the continent’s areas of greatest need. The joint institution between the EU and the African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries for agricultural development ostensibly strives to “advance food security, resilience and inclusive economic growth in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific through innovations in sustainable agriculture,” yet the solutions it envisions would be marginal improvements, not transformational changes.
In many African countries, agricultural development is comparable to Western Europe in the early to mid-19th century and requires major modernization to boost productivity, such as irrigation, tractors, improved grain varieties, fertilizer, and better storage to ameliorate food insecurity and close the widening gap between African crop outputs and those of other developing regions. The joint institution is exclusively funded by the EU and flatly states in its strategic plan that “More food is not the answer” to hunger in Africa despite acknowledging that food imports are high and exports low.
Strengthening the value chains of small and medium-sized agribusinesses is desirable but not optimal, as it reinforces the existing trade dynamic of exporting raw materials to Europe. In sum, EU agricultural development policy is largely a neocolonial enterprise committed to protecting its own agricultural market and producing value-added goods for export; it is a greater vehicle for European soft power and merchant interests than for African capacity-building.
Aid is also a problem. The current architecture through which EU institutions have in recent years provided about $6 billion in annual aid to Africa—its second-largest source of multilateral donations—also stunts African economic integration and divides the continent politically. While the EU provides assistance to the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States through the European Development Fund, it groups North Africa—the continent’s best-performing region on sustainable development criteria—under its European Neighbourhood Policy funded through the European Neighbourhood Instrument. EU member states also provide bilateral aid to Africa but are required to coordinate their development assistance to align with EU prerogatives.
Not long ago, the European Union struggled with “reconciling its strategic interests with its value-driven agenda,” as a European Centre for Development Policy Management paper noted in 2012. Self-interest decisively won out three years later with the launch of the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which diverts 73 percent of the European Development Fund toward combating the European migration crisis at its external points of origin.
Redistributing these funds as part of a crisis response to EU internal politics is inimical to Africa’s long-term needs. Indeed, participating in the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group prevents Africa from working with Europe toward African-oriented solutions. Involvement in this top-down, donor-recipient framework deprives Africa of agency and leaves it vulnerable to its patron’s priorities. The African Union recognizes this and has called for continent-to-continent engagement, but some member states have gravely undermined their ability to negotiate with European interlocutors as equals by insisting on operating under the African, Caribbean, and Pacific umbrella. Mali, Togo, and Burkina Faso are among those whose dependency and risk-aversion is responsible for weakening African unity and, ultimately, themselves.
The EU, for its part, has made it clear that it hears the African Union. New European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made a symbolically significant trip to AU Headquarters in Addis Ababa a week after taking office in December 2019. She came bearing a $188 million aid package for health programs, electoral systems, environmental policies, and economic development initiatives to buoy her message that the EU is going to be more than just a source of handouts from now on: “The African Union is a partner I count on and I look forward working within the spirit of a true partnership of equals.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because the EU has been deploying this flattering talking point of a “true partnership of equals” for more than a decade.
The EU and AU launched an official bilateral framework in 2007 that has done nothing toward its intended purpose of moving beyond a traditional north-south relationship, aside from providing 50 million euros (about $55 million) for technical assistance in writing the AfCFTA regulatory standards. Von der Leyen’s rumored creation of an Africa commissioner in the EU’s executive branch has not materialized, though she has rebranded the development commissioner as the commissioner for international partnerships.
Most tellingly, despite not wanting to talk about migration in Addis Ababa, von der Leyen is continuing the post-Cotonou negotiations that began in 2018—which inject aid conditioned on migration control as a central plank of the relationship between the EU and the African, Caribbean, and Pacific states, where under the current agreement it is not a feature. Little wonder that Zimbabwe’s former finance minister said “dictation and prescription” are the defining characteristics of EU-Africa relations. “When you get to the negotiating table it is very clear that we are not equals,” said Patrick Chinamasa, who served several stints as finance minister over the past decade.
The European Union’s actions make it clear that it wants to continue treating the African Union as a junior partner for as long as possible. Even as Brexit has been a consuming priority item for Brussels, von der Leyen said last month the EU is trying to conclude a trade agreement with the United States “in a few weeks.”
This behavior raises the question of how long the African Union will tolerate being strung along in arrangements that its high representative on the post-Cotonou talks, Carlos Lopes, has denounced. Under the current arrangement, he said, “there is one loser: African regional integration.” But Lopes has also indicated “there is no risk of no deal. It is not like Brexit. If we don’t have an agreement by 2020 then we will extend what we already have.”
The AU and its members have other options. Both China and the United States offer models of development assistance that meet Africa’s development needs better than the European Union’s. The European Development Fund won’t vanish, and slow-growing Europe is ill-positioned to compete with China’s largesse on infrastructure projects.
The AU could, however, use the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation as a frame of reference for how the EU should channel development aid under the Africa-EU Partnership: country-led solutions and country-led implementation of initiatives that advance Agenda 2063, such as irrigation, sanitation, and regional electrical grids—with positive conditionality but no threat of sanctions, as is in the Cotonou agreement. Post-Cotonou negotiations are behind schedule and are likely to continue beyond the deadline, but a new African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group secretary-general, Angola’s Georges Rebelo Pinto Chikoti, begins his five-year term on March 1. His tenure will be successful if it is brief.
The African Union will either step forward or backward on Leap Day, when the Cotonou agreement runs out. Allowing the partnership to expire instead of attempting to rejuvenate it would force a reset, just as Brexit did, and from there the African Union could engage the EU bilaterally, playing to the latter’s anxieties about Chinese and Russian influence on a continent in which it feels entitled to primacy. Only then could the sixth triennial AU-EU summit, occurring later this year, be held on equal footing.
Brian Stout is an Africa analyst who was previously a writer for the State Department, a copy editor at Foreign Policy, and an Africa researcher for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Twitter: @bstouttt