The future of Euro-African relationships between the Post-Cotonou agreement and the energy crisis

27 February 2023 /

9 min

A new strategic partnership between the European Union and the African Union is set to be ratified, yet  European and African relationships still continue to be affected by economic and political whirlwinds at the international level. This underlines both a lack of deep commitment and a strategic short-sightedness from the European Union, paving the way for Chinese presence in Africa and hindering the stance of the EU in the world.

The status of European relations with Africa: from aid recipient to strategic partner?

The current legal framework establishing EU-Africa relationships is based on the Cotonou Agreement, signed in Cotonou (Benin) in 2000 and is bound to last twenty years. It replaced the Lomé Convention that provided for joint institutions while removing some colonial legacies and expanding aid to €3 billion per year since the 1990s, for the newly independent countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP). When the EU signed the Cotonou Agreement, trade was the core dimension with the intention to create an EU-ACP trade area by 2020: an ambitious project that never saw the light of day. Meanwhile, aid donations through the European Development Fund (EDF) were set at €30.5 billion for the period of 2014-2020, with the primary goal of reducing poverty coupled with a  hardened EU’s approach towards good governance, human rights and the upholding of democratic values. Even if the works for the Post-Cotonou Agreement started in 2018 and the European Commission and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy proposed a new strategy for Africa in March 2020, a transitional period has been set up to extend the Cotonou Agreement until November 30th, 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

On February 18-19th 2022, the sixth European Union-African Union (AU) Summit was held in Brussels and was co-chaired by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the President of Senegal and Chairperson of the AU, Macky Sall. The will to establish an innovative partnership to enhance strategic cooperation between Europe and Africa in various fields – stemming from the 2020 European Commission and the European External Action Service “Towards a comprehensive strategy with Africa” – took a central role in the debate. The pillars of the new cooperation revolve around prosperous and sustainable economic development, vaccines and research, peace and security, migration, and commitment to multilateralism with an investment package of €150 billion funded by the “EU-Africa: Global Gateway Investment Package”. The new impulse given in particular to the digital and green economic transition, the health sector, migration cooperation, and the delivery on global public goods in multilateral fora has been driven by the global impact of Covid-19 along with a shared ambition to achieve the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the AU Agenda 2063. Furthermore, the focus on more regional and continental economic integration between the EU and the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA) can be seen as one of the successful moves of African leaders to bring to the fore African priorities through pan-African initiatives. By drawing attention to investment opportunities in a continent full of resources, strategically positioned and with the youngest population of the world, the AU has managed to present Africa as the continent of the future, as reflected in the name given to the long-term agenda for the continent (“Africa 2063: The Africa We Want”). This pressure blends with the EU’s new strategy for its engagement in the world in 2021-2027, Global Gateway, focused on major investments in infrastructures to tackle the most imperative global challenges such as climate change, and pandemic prevention as well as to  boost competitiveness, by taking into account the needs of partner countries and local communities. This new perspective has also been reinforced by a statement released by EU Commission President von der Leyen following the sixth summit of EU-AU relations: “the European Union wants to be Africa’s partner of choice”. In this sense, European relationships with Africa have taken a new mindset direction, stemming from the original humanitarian aid donor and aid recipient connection to turn into a more equal partnership, a concept also included in the final declaration (“This renewed Partnership will be founded on geography, acknowledgment of history, human ties, respect for sovereignty, mutual respect and accountability, shared values, equality between partners and reciprocal commitments”). For the detractors of this result, European commitment is volatile since many prior promises have remained unfulfilled. A theory corroborated by Member States’ failure to ratify the document yet, putting in danger the Post-Cotonou agreement as well as greater dialogue and cooperation with Africa. 

EU’s pivot for Southern resources in the energy crisis

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has not only shaken the global order, but it has also overshadowed the outcomes of the Post-Cotonou agreement in the current race for energetic resources. In fact, the European Union has moved towards diversification of its gas supplies in order to detach itself from Russian dependency in the short and medium term notwithstanding the EU’s long-term goal of becoming climate neutral (as “net zero emissions”) by 2050 through a huge scale-up of renewable energy projects as according to the “REPowerEU” plan and the EU Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators (ACER). By considering liquified natural gas (LNG) a fossil fuel that is less polluting than coal and oil, the European Union sees the African gas market as a valid alternative to Russian gas. It is led to do so given that, until the war in Ukraine, only two regions (Northern and Western Africa) accounted for 94% of gas production in the Continent with Europe accounting for 62% of African gas export, according to Policy Center for the New South. Therefore, existing pipelines and new projects, such as the Trans-Saharan Gas pipeline linking Algeria, Nigeria and Niger, have been revitalized while multinational corporations- the French Total and the Italian ENI– are trying to figure out new energy supplies in Mozambique and the Republic of the Congo and ramp up production in Algeria. Not only does this highlight how the war in Ukraine has boosted realpolitik at the cost of ethical considerations in the EU’s foreign policy but it  has also underlined the lack of a strategic and comprehensive approach in the EU’s foreign energy policy when it comes to strengthening its presence on the African territory and its resiliency to exogenous shocks in case of conflict, natural disasters, and political divergences that could undermine its energy supply chains. Two notable examples that could lead to disruptions of EU’s gas supplies can be presented as follows: first in  the Sahel region, where  it can be affected by extremist Islamist insurgencies and is vulnerable to Russian penetration through the Wagner mercenary group without the counterbalancing influence of France; secondly, in the Cabo Delgado province in Mozambique, where the spread of jihadism has provoked almost one million displaced people and interrupted gas extraction operations.

The trap of anti-Chinese containment in Africa

The European Union is not the only foreign power that aims to expand its influence in Africa in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Among other countries- South Korea, United Arab Emirates, Türkiye, Pakistan, India, Japan, the USA, and Russia- China’s presence in Africa is remarkably felt through the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) launched in 2013. Even if the EU is the first trading partner of Africa followed by China, investments from the latter amounts to a total of $160 billion in the last two decades, as data from the Global Development Policy Center shows. According to Alessandra Colarizi, author of the book Africa Rossa, China draws its legitimacy in Africa from the common adherence to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a historical relationship of fraternity with anti-colonial liberation movements of Marxist aspirations, like in Angola and Mozambique, and a certain commitment for “South-South” cooperation. In the political sense, all European countries can offer in their relationships with Africa is a history of century-long colonial dominance and asymmetric partnerships in which the power balance fell in favor of Western countries (like the “Françafrique”). That’s why the first step to mending this gap and ushering in a new era of cooperation must go through the historical acknowledgment of European involvement in the creation and perpetuation of an unfair economic and social system that originated from the spread of capitalism, ranging from colonialism to the IMF neo-liberal policies in the 1980s. And little German and French apologies do for their involvement in genocides, respectively in Namibia and Rwanda, if EU countries still fail to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines to enable Africa to produce its own jabs or to reimburse poorer and less industrialized countries facing climate change disasters. Another issue to be taken into account is the “conditionality” criterion for economic support, which recalls the “new” American strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa. Although acknowledging the need to root out systemic racism from the US system, it is still based on the promotion of democratic values and good governance hence failing to understand grassroots grievances. Even if the promotion of human rights is a trademark of European stance in the world, this still makes Western strategy weaker when compared to Chinese infrastructure investments that actually have an impact on the people of Africa, such as the Addis Ababa-Djibouti and the Mombasa-Nairobi railways or the continent’s 80% 3G infrastructure built by Huawei and ZTE. The capillarity of Chinese presence makes European foreign policy for Africa look like thin air because every diplomatic move comes to be seen in the light of “Chinese containment” and not as a sign of true commitment to African agendas. This can be seen with  Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Kenya in 2019, the first time for a French president since the country’s independence in 1963, to reach out towards new horizons in Africa for purely economic reasons in response to Chinese presence in West Africa and after losing the grip on the Sahel. 

Time for an earnest approach?

On one side, the EU-AU sixth summit has brought a breakthrough in Euro-African relationships, with African leaders more aware of the need to be considered equal partners. On the other, the EU’s foreign policy attracts criticism questioning how deep European commitment to African predicaments is. Technology transfer and wider integration could be examples of the first major steps toward a solution for Europe’s crippled foreign policy in Africa. Without them, not only will Europe’s commitment continue to resonate as empty words but also comes with strings attached. Furthermore, this strategy will not contribute to the real empowerment of African people and their agendas but will make them always subordinate to European political agenda swirling through different historical, political, and economic challenges. China’s rooted presence on the continent should spark a debate on past foreign policy errors, but more importantly, should make Europe reflect on the reasons for its fading influence over Africa. Starting with acknowledging that the current EU’s presence in Africa is based more upon national interests than authentic involvement, besides being challenged by other kinds of economic and political systems, like China, that are better able to engage African societies and play a role in the future definition of the post-Ukraine war global system. Last but not least, the energy crisis has highlighted the “dilemma” of European foreign diplomacy between lack of foresight and realpolitik. If the EU wants to hit the 2050 climate neutrality, it needs to reconsider its involvement in LNG investments in Africa in the long run, hence making its African partners doubt its commitment. Otherwise, the EU would be eventually forced to make a tradeoff between the impelling agenda of climate neutrality and energy shortage, highlighting its fragile global stance as the “first climate-neutral power” and the shaky diplomacy put into practice to achieve short-term goals in response to recurring circumstantial emergencies. Will Europe be able to become a reliable partner for African countries and seek a more authentic foreign policy approach in North-South cooperation? Or is it destined to lag behind China and lose the bigger race to count for something in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine?

This article was first published in the issue 37 of the magazine

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