Changing Relations Between Europe and Africa

Last week, the Open Society Foundations released the report EU-AU Relations: The Partnership on Democratic Governance and Human Rights of the Joint Africa-EU Strategy. I spoke with the report’s author, Marta Martinelli, a senior policy officer based in our Brussels office who works on gender, democratization, and security governance and development issues in Africa.

What is the Joint Africa-EU Strategy?

At its narrowest point, only 15 kilometers separate Europe and Africa in the Strait of Gibraltar. Partially due to their close proximity, relations between the two continents have always been intertwined. Throughout history the prosperity, stability, and security of one region has directly affected the other. Recent events in in North Africa, and the influx of Tunisian and Libyan migrants to European shores, have only underscored this connection, and at times, tension.

Migration, however, is but one issue of importance between Europe and Africa. Trade, energy, climate change, democratic governance, and human rights, are among the joint concerns for these regions bound together by history, culture, and geography. Indeed, it cannot be ignored that Europe and Africa share a common future.

Adopted in 2007, the Joint Africa-EU Strategy provides a long-term framework for relations between the African Union and the European Union, based on equality and shared interests. At the core of the strategy is the understanding that relations between the two continents must be premised on equal participation and representation. For the first time, this strategy put both partners on an equal footing and raised expectations that Africans would not be just the “recipients” of prepackaged assistance from the European Union but would sit side-by-side with the EU at the decision-making table.

As a replacement for the EU-Africa Strategy adopted in 2005 to guide EU support for the Millennium Development Goals in Africa, which was marked by an unbalanced donor-recipient relationship, the Joint Africa-EU Strategy promised a new path for engagement.

What is the impetus behind changing the relationship between the two continents from one of donor-recipient to equal participation?

Broadly speaking, two decades ago donors began having growing concerns as to the effectiveness of development cooperation between developed and developing countries, including the EU and Africa. These concerns covered a wide range of areas from the conceptualization of development cooperation to its content and practice. There was increasing recognition that development policies and programs had, at least to a certain extent, failed to deliver meaningful and sustainable development.

Dissatisfaction in donor countries at the poor track-record of development aid, was matched by equal frustration in recipient countries. This frustration was compounded by bitterness and resentment left over by draconian policies imposed on Africans by international monetary institutions. Donors, including the EU, began to feel the need to revise their relationship with beneficiaries.

In the early 1990s, the rise of armed conflicts, on the continent also led to the need for Africans to play an increased role in peace and security matters. However, with increased responsibility came the demand from many African countries that the continent play a more active role in the international community. Europe recognized the evolution taking place and the deepening of Africa’s integration as well as the need for more effective and coherent relations.

What has happened with the Joint Africa-EU Strategy was adopted in 2007?

In 2007, the heads of state and government from 53 African countries and 27 EU member-states launched the Joint Africa-EU Strategy and outlined eight areas of focus: peace and security; democratic governance and human rights; trade, regional integration and infrastructure; Millennium Development Goals; energy; climate change; migration, mobility, and employment; and science, information, society, and space.

The first action plan was launched in 2008 and focused on eight thematic partnerships (peace and security; democratic governance and human rights; Millennium Development Goals; Trade, regional integration and infrastructure; energy; climate change; migration, mobility and employment; science, information society, and space). African and European leaders renewed their commitment to the Partnership at their 3rd Africa-EU Summit held in Libya in November 2010. That summit focused on investment, economic growth, and job creation, and a second action plan for 2011-2013.

Has the strategy been met by any stumbling blocks?

The track record of the partnership is mixed. The strategy was meant to deliver on: a) improved political dialogue and joint positions on shared inter-continental and global concerns; b) closer involvement of non-state actors; and c) stronger European support for continental integration in Africa.

Publicly EU and African leaders claim progress in all these areas. In private there is some recognition that the strategy has highlighted the differences existing between the two regional groupings on fundamental issues such as civil society participation in political processes; the role of the media in promoting democratic accountability and contributing to regime change; and the deep cleavage over international justice (the International Criminal Court being one of the most contentious issues on the table).

The initial enthusiasm has been replaced by a widening gap between the discourse and the reality of the strategic partnership which in turn has led to criticism especially by civil society. EU member-states have also become more skeptical and are thinking of pragmatically reverting to parallel relations with sub-regions.

On the AU side, African decision makers perceive a diminishing enthusiasm in their European partners. In their view the EU is quick to pledge support but does not always keep its commitments. They also question the concrete deliverables of the strategy and find that it is hard to sell at home. Civil society, for its part, criticizes it for being too state-centric and top-down and for failing to inform African citizens about its objectives. The result is civil society’s marginal participation in their definition and implementation. In short, the strategy has failed to convince the wider public of its usefulness.

Beyond explaining the intertwined nature of relations between the two continents, is there something you think the public should understand about the strategy’s importance?

The strategy really lays the groundwork for more mutually respectful relationships between the two continents. Frustrations with the concrete deliverables of the strategy are understandable and it will have to demonstrate its value to improving the everyday life of citizens on both continents.

It must be understood that it is potentially a colossal project that establishes political relations between two continents. As a minimum, it is undertaken with an aim of reducing asymmetries between a politically and economically developed Europe and an African continent that is resolutely reforming and evolving.

As of today, where do things stand with the strategy?

The Joint Africa-EU Strategy is in hibernation. Partners on both sides are at pains to disguise their disappointment. It was set up as a move from a donor-recipient relationship to one of equals. However the intended paradigm shift, to fundamentally alter European and African relations, has not really taken place and it is doubtful whether the partnership can help move it forward.

Europe was meant to treat Africa as one but the existence of several partnership agreements including the Cotonou Agreement—a treaty between the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States—bilateral agreements on migration, and most recently, the approach to North Africa, indicate that the road toward this change in a long way off. Furthermore, Africans themselves are contradictory at times on this point as they wish their cultural, geographical and social differences to be recognized and valued.

What are the main conclusions from your report?

The first is that significant involvement of civil society in the process is still hampered by the overlap of several institutional cultures and structural limitations. Involvement of civil society actors in the strategy has been slow and limited. There are no agreed procedures for civil society participation and access to working level meetings is mostly ad hoc with each joint experts group establishing their own process for involving civil society organizations.

The strategy offers many untapped opportunities for the role of civil society, opportunities that civil society organizations need to consider how to better explore. For instance the private sector could become more engaged and African diasporas in Europe more involved. Effective implementation of commitments is important and civil society should provide sustainable participation in the informal joint expert groups.

The EU-AU partnership should be a matter for all rather than being confined to experts and officials. However, it is a fairly complex process involving multiple layers of actors and stakeholders across geographical areas and with different cultural and political perspectives. Civil society is ill-equipped to monitor such a gigantic initiative and it is unwise to delegate all monitoring duties to it alone: a multi-layer notion of accountability that enables the private sector, civil society, the justice and legislative sector to promote transparency in the partnership should be promoted.

The second conclusion is that both continents have their own distinctive approaches to issues of democracy and human rights. Both have sensitivities as to how the other perceive and “judge” their achievements in these areas. Hence better reciprocal understanding requires long-term commitment and flexibility on all sides if there is to be progress based on mutual trust, humility, and a clear focus on people-centered deliverables.

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