European Voice November’s summit will test the EU’s response to Africa’s old problem of security and its new options for development. Few things concentrate the minds of EU officials as much as a forthcoming summit. The third-ever get-together of EU and African leaders is now set to go ahead in Libya on 29-30 November, after months of uncertainty about location and timing. Officials have been working behind the scenes to avoid two potential embarrassments for the assembled European leaders. The first, which is impossible to control, is the erratic behaviour of the host, Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
But it is the second, far more serious threat that could provoke a major dust-up – the possible attendance of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague on charges of war crimes and genocide in Darfur.
“Bashir wasn’t that much of a problem before he started travelling in Africa,” a Commission official said. His continued defiance of the international community, in other words, was not an issue before he, and some of his fellow African leaders, decided to make it one.
In late August, al-Bashir attended a ceremony in Kenya marking the country’s new constitution, for which MEPs censured Kenya on 9 September. They also called on Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, to ensure that the issue was on the agenda of the EU-Africa summit. EU officials, meanwhile, appear to have received reasonable assurances that al-Bashir will not attend.
There are other, longer-term developments that are re-shaping the EU’s relationship with Africa and that will be evident at the summit in November.
The traditional donor-recipient relationship, long a source of tension, is changing; indeed, a commitment to go beyond that relationship was one of the central principles to emerge from the 2007 Joint Africa-EU Strategy.
Member states and the EU itself are reducing the conditions attached to aid and sending more money directly into national coffers. European and African co-operation in planning and implementing programmes is deeper and more extensive than ever. And the existence of an African Union consciously modelled on the European Union means that the EU can provide Africa with a unique form of co-operation.
But Andrew Sherriff of the European Centre for Development Policy Management in Maastricht notes that the “fundamentals” of a renewed partnership are still not in place, above all political leadership on both sides. “The failure to fulfil the promise” – the potential – “of the 2007 Joint Africa-EU Strategy is not one-sided.”
The challenge of using that potential is being complicated, and made more urgent, by another long-term development – China’s entry into Africa (and, to a lesser extent, that of other emerging powers, such as Brazil and India). One senior Commission official argues that China “should drive policy change on the EU side” and that the EU ought to become more of an economic player on the continent in part to check Chinese influence. This is a tacit acknowledgement that the billions of euros spent on development have not bought the EU commensurate influence over decision-making in Africa.
Many development professionals are deeply suspicious of China’s involvement in poor countries, as it undercuts the good-governance and human-rights conditions typically attached to EU aid. Last month, for example, the Commission cut budget support for Uganda – an aid darling – by €3 million because, as a statement put it, “implementation of some reforms aimed at increasing transparency and value for money in the use of public funds have lagged”. Few, if any observers, believe China would make such an argument.
China’s emergence therefore adds to concerns about the eclipse of European influence. It also adds fuel to debates about responsible political engagement. So how should the EU now maintain and use its influence? “The first thing to do is to back African solutions to African problems,” another Commission official said.
That is not a new idea, but, in a political context, can become controversial: he said that this implied having relations with dictatorial leaders such as Isaias Aferweki of Eritrea, a man seen by many as a subversive influence across the Horn of Africa. “There are ways in which the problems [in Eritrea] can be overcome,” the official said. “The EU can have a moderating influence. Eritrea is not North Korea.”
These are some of the tensions that the Commission is now having to assess as it reviews strategy ahead of the summit. It may well ignore some problems. The 2007 strategy, for example, failed to integrate the other main policy framework for EU-Africa relations, the Cotonou Agreement and the associated Economic Partnership Agreements. For Sheriff, this was “the elephant in the room”. It is, he said, “a major strategic error not to have the main contentious issue on the agenda”.
Even if that “error” is repeated, the review will show evidence of a shift in strategic thinking within the Commission, in part reflecting the nature of the previous and current commissioners.
In the old Commission, a traditional development agenda and approach was supplemented by the highly political style of the development commissioner, Louis Michel. In the new Commission, a man with a more conservative, technocratic personality – Andris Piebalgs – is expounding an agenda, based on growth as the main means of poverty reduction, that suggests a significant break with tradition is possible.
Piebalgs’s communication will give an early indication of how much of that new thinking will make it into policy.
To read more articles featuring Africa-EU relations covered in the same European Voice issue please click here.
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