The Joint Africa-EU Strategy: Quo vadis after Tripoli?

TNI Speaking at the Africa-EU Summit held in Tripoli in November, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso quoted an old African proverb to illustrate the spirit of the Joint Africa-EU Strategy: “If you want to go fast, walk alone. But if you want to go far, walk together with others,” he said. But three years after the adoption of a Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) at the summit held in Lisbon in December 2007, it’s worth asking if Africa and Europe are indeed “walking together,” let alone “going far.”

Three years is clearly too short a period to assess the results of an ambitious and innovative framework like the JAES and to ensure full ownership by the various stakeholders in both Africa and Europe. The JAES has the potential to overcome the traditional donor-recipient relationship that for too long has dominated the partnership. The joint strategy could also serve to reinforce political dialogue at a continental level on all key areas of common interest to Africa and Europe. The issue of peace and security, for instance, has been singled out by both parties as a positive example of where the two continents have a common interest and where so far Africa has laid down clear objectives and a roadmap. The EU has been a major supporter of Africa-led peacekeeping as well as capacity development in the area of peace and security for the African Union Commission and the continent’s regional economic communities (RECs). The EU has also made commitments to improve its funding mechanisms to support the African Union’s role as a mediator during crisis situations in Africa, including in situations of unconstitutional change. These promising initiatives build on the existing or emerging pan-African architectures on peace and security, as well as governance.

Africa and Europe are also timidly exploring new areas of common interest and cooperation such as climate change, energy and science, information society and space. At the institutional level new mechanisms have been put in place to broaden and intensify the dialogue between the two regions, including the regular Commission-to-Commission meetings, EU-Africa Troika Ministerial and technical experts meetings. Also, the reinforced EU Delegation to the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa has boosted political dialogue.

Despite of these positive evolutions, however, the EU-Africa partnership faces major problems. While the EU is still a major investor, trade partner and provider of development assistance in Africa, it appears to be rapidly losing ground on the continent. This was clearly illustrated by the fact that the November 2010 Africa-EU Summit in Tripoli hardly made it into the headlines on either of the two continents. Even Brussels-based diplomatic representatives from African countries complained about the lack of information and the failure to involve them in preparation for the summit.

Very often the rapid rise of new emerging powers such as China, India, Brazil and the Arab world is perceived as the single most important factor for the declining EU influence in Africa. But the reasons for this should also be found closer to home in the “internal kitchen” of the EU and in the quickly fading illusion that the partnership can be driven mostly by the two commissions through institutional and  rather technocratic approaches. The EU is confronted with a major leadership and credibility gap in its relationship with Africa. In spite of the promising but complex Lisbon Treaty with the newly created functions of President of the European Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, as well as the establishment of the European External Action Service, it will take considerable time before the EU is likely to speak with one voice and in a coherent manner. Individual member states’ interests still seem to interfere with commonly agreed EU positions. From the perspective of many Africans there is a major gap between what the EU preaches in strong value-driven discourses and strategies and what it delivers in practice. The EU’s political dialogue with Africa is often perceived by many Africans as patronising and quite ambiguous, a relationship marked by double standards instead of a partnership of equals. Obviously both sides are responsible for this rather difficult partnership.

Africa is also confronted with similar inconsistencies and lack of clarity of purpose and political leadership. The AU Commission’s mandate is too restricted to lead a supranational agenda; the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) are too little involved in shaping continental policy positions; non-state actors are not enough consulted; current human and financial resources are well below the level of ambition; and AU member states’ decisions are still too little informed, if at all, by common continental (or even regional) interests.

The rhetoric and inconsistency of messages and positions from both sides, particularly on some contentious issues, has undermined trust and risks contaminating the broader relationship. A typical example can be found in the ongoing Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) negotiations, which have become the most contentious issue in EU-Africa relations over the past decade. Despite the fact that compromise solutions have been identified on many of the “technical” bottlenecks in the EPA talks, the political will and leadership to move forward on this issue has so far been absent. Strangely enough this delicate issue has not been formally integrated into the JAES, while on paper the JAES had the intention to address all major political issues of common interest and concern. The recent summit in Tripoli broadly discussed EPAs, but did this in the absence of the EU Trade Commissioner, who is responsible for the EPA negotiations on behalf of the European Union. Meanwhile, the African side failed to convey its concerns and be consistent with options and proposals discussed among Africans in the run up to the summit.

Also in new areas of the partnership such as climate change, Europe and Africa have adopted different positions at the 2009 summit in Copenhagen and did not manage again in Tripoli to agree on a joint statement for this year’s UN climate talks in Cancun. Major differences exist as well on other crucial issues such as migration, governance and human rights (including ICC jurisdiction), and EU-Africa cooperation in other global forums.

What needs to be done to remedy this situation and to ensure that the trust in the partnership is restored? How can the JAES become a politically more effective partnership?

First of all, the dialogue between both continents should be open, frank and qualitative to tackle all delicate and contentious issues where major divergences of opinion and interests exist on both sides. Clearly on the EU side, there is an important role to be played by the new, post-Lisbon institutional set-up. The dialogue should not be left only to technocrats; the highest political representatives should give clear signals that Africa matters not only for short-term EU interests (e.g., protecting the Horn of Africa from piracy) but also for long-term interests that are common to both continents such as growth and investment opportunities. The Tripoli declaration stresses the importance of the private sector in promoting growth and jobs but is not very clear as to how this will be realised.

On the African side, the AU can play a key role in facilitating and articulating common positions among African states on sensitive issues, but more clarity is needed among African leaders as to how they are willing to transfer some of their responsibilities to the supranational level. A better understanding of what drives European and African positions and where the traction can be found in the partnership would help to building common ground and consensus among both continents; it would also facilitate joint positioning on the multilateral stage.

Second, if the EU-Africa partnership is meant to deal in all openness with common concerns and interests in the global and EU-Africa context, it needs to overcome the traditional donor-recipient dichotomy. This requires extending the political dialogue to European and African member states, to the RECs, and to non-development cooperation departments in the European Commission (e.g., environment, energy, justice and home affairs).

Third, the partnership needs some concrete results and outcomes. Either a breakthrough in the negotiations on EPAs that reflects a mutually beneficial and accepted compromise, or joint EU-Africa positioning in multilateral forums around burning global issues (e.g, climate) could help change the prevailing perceptions of a partnership in crisis. Clarifying the relationship and complementarity between the JAES, the Cotonou Partnership Agreement, and the Union for the Mediterranean would also be a positive message on the parties’ commitment to a continent-to-continent partnership. Achieving concrete results is a different story from just presenting nice intentions or bringing a “good news show.” As always, the best communication strategy is to show tangible results that in themselves will attract attention from Europeans and Africans alike.

Fourth, the partnership also needs to recognise and adjust to the current asymmetry between the EU and Africa. At this stage the AU institutions lack the capacity to deal effectively with the multitude of thematic areas in the eight partnership areas of the JAES. A possible solution to that problem could be to have a less ambitious and more targeted partnership on fewer key priorities shared by Africa and the EU. In the process, attention should also be given to the development and strengthening of legitimate, capable and accountable African institutions (at local, national, regional and pan-African levels) and to supporting capacity development in new emerging areas of common concern (climate change adaptation, migration, security, etc).

Finally, there is also a need for a fundamental change in the partnership culture. This means, among other things, a consistent mutual respect that is expressed not only in words but also in deeds. For instance, EU high level representatives should take the time and trouble to listen to their African counterparts instead of walking out of meetings when they have read their declarations; and African concerns should be better integrated into the agenda of the dialogues and various partnerships of the JAES instead of only focusing on European interests. On the African side, there should be more introspection, clarity of objectives and strategies, and political leadership and less focus on colonialism as the only factor of Africa’s development problems, a reference that certain “old generation” autocratic leaders still tend to make. Both parties have to realise that it is not helpful to bog down the partnership over questions of how much EU money and aid should go to Africa to pay for “Europe’s historic debt.”

The Tripoli meeting marked the third Africa-EU Summit since 2000. President Jacob Zuma of South Africa openly expressed his concern “that after ten years of this partnership we have very little to show in terms of tangible implementation of the undertaking we made in both Cairo and Lisbon.” He cautioned the summit against committing to another action plan when commitments made in the past in this partnership have not been implemented.

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