The Nordics and EU-Africa Relations – Is the Joint Africa-EU Strategy still the future?

NAI Originally billed as the panacea for policy incoherence, the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) is a bold attempt to move from a donor-recipient relationship to a partnership of equals, looking beyond development issues. It was jointly negotiated and agreed with African stakeholders. The JAES’ profile, however, has dropped since the last Africa-EU Summit in Tripoli in November 2010 and questions are increasingly asked about its utility. Yet given its level of ambition and complexity as well as the politics at play – is this surprising?  Can national and supra-national interests and priorities be reconciled and managed effectively both within the continents and between them?  Will Europe live up to its commitment to “treat Africa as one” or will it in the face of recent events in North Africa develop an entirely fragmented approach to Africa?

The JAES goes beyond the scope of issues dealt with in other frameworks by addressing issues of common concern, upgrading the political dialogue and strengthening Africa’s unity. In addition the JAES is meant to enhance the coherence and effectiveness of existing approaches to ensure human development as clearly illustrated by the key term of “a people centred partnership”. The ambitious project has been criticised as focussing too much on technicalities, for insufficient ownership by African and EU states, and for lacking both initiative and mandate to tackle the most contentious issues –  the result being a political dilution.

The perceptions of where the JAES is located in the spectrum from aspirations to implementation diverge: While the President of the EU Commission identified the Tripoli Summit’s outcome as “a very important catalyst and driver for further progress”, the South African President cautioned against “committing on another Action Plan when commitments made in the past (…) [had] not been implemented”.  The Europe Africa Policy Research Network (EARN) also noted that the JAES’ great potential had yet to be fulfilled and provided analyses and recommendations on how to achieve it.

In order to ensure concrete progress, the JAES includes an Action Plan covering common actions in eight thematic Partnerships ². More concrete initiatives have been included in the Second Action Plan (Tripoli 2010) in comparison to the First Action Plan (Lisbon 2007), while the basic priority areas broadly remained the same. This could be taken as good news, i.e. the implementation strategy remained focused; however, it could also be interpreted as a shortcoming of the First Action Plan in terms of achievements. The broadening of the agenda in the Second Action Plan provides fuel to those criticizing the JAES for lacking strategic focus. Some of the eight areas are obviously dealt with in other international fora, especially the MDG, Energy and Climate Change Partnerships.  Furthermore, many of the actions agreed on are still aspirational with no “costing” and in most cases still lack of clarity on what specific financial resources are readily and specifically available from either Europe or Africa.

The 3rd Heads of States Summit in Tripoli seemed to be neglected by both European and African Heads of States. Uncertainty about the attendance of the Sudanese President, invitations to the Summit being issued by different African hosts, and the timing close to other high-level fora led Europe’s principal leaders – Merkel, Sarkozy and Cameron – to send ministers as their representatives. Sweden was represented by the Minister for International Development Cooperation, and Denmark by the State Secretary. Denmark expressed that this was due to a blizzard and not the signal they wanted to send as the Danish African Commission’s focus on growth and employment perfectly fitted with the Summit’s theme of “Investment, Economic Growth and Job Creation”. Finland – which has been more actively involved with the JAES and also hosted one of the Summit’s side events, a Forum on ICT-Research in Helsinki in December – was represented by Prime Minister Kiviniemi.

The Nordics’ attitudes towards and engagement with the JAES illustrate the varying degrees of embrace and commitment to this multilateral framework of EU Member States in general. While the Nordic countries’  recent policy papers on Africa mention the role of the EU and the framework of the JAES, the latter is assigned varying degrees of importance in the respective policy documents. The eight policy themes – though not necessarily referred to in the context of the JAES – are reflected throughout these documents. In particular, all three countries aim at strengthening the African Union’s capacities and advancing regional integration. So on paper there is a high degree of synergy and commitment placing the Nordic countries as some of the most consistent backers of the JAES.

Though Denmark and Sweden welcomed the JAES as a framework broadening the development agenda, they were not alone in criticising the implementation structure as being insufficient and inefficient. Both consider the added value in comparison to existing frameworks rather limited. Finland deems the JAES the main component of its Africa policy’s EU pillar. Its lead on the Science, Information Society and Space Partnership is in line with its Africa policy’s objective to advance information society cooperation with the African Union. In a similar vein all three Nordic countries are determined to engage more with what is noted as the JAES’ most successful thematic Partnership, i.e. the one on Peace and Security. It can be said to address those issues which the Nordic countries have signed up to in their own bilateral Africa strategies.

The JAES is confronted with a major ownership and credibility gap and its future in the form it had been envisaged in 2007 remains uncertain. The tremendous shift of perspectives in Africa and Europe to ensure progress in policy alignment has not yet taken place. One of the motivations for the JAES clearly was to bridge the gap between the EU’s rhetoric on values and aspirations and its de facto policy implications. Like other European Member States the three Nordic countries are making use of the broad JAES  framework by engaging in those thematic areas which follow their own policy objectives. Doing this within a multilateral framework could be considered a first step towards more policy coherence, yet wider questions still remain; it is for example safe to assume that North African countries like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, key to engaging in the thematic issues of the JAES, will have other concerns on their minds in the coming months.

The key issues identified by the JAES in the eight thematic partnerships are as relevant for EU-Africa relations today as they were in 2007 and will continue to dominate them. Having difficulties identifying, advancing and reconciling the common interest of 82 different official actors involved is not surprising. A framework that can articulate and “manage” these interests to tangible mutually beneficial outcomes is an unprecedented exercise in international relations. The technical execution of the JAES so far has led to regular institutional exchanges and brought together state and non-state actors beyond national and continental borders. On the European side it remains to be seen whether the coming into being of the European External Action Service (EEAS) will accelerate the idea of a comprehensive European Africa policy and smoother implementation between institutions and member-states. But it should not be lost that ultimately this strategy was supposed to be “joint” between Africa and Europe and so it success depends as much on African stakeholders.

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