Africa's Plight How Europe Lost Africa

The future of Europe's special relationship with Africa is at risk as former colonies react to a blasé, if not hypocritical, European attitude toward the continent. European-style institutions could enter a profound crisis of legitimacy if things do not change soon.

By Dominic Johnson


2007 was a year of debacles for European-African relations.
REUTERS

2007 was a year of debacles for European-African relations.

Africa currently has bad press in Europe. In Kenya, rigged elections recently triggered ethnic unrest. In South Africa, political tension accompanied the rise of populist Jacob Zuma to the leadership of the ruling African National Congress. These events, among others, give the impression that even Africa's model states are at risk of backsliding, to say nothing of the perennial problem nations like Sudan, Somalia, or Democratic Republic of Congo.

But Europe currently has bad press in Africa too. The pressure exerted by the European Union on African governments to sign new free trade deals, the continuing crisis over illegal migration, and a perceived reluctance of European institutions to engage with their African counterparts have created the impression that Europe is an unreliable partner for an Africa seeking to redefine its place in the world order. This crisis of mutual perception between Europe and Africa is real and, with hindsight, 2007 may come to be regarded as the year of missed opportunities -- the year when Europe finally lost the preeminence it once had in Africa.

Controversy over free trade and Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) is not necessarily the source of mutual distrust. But since these new trade arrangements will profoundly impact almost every African country, the political pressure is fierce. In 2005 the European Union, pushed by the World Trade Organization to dismantle the Lomé/Cotonou system of trade preferences for 78 former European colonies (the ACP countries), set the end of 2007 as a deadline to sign agreements for virtually complete free trade in both directions. This would have meant a total opening of European markets and the opening of 80 percent of ACP markets after a transition period of ten years. It was, however, rejected by most countries in Africa: Governments feared the loss of customs revenues that account for around a quarter of state revenues in Africa, and business communities feared unfair competition from subsidized European imports.

Africa's leverage on this issue was constrained by conflicting interests. The Least Developed Countries, which include the majority of ACP countries, already enjoy free access to EU markets under the "Everything but Arms" initiative. For them a free trade agreement would mean opening their own markets to European goods and services. They therefore had no incentive to sign. Medium-income countries, on the other hand, faced losing existing market access to the European Union at the end of 2007 without an agreement and felt under pressure to negotiate at least a temporary replacement.

The diversity of interests was compounded by the insistence of the European Union on negotiating not with the African Union, its natural pan-continental partner in Africa, but with individual states grouped by region. As the conflict of interests between lower-income and middle-income countries came to the fore and the deadline neared, the European Union even took to closing deals with individual African states. This has caused a great deal of concern in Africa, as Europe -- which usually promotes African integration and likes to have a joint EU face for anything it does on the African continent -- has now adopted a “pick and choose” attitude.

By the end of 2007, only the Caribbean region had signed a full EPA with the European Union. Some other countries signed Interim Economic Partnership Agreements (IEPAs), pending the negotiation of a final settlement within the coming years. Even including these, only 35 of 78 ACP countries have signed any form of new trade deal -- a minority, especially in Africa. The countries of the East African Community, which includes Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi, signed en bloc at the end of November, but they were the only regional group to do so. In West Africa, only the Ivory Coast and Ghana signed -- two middle-income countries. In central Africa, again the only middle-income country, Cameroon, was alone in signing an IEPA. In southern Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, and Namibia were the only states to sign.

The EPAs are thus unfinished business and the area of trade remains a contentious issue. Europe does not appear to understand this. At the EU-African summit in Lisbon in December 2007, the African side surprised its European counterpart by wanting to put trade back on the agenda when Europeans considered the issue closed. The final summit declaration, which talks about a “partnership of equals” between Europe and Africa, does not mention trade at all. It is an exceptionally bland document.

Migration is another issue that is not often at the fore of political discussions but that concerns all Africans and affects their perception of Europe. Outrage over the number of Africans who die while trying to reach Europe by boat, when all other routes of legal immigration are blocked by law, continues unabated. In the course of 2007, some 1,861 migrants died trying to cross into Europe by sea, according to the Italian monitoring organization Fortress Europe. This is only a slight improvement upon 2006, when the number of known deaths was 2,088.1

Yet no European government feels compelled to act to save these lives. Fishermen from Tunisia and Italy have even been prosecuted for abetting “human trafficking” because they rescued migrants at sea. Illegal migration is seen exclusively as a security issue by Europe, and in the course of 2007 the European Union decided to make its maritime frontier patrols, organized by the EU border security agency, permanent. This may have deterred some crossings, but the body count shows that it has not provided security to migrants. The European Union is also increasingly relying on North African countries, especially Algeria and Libya, to do some of the dirty work in repelling migrants on its behalf by rounding up, interning, and deporting illegal sub-Saharan travellers. Despite shocking reports of abuse in desert detention camps in Libya, none of the many state dignitaries from Europe visiting North Africa last year voiced concern about the matter. In fact, European leaders are instead in stiff competition to close the best business deals with the Libyan dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi, who is never subjected to the same criticism regarding democracy and human rights as sub-Saharan governments.

African observers take note of this much more than European observers do—and much more than Europeans think Africans do. It fundamentally alienates them from any European rhetoric about democracy. Africans also note with incredulity that anti-African racism is still a feature of European political discourse. Nicolas Sarkozy, the newly elected French president, caused a storm of protest throughout Africa on his first visit to the continent in July when he gave a speech riddled with racist clichés at the University of Dakar in Senegal. Colonialism, he said, was not responsible for genocide, dictatorship, fanaticism, and corruption in Africa today. “Africa’s tragedy is that the African man has not entered into history sufficiently. The African peasant, who since time immemorial has lived according to the rhythm of the seasons and whose ideal is to be in harmony with nature -- he knows only the endless return of time structured by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words. In this mode of thought there is no place for the adventure of humanity or the idea of progress ... That is Africa’s problem."2

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