Can the New European Commission Deliver on Its Promises to Africa?

Familiar promises of equal partnership must be backed by bolder action, including an expanded budget, internal reform and a rethink of its approach to trade negotiations.

Expert comment Published 4 December 2019 Updated 5 December 2019 3 minute READ

Damir Kurtagic

Former Academy Robert Bosch Fellow, Africa Programme

Jutta Urpilainen, new EU commissioner for international partnerships, at the European Parliament in Brussels in October. Photo: Getty Images.

Jutta Urpilainen, new EU commissioner for international partnerships, at the European Parliament in Brussels in October. Photo: Getty Images.

The new European Commission, headed by Ursula von der Leyen, assumed office on 1 December, and there are early signs that Africa will begin near the top of their foreign policy priorities. Policy towards Africa under the new EU administration is yet to be fully defined, but its contours are already visible in the selection of commissioners and assignment of portfolios.

Although rumours of a dedicated commissioner for Africa were unfounded, the appointment of Jutta Urpilainen to the new role of commissioner for international partnerships – replacing the former post of development commissioner – is a strong signal of ongoing change in EU development thinking, away from bilateral aid towards trade and investment, including by the private sector.

This may have significant consequences for the EU’s relationship with Africa. In her mission letter to Urpilainen in September, von der Leyen listed the first objective as a new ‘comprehensive strategy for Africa’. Urpilainen, Finland’s finance minister before being posted to Ethiopia as special representative on mediation, has also described her appointment as an opportunity to move on from traditional measures of aid delivery.

Ambition or incoherence?

However, this ambition may be at odds with other EU priorities and practices, notably managing migration and institutions and instruments for governing EU–Africa relations that remain rooted in a ‘traditional’ model of North–South development cooperation rather than equitable partnership.

Another newly created post will see Margaritis Schinas assume the role of vice-president for promoting the European way of life – formerly ‘protecting our European way of life’ before a backlash saw it changed – a reminder that migration will remain high on the EU’s foreign policy agenda. The new high representative for foreign and security policy and chief EU diplomat, Josep Borrell, has highlighted the need for bilateral partnership with countries of origin and transit, mainly in Africa.

Negotiations also continue to stall on a replacement to the Cotonou Agreement, the 20-year partnership framework between the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of states, which now looks certain to be extended for at least 12 months beyond its expiry in February 2020.

Ambiguities in the EU’s negotiating approach have certainly contributed to the delay: having pushed initially for a separate regional pillar for Africa that would be opened to the North African countries (who are not ACP members) and include a loosely defined role for the African Union, this would later be abandoned in favour of a dual-track process on separate new agreements with the AU and ACP respectively.

The EU also continues to pursue controversial economic partnership agreements under the aegis of Cotonou, despite their increasing appearance of incompatibility with the pathbreaking African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) – one of the clearest expressions to date of African agency.

The EU has so far attempted to gloss over this incoherence, claiming that EPAs can somehow act as the ‘building blocks’ for Africa-wide economic integration. But tensions are appearing between EU departments and within the commission, with the European External Action Service inclined to prioritize a more strategic continental relationship with the AU, while the Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development remains committed to the ACP as the conduit for financial support and aid delivery.

And it is unlikely to get away with such incoherence for much longer. Change is now urgent, as numerous countries in sub-Saharan Africa continue to attract the strategic and commercial interests of the EU’s competitors: from established players such as China and potentially in future the UK, which is intent on remodelling its Africa ties post-Brexit, to emerging actors such as Turkey or Russia, which held its first Africa summit in October.

The need for delivery

If the EU is serious about its rhetoric on equal partnership, it must therefore move beyond convoluted hybrid proposals. Delivering on the Juncker administration’s proposal to increase funding for external action by 30 per cent for 2021–27 would mark an important first step, particularly as this involves streamlining that would see the European Development Fund – the financial instrument for EU-ACP relations – incorporated into the main EU budget.

The new commission should therefore continue to exert pressure on the European Council and European Parliament to adopt this proposal, as negotiations on this financial framework have been repeatedly subject to delay and may not be resolved before the end of the year.

Beyond this, proactive support for the AfCFTA and for structural transformation more broadly must be prioritized ahead of vague promises for a continent-to-continent free trade agreement, as held out by Juncker in his final State of the Union address in 2018.

The significance of internal EU reforms for Africa should also not be discounted. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, for instance, has placed the African sector at a particular disadvantage and has made it harder to compete even in domestic markets, let alone in the distant EU export markets. EU efforts to stimulate inflows of private investments into the African agricultural sector, abolish import tariffs and offer technical support for African producers to satisfy EU health and safety regulations will be of little use if they are undermined by heavy subsidies across Europe.

Ultimately, changes to job titles alone will be insufficient. The new commission’s rhetoric, while ambitious, differs little from that of the previous decade – Africa has heard the promise of a ‘partnership of equals’ and of ‘shared ownership’ since before the advent of the Joint Africa–EU Strategy in 2007. Now is the time for truly bold steps to implement this vision.