Culture notes: Europe's broken promises to Africa

Europe’s ‘gas grab’ in Africa is just the latest abuse of its relationship with the continent, says Catherine Fieschi.

The World Today Updated 27 October 2022 Published 3 August 2022 2 minute READ

Catherine Fieschi

Director, Counterpoint

When Emmanuel Macron made one of his first visits to Africa as France’s recently elected young president in 2017, his speech at Ouagadougou University in Burkina Faso was designed to set the tone for a new relationship between his country and African countries. 

‘There no longer is a French policy for Africa,’ he said.

This was a signal away from ‘la Françafrique’, with its post-colonial accents and the propping up of regimes friendly to France, to something that was more strategic, equitable and transparent – more partnership and less tutelage. 

And Europe seemed to be following suit. In March 2020 the European Union and Africa decided that they would redefine their relationship. The European Commission unveiled its vision for a ‘comprehensive strategy with Africa’. The roadmap would give Africa significantly more say over the nature and extent of the relationship, more choice and more political agency.

Despite repeated statements, Europe seems to be saying one thing and doing another when it comes to Africa

But what, today, is left of these aspirations? Despite repeated statements, Europe seems to be saying one thing and doing another. 

Earlier this year, after the long-awaited 6th annual EU-African Union summit in Brussels, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa was frank when he summed up the gap between stated ambitions and the current relationship. The pandemic-weary Global South had reason to be wary. Ramaphosa laid out missed opportunities, disappointment and the low expectations that act as self-fulfilling prophecies. 

Europe’s changing focus in Africa 

From the apparent high point of the Ouagadougou speech, Macron has now turned to the Organization Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) in Africa for geopolitical purposes. His primary aim is to combat the rise of Islamist militants and terrorism in the Sahel as well as to tackle the growing influence of China and Russia in the region. 

Russian inroads – via the security firm Wagner in Mali, for instance – have given France further cause to use the OIF to counter destabilization activities. Both the United Kingdom and France train African military in the Sahel, but now, with the end of France’s anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane in Mali, the subsequent withdrawal of French troops and the increasingly established presence of the Wagner group, the security situation in the region is expected to deteriorate dramatically and become increasingly impermeable to European interests and forces.

As for development aid, Britain’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy makes no bones about the fact that Asia is now a priority over Africa.

The relationship between Africa and Britain is being transformed as a result, most obviously through the cuts in development aid, with African aid cut by 66 per cent in 2021. But the nature of the relationship, which has become both more conditional and more transactional, has also changed. 

The UK is emphasizing human rights and ‘free societies’, but also pushing for free market principles rather than the kind of state involvement that some African countries often prefer as a road to accelerated and more autonomous development. 

The future of energy exports and COP27

The issue of energy exports points to what will most likely trigger the greatest disappointment in the next few years – climate and climate finance. 

Green energy deals, like the $8.5 billion COP26 package from the EU, United States and UK to South Africa, look far more problematic now in the light of Europe’s African gas-grab. Indeed, Europe is importing as much African gas as it can after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia reduced supplies. Yet African countries are still being told to curb their own use of ‘dirty’ energy. 

As an illustration, Nigeria holds 3 per cent of the world’s gas reserves, but has barely tapped them, while 40 per cent of its output is exported to Europe. In April, Italy closed deals to buy gas from Angola and the Republic of Congo, while Germany did the same with Senegal.

At COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, developed countries pledged an annual $100 billion in climate finance to developing countries for both adaptation and mitigation. But pledges have never really materialized. The aid agency Oxfam estimates that only about a third of the money has been delivered. Climate finance was again the main focus of COP26 – and dismissed by Greta Thunberg as more ‘blah, blah, blah’.

This series of repeated resets, pledges and disappointments tells a story – indeed, several stories. First and foremost, it is one of arrogance and betrayal. That much is obvious. But it is also a story about stories – about how the narratives elaborated by various European countries and leaders never amount to more than a sum of transactions. 

Climate change places Europe, and other rich nations, at a crossroads in its relationship with Africa: the former holds the wealth, but also some of the keys and threats to the transition. COP27, to be held in Egypt in November, will be the next chapter in the story.