Opinion

EU-Africa Summit: Time to end preconceptions?

01.04.14 @ 09:09

  1. By Alex Vines

BRUSSELS - Zimbabwe's boycott of the fourth EU-Africa summit in Brussels on 2-3 April because the EU will not waiver its sanctions on President Mugabe’s wife, Grace, hurts Europe a little, but Zimbabwe more.

  • Zimbabwe leader Robert Mugabe (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe had been invited to the summit and the EU travel ban on him has been suspended. This invitation signaled the desire to normalise relations by many EU members after the July 2013 landslide election victory for Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF.

But President Mugabe, angered that the EU would not waiver sanctions on his wife, ordered Zimbabwean officials to push for an African Union boycott or postponement of the EU-Africa summit. This Zimbabwean effort failed and about 60 European or African heads of state have confirmed their attendance.

Zimbabwe urgently needs Foreign Direct Investment and faces an acute liquidity crisis. Zimbabwe’s finance minister admitted that in January 2014 its central bank only holds gold reserves worth US$501,390.

The biggest single impediment to attracting investment is the lack of clarity over the investment climate in Zimbabwe. Corruption, indigenization and uncertainty over land ownership and tenure inhibit investors’ appetites, especially as many other African countries offer much more attractive business environments.

Zimbabwean officials could have used the pre-summit Business Forum in Brussels to clarify how they plan to make their economy more business-friendly.

Chatham House published a report this week on Zimbabwe’s international re-engagement arguing that heightened Western re-engagement and Zimbabwe attending the EU-Africa summit would have been an important step in normalisation. Zimbabwean officials have tried to frame the refusal to allow the First Lady attend the summit as a neo-colonial conspiracy, encouraged by Britain.

Past summits have been unable to escape the taint of Europe’s past imperialism in Africa. But both Africa and Europe have changed. With multiple suitors competing for access to Africa’s natural resources and markets, European countries can no longer assume advantage of access as a neo-colonial legacy.

Reciprocally, African states should not assume that rhetoric about imperialism will continue to hold water as a means to influence Europe.

A cluster of European countries, such as the Baltic States, obtained independence from the Soviet yoke more recently than the majority of countries in Africa, and may not share the strong pro-Africa interests evident in the policies of their counterparts such as the UK, France and Portugal.

EU-Africa relations matter

Common security and prosperity are in the neighbours’ interests but Europe needs to move away from paternalism and humanitarianism while African states must cease to wield Europe’s guilty past for leverage.

A more honest discussion of the core interests of both continents is needed.

Common positions are never simple to arrive at and can be hard to maintain, but both regions need to define what they want to and can achieve as continental bodies. A large majority of least developed countries are in Africa (34 out of 49, as identified by the UN) and even today three out of every four Africans live in poverty.

As such, Africa remains a priority for Europeans within their development agenda. The EU correctly remains the most important donor for Africa, giving close to €24 billion of Official Development Aid (ODA) for the period 2007–2012. Europeans are the top 10 donors by share of aid to Africa.

European investors still lead with Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). In 2012 the United States was the largest single source of FDI into Africa, followed by France and the UK in second and third place respectively, ahead of India and China. Preferential or free access to the EU for African goods remains important for African growth and while Asian economies may be driving demand for raw materials, the EU is the largest importer of manufactured goods from Africa. The benefits of this can be increased by Europe opening its markets further.

Africa’s prosperity and security is in Europe’s strategic interests. The Sahel or North Africa, areas of insecurity, are part of Europe’s extended neighbourhood, and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and Indian Ocean impacts international trade, hitting European and African business by, amongst other things, spiking insurance premiums. Countering radicalisation in Africa and in Europe are in the immediate interests of both continents.

European economic underperformance also hurts Africa, resulting in less trade, tourism, and remittances from diasporas. As the world’s most youthful continent, skilled and mobile Africans could assist in lifting both Africa’s and Europe’s economic performance, given the space and opportunity to do so. Nigeria is soon to become the world’s third- largest country by population after India and then China, and Lagos, Dar es Salaam and Bamako are among the fastest growing cities in the world.

Look forward to 2100 and ten of the top twenty largest populations in the world are projected to be African, according to a UN study.

So this fourth EU-Africa summit should be a stepping stone to a deeper, more strategic relationship between Africa and Europe and not be distracted by a Zimbabwean boycott.

Nobody should expect dramatic results from this Brussels summit given its timing, but it should assist incremental progress. Acknowledging what is truly important and strategic for both Europe and Africa can help deepen this process.

The writer is Chatham House’s Africa Programme Head.