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17th Jun 2021

Interview

EU Africa envoy: Europe needs to look beyond migration

  • The African Union is seated in Addis Ababa (Photo: EUobserver)

Europe risks losing out on the potential of Africa given its fixation on migration, says Ranier Sabatucci, the EU's ambassador to the African Union.

"For me the message is that by not looking at Africa for what it is and for what it is becoming, we risk fixing our gaze at a very narrow thing, this migration debate," Ranier Sabatucci told EUobserver on Wednesday (20 November).

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Speaking at his office from across the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia's capital city, Addis Ababa, Sabatucci says others, in a nod to China, are instead viewing Africa as a rapidly-growing continent with loads of potential.

The continent of 55 states is currently edging towards a larger aspiration - to remove the vast majority of its internal tariffs over the next five years.

Also known as the African continental free trade area (AfCFTA), the legal framework enters into force in a matter of weeks. Around 30 African countries have so far ratified it. All but Eritrea have signed.

Although big questions on actual implementation remain, the hope is that the deal will eventually create millions of new jobs and lift many others out of crushing poverty in what could become the world's largest market.

If it delivers on its promise, the agreement should increase internal Africa trade by over 50 percent, up from its current low teens.

But negotiations have not even started on which tariffs will be removed - and only Egypt, Seychelles, and Mauritius have so far identified those they will put on the table.

And only three months after having signed the pact, Africa's largest economy, Nigeria, slapped a ban on the movement of all goods from neighbouring countries Benin, Niger, and Cameroon.

Other issues, like rules of origin, social and environmental standards, also remain vague. Negotiations are still ongoing in things like the services sector and intellectual property.

The whole casts a long shadow over an agreement that aspires to launch a new African chapter and one where Europe hopes to one day secure continent-to-continent trade deal.

Asked to comment, Sabatucci draws reference to Europe's own past.

Single market took 36 years

"Just to declare the single market basically took us 36 years, so why would we be expecting Africa to be much faster?" he said, noting that the any progressive step is a partial success.

Sabatucci also doubts the EU will cut a continent-to-continent free trade agreement with Africa anytime soon.

"Will my kids see it, I think potentially say yes and whether they should see it, I would say definitely yes," he said.

Across the street from his office inside the African Union, some 1,000 people from over a 100 countries had gathered as part of the World Export Development Forum.

At its opening ceremony earlier on Wednesday, Ethiopia's president Sahle-Work Zewde spoke of industrialisation and regulatory reforms to tap into Africa's estimated €3trillion market.

His speech marks a large shift in Africa's second-most populous nation, wrecked by decades of abuse by an authoritarian state.

Its new prime minister Abiy Ahmed, appointed in April last year, has since embarked on rapid widespread and deep reforms. It won him the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019 last month, but has not come without a cost.

Since loosening the iron grip of the state, the country has endured a deepening ethnic and regional conflict, displacing over two million people.

EU wants continental free-trade deal with Africa

Earlier this week, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in his state of the union announced a new relationship with Africa. On Friday, his subordinates outlined the vision, promising jobs and growth by leveraging public funds for investments.

EU Africa chief: UN goals will not be met by aid alone

The EU's ambassador to the African Union warns the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 cannot be met due to low aid contributions by EU member states - poor countries instead need to attract their own financial flows through trade.

Feature

Promises and doubts: Africa's free-trade adventure

The EU is hoping that a continent-wide free trade agreement in Africa will help lift millions out of poverty and help solve issues of security and migration. But its message of values and equal partnership do not resonate with everyone.

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A Finnish EU presidency paper on migration, designed to feed into the new European Commission, lays out a vision to prevent irregular migration, forced displacement, and boost cooperation on return and readmission.

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