EU eyes Africa free-trade deal amid battle for influence

Annual state of the European Union address by Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, at the European Parliament. Photo by: Christian Creutz / EU

BRUSSELS — The European Commission pledged a new “alliance” with Africa on Wednesday, saying it wants to pursue a free-trade deal between the two continents — but the plan drew fire for rehashing existing initiatives, a lack of consultation, and sidelining sustainable development.

The Africa-Europe Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs does not offer new money or funding instruments, but rather attempts to forge what one senior EU official described to Devex as “a new, co-owned economic partnership.”

“We have the ongoing political framework,” the official said, referring to the joint Africa-EU strategy, reaffirmed at the African Union-European Union summit in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, last year. “But you don’t have a joint economic strategy from both sides, and that is what we’re trying to do.”

The alliance will support the creation of 10 million jobs in the next five years according to the EC. It envisages a greater role for the private sector via initiatives such as the European External Investment Plan; ongoing student exchanges; an improved business climate through country dialogues; and building on trade relationships, such as Economic Partnership Agreements.

The long-term goal, announced by EC President Jean-Claude Juncker at his final State of the Union speech in Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday, is to “develop the numerous trade agreements between African and EU countries into a continental free-trade agreement, an economic partnership between equal partners.” Seeing the EU-Africa relationship solely through the prism of development would be “insufficient and in fact humiliating for Africa,” Juncker added to applause from members of the European Parliament and Commission.

However, the EU official said a free-trade deal between the two continents depends on first making the African Continental Free Trade Area, or AfCFTA, agreed by AU member states in March, a reality. “Of course, it’s a long, long way to get there in terms of harmonizing the standards, facilitating the customs controls etc.,” the official said. The commission’s plan includes boosting technical assistance for AfCFTA to €50 million ($58.09 million) between 2018-2020.

The response from European civil society and African partners to the planned alliance was lukewarm. “Having heard that there would be a big announcement during the president’s speech this morning, we were all expecting something really new,” said Viwanou Gnassounou, assistant secretary-general in the sustainable economic development and trade department of the African, Caribbean, and Pacific group of states. “But we just heard that there will be ‘strengthened commitment,’ so we’re looking forward to hearing something a little bit more concrete.”

Gnassounou also criticized EPAs, which the EC plan portrayed as “building blocks” to a larger EU-Africa trade deal. “The way they have been finalized and implemented, not only are [they] not encouraging regional integration,” he said. “They are not preparing the way to create regional value chains, creating growth and employment.”

The EC plan was similarly met with concern by NGOs, with the activist group ONE taking issue with Juncker saying, “Africa does not need charity, it needs true and fair partnerships.”

“Aid is not charity, it’s an investment in our common future,” the group said in a statement. “Today, more than 100 million children in Africa are out of school. Europe can’t tell those children that their dream of learning to read and write is ‘a thing of the past.’”

Maria Heubuch, a Greens member of the European Parliament from Germany, lamented Juncker’s failure to put significant new funds behind Africa’s economic development. Investments, jobs, and training are important, she said in a statement, “but without money, it is just empty words.”

The EU plan comes after China announced $60 billion in financing for Africa last week through grants, interest-free and concessional loans, credit lines, and the purchase of African imports.

“The Chinese go the typical Chinese way where they put one big figure forward,” the EU official said. “But then, when you start digging a bit deeper, you realize the $60 billion is composed of very shaky elements. For instance, $10 billion for stronger imports of African products to China … what does that mean? We’re not coming up with one big figure [because] that depends on the buy-in of the African partners, the stronger coordination inside Europe and of course the buy-in of the private sector.”

“The Chinese put less strings on their cooperation and investments,” said Susi Dennison, director of the European Power program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “African states are starting to argue that’s an approach that respects them more as legitimate players themselves, rather than the European neighborhood, ‘more-for-more’ approach, which they increasingly argue has had its day.”

For Europe, the worst-case scenario would be a loss of both political and economic clout in Africa to the likes of China and Brazil, the EU official said. In that scenario, African leaders “couldn’t care less about migration to Europe so they say ‘whoever wants to leave to Europe, leaves to Europe.’”

Wednesday’s announcement was the EC’s answer to a call by EU member states at a migration-themed summit in June for more development funding and “steps toward creating a new framework enabling a substantial increase of private investment from both Africans and Europeans.”

AFP reported last week that France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg intend to propose to other EU states at a meeting in Salzburg, Austria, next week that EU funds be offered to African states in exchange for help in stemming illegal migration. Meanwhile, Austria,  which holds the Council of the EU's rotating presidency, is planning a summit with the African Union in Vienna in early December “to develop a fair and sustainable EU-strategy for Africa and support economic development to create jobs and new perspectives.”

The lead up to Juncker’s speech was dominated by talk of reciprocity. Antonio Tajani, the center-right president of the European Parliament, tweeted that he expected the EC “to propose using EU aid and trade agreements to convince countries of origin to take back irregular migrants.”

In the end, Juncker said Wednesday that he and Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president and head of the African Union, had spoken and agreed that “in future, our respective commitments must be reciprocal. We want to build a new partnership with Africa.”

Tajani said that Juncker’s Africa initiative went in the right direction. “Perhaps Europe has finally woken up very late in the day on the migration agenda,” the Italian said in Strasbourg. “If we’d listen to the appeals from a number of countries and groups a few years ago, we might not be where we are today. Significant investment is required as you quite rightly say; we don’t want a policy where we are just handing out gifts. We need development and economic diplomacy.”

But that idea was denounced by NGOs too. “Approaches that say, ‘you’ll only get aid if you stop your people coming to Europe’ are not worthy of the proud values of our continent or likely to endear us to our neighbors,” Johannes Trimmel, president of the European NGO confederation CONCORD, said in a statement.

The ACP group’s Gnassounou also regretted the lack of consultation with the African side of the proposed alliance ahead of Juncker’s speech: “If [the EU] being a major global player is only to come to look for support from Africa or from the ACP to back the EU position, it won’t work.”

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.