For all its scale, the EU-Africa summit will be a modest event – indeed, EU officials talk of it in terms of an austerity summit. African leaders cannot expect the quality of treatment they received at their last summit in Europe: in 2007, Portugal was able to give the late Muammar Qaddafi a castle in which to pitch his tent.
Perhaps, though, when they chafe at the constraints of the Justus Lipsius building and wonder about the modest gifts, Africans will conclude that Europe has been humbled by the economic crisis and that its talk of a ‘partnership of equals’ is a genuine expression of intent and new modesty.
But can the EU truly move beyond its old development-aid default mode to a fuller, more normal relationship? The EU is certainly signalling its intent – ‘development’ is not even a sub-category on the summit agenda. Although most EU funds for Africa still go through the European Commission’s development department, Africans anxious that EU’s traditional mode will prevail can feel assured by other changes.
The EU’s finances are straitened: its aid budgets are shrinking and its interest in private-public alliances is burgeoning. Its policies are having to undergo comprehensive review. They have to take into account the United Nations’ deliberations about the post-2015 development agenda; the ‘reflections’ of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on development post-2015 (possibly including a re-definition of ‘aid’ to include more security-related support); and the EU’s and Africa’s search for a replacement in 2020 to the Cotonou Agreement that frames their relations.
Increasingly, too, the EU is seeking to apply a ‘comprehensive approach’ to the problems in the ‘arc of instability’ that runs from Africa’s Atlantic to Indian Ocean shores. That comprehensive approach also implies a look at Europe’s contribution to Africa’s problems, including the trade in conflict minerals and a lack of financial transparency – a process that the incoming European Parliament and a pending African Union Commission investment code could push forward.
There are also geopolitical impulses for change. Europe’s struggle for growth and the energy shock produced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are likely to boost interest in Africa further. For Europe’s diplomats, Africa could be a valuable strategic partner in international forums – which is one reason why the frequent differences in European and African voting patterns in the United Nations increasingly trouble European diplomats.
These are all reasons why the EU’s interest in Africa is likely to grow and to expand, as planned, well beyond development. But development aid will, surely, remain fundamental: the challenges facing Africa are simply too large – it remains under-developed, environmentally and politically fragile, and at the sharp end of climate change. EU-level aid is, though, likely to be spread more unevenly.
That will create painful choices. Already, aid darlings and aid orphans pose difficult questions for policymakers: Ethiopia is effective in its development and is popular with donors, but its human-rights record is bad, while the Central African Republic (CAR) was receiving minimal aid before its collapse. The international ‘New Deal’ initiative agreed in 2010 to co-ordinate international policy toward 19 fragile states, including CAR, will surely gain more attention.
Overall, despite such deep-seated problems, EU-African relations appear to be normalising. That normalisation will make it easier to sell the EU to an Africa that knows it is now a pole of attraction for other continents. Perhaps the European style of ‘partnership’ – the fourth, unstated P beyond the summit’s focus on ‘prosperity, peace and people’ – will prove its major competitive advantage. It can offer Africa a comprehensive strategic partnership of a type, scale and variety that others, such as China and the United States, cannot – at least for the time being.
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