Will this time really be different? Twenty years of trying (and failing) to reset Europe-Africa relations

By Emily Jones - 07 April 2020
Will this time really be different? Twenty years of trying (and failing) to reset Europe-Africa relations

The European Union (EU) is hoping that 2020 will be a pivotal year in its relationship with Africa. As Africa becomes more of a strategic priority for Europe, European leaders are aiming to reset relations. In the words of Ursula von der Leyen, the new President of the European Commission, Europe wants to work “in the spirit of a true partnership of equals”. What are the prospects? This essay reviews two decades of cooperation between Europe and Africa in three key areas: development finance, migration, and trade and investment. The track-record is sobering. It shows how leaders from the two continents have been trying (and failing) to reset their relationship for the past twenty years: time and again pledges have not been met, and leaders have often talked past each other. Cooperation has not been impeded by a shortage of projects and programmes, but by a dysfunctional relationship. Given the geographic proximity of the two continents and regular flows of trade, people, and finance between them, African and European governments need to find more effective ways of working together. Leaders need to openly acknowledge and discuss the deep-seated tensions, divergent interests, and confront the trust deficit that undermines cooperation. The essay ends with suggestions on how to make this happen.

Policy Recommendations

  • Leaders from the two continents should put aside grand plans and frameworks in favour of discrete, meaningful initiatives. They should aim for a strategic alliance rather than a ‘partnership of equals’, as this better reflects current realities.
  • To send a signal that it is serious about rebalancing the relationship, European leaders could prioritise issues that are important to African governments and require Europe to change, countering the widespread perception that African governments are always asked to bear the brunt of adjustment. Initiatives might include reforming European visa processes to ensure they are fair and efficient, vigorously countering hostility and misinformation in Europe about African migrants, and acting in meaningful ways to prevent European firms and offshore centres from facilitating illicit financial flows.
  • Leaders could focus new cooperative ventures on areas where neither Europe nor Africa has an obvious resource advantage, fostering an exchange of ideas and expertise and working together to address common concerns


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