On 2-3 April 2014, the European Union (EU) together with African Union leaders and respective heads of state will meet in Brussels for the 4th EU-Africa Summit. The summit, the first since the establishment of the European External Action Service and the designation of the South African Dlamini-Zuma as chairperson of the African Union, is an important occasion to take stock of progress in EU-Africa relations and define the political agenda for the next four years. The event is particularly timely as we approach the end of the Millennium Development Goals and with the ongoing discussion on the post-2015 development agenda.
To consider the emergence of a more mature and inclusive EU-Africa partnership, this commentary attempts to identify examples of progress and challenges they still have to face, and goes on to outline some of the expectations for the summit.
The Africa-EU Partnership, established in 2007 and enshrined in the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES), embodied a new forward-looking vision for relations between Europe and Africa. It set out an overarching political framework to move cooperation beyond institutions to a genuine “people-centered partnership”. The 2014 summit signals a commitment to follow through by dedicating the agenda to the theme “Investing in People, Prosperity and Peace”, three areas in which the EU is increasingly focusing its cooperation.
The EU has made its support for security and peace a priority, with particular focus on reaching concrete results in the Horn of Africa. In the last few years, the EU has also made considerable efforts to make both its bilateral cooperation with African countries and its multilateral engagement with the continent more comprehensive and oriented to mutual benefit and equality. Nevertheless, we have yet to see the transfer of its commitments into concrete action.
The agenda for the 2014 summit clearly conveys the intentions of the EU to follow through. It is the aim of the main event as well as the high-level side events, such as the EU-Africa Business Forum, the 3rd Pan-African European Parliamentary Summit and the 2nd Africa-EU Civil Society Forum, which would bring forward the discussions throughout these key channels of cooperation.
The thematic focus of the summit also reflects the commitment of the Agenda for Change, presented by the European Commission in 2011, which prioritizes human rights, democracy and governance, and inclusive and sustainable growth for human development in EU international development policy. The Agenda has also set criteria for the allocation of funding to the European Development Found (EDF) and theDevelopment Co-operation instrument (DCI), the two main financial instruments, under the recently approved Multilateral Financial Framework for the period 2014-2020, which reallocates funds towards the most fragile and less developed countries.
Moreover, the discussions in the summit this week will focus on themes that are central both for Europe and Africa, such as the need to create employment, particularly for young people, and to foster human capital investment in education and training. Under this point, the issue of migration may also be addressed. It is likely that representatives will seek to better define the role that the EU and African Union should play and how they can improve coordination, ahead of the existing JAES partnership on ‘Migration, Mobility and Employment.’
EU and African leaders may also look at potential strategies to stimulate economic growth, recover from the financial crisis and create incentives for investments and development. These elements suggest that the summit can actually provide an opportunity to move beyond a mere donor-beneficiary relationship and promote a more strategic and comprehensive partnership.
Despite the opportunities, there are several factors which could undermine the development of the EU-Africa partnership, particularly over the coming months.
First, if the focus on human development and inclusive growth is an indication of more mature and equal relations, it also serves the purpose of differentiating the EU from other, more competitive partners, such as China, India or Brazil. Therefore, the challenge for the EU is to present itself as a reliable attractive interlocutor, and to develop the pursuit of a people-oriented, responsible, and sustainable partnership. On the other hand, its commitment in promoting democratic standards, the rule of law, and respect of human rights may make the EU a less attractive interlocutor for many non-democratic African countries that prefer partners and donors that impose fewer conditions.
Second, on the economic and commercial aspects, the main element of concern is the lack of progress on the Economic Partnership Agreement negotiations. Most significantly, if the October 2014 deadline set by the European Commission to conclude the negotiations is not met, many African countries could lose their preferential access to European markets, with strong implications for bilateral trade and regional integration.
Third, focusing on the EU development policy, the new priorities and budget reallocations in favor of less developed countries tend to overlook the complexity of issues such as wealth distribution and social inequality. The debate on the fund allocation for South Africa illustrates the challenges in this sense.
Last and in thinking about leadership, the appointment of a new college of Commissioners and High Representative by 1 November 2014 has the potential to transform EU priorities and its approach to Africa. With this significant change already scheduled over the next 7-8 months, it is incumbent for the current leadership to take stock of progress but also to use the summit to establish consensus and clarity on the next phase in EU-Africa relations. Besides, although the summit can set an agenda for action, EU member states still have the final word on every strategic decision.