2021 will be an important year for Africa-Europe relations. Covid-19 has dealt a severe blow to both continents, in human and economic terms. The road to recovery is long and uncertain. While vaccination campaigns are proceeding fast in some European countries, progress is uneven.
As for Africa, it was good to see the first cargo with vaccines landing in Ghana (subscription required) this week following a renewed commitment from the G7 countries to support Covax and to share their vaccine surplus. However, the uneven vaccination progress between the two continents is stark. Some speak of a new ‘vaccine diplomacy’ to jumpstart a new and more equal partnership between Africa and Europe. Will it work?
The signs are mixed at best. The much-anticipated African Union-European Union (AU-EU) high-level summit, postponed from 2020, looks to be further delayed.
A virtual mini-summit planned for December around the European Council leaders’ summit was cancelled at the last minute by Cyril Ramaphosa, then chair of the African Union Commission, citing limited interest from heads of states as a reason. The current Portuguese Presidency of the EU is keen to finalise a date for a summit this spring, but the Covid-19 situation does not help and the AU is yet to confirm a date that would work for them. Summit or no summit, the recovery from Covid-19 will require a stronger partnership between Africa and Europe and progress must be made in 2021.
Covid-19: a lesson in international cooperation
To achieve this, we need to go back to the drawing board on what matters the most for both continents. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that we need more international cooperation to address global challenges, building on each other’s strengths and learning from mutual experience. For example, much can and should be learnt from the African response to Covid-19 and how crucial intra-Africa cooperation was to control the spread of the virus, building on past experience of handling pandemics.
Such learning can help the world better anticipate and plan for future global heath challenges. Viruses don’t need visas, so we need commons systems and integration that allows us to work together to address future pandemics.
Similarly, it is now imperative to collaborate to ensure equitable access to vaccines so that we can all be safe and speed up the recovery across borders.
Urgent policy issues as a route to closer collaboration
Next, we need to refocus on the most urgent policy issues that Africa and Europe can address together. This means collaborating at large scale, rather than on ‘projects’ to fix major global challenges such as climate change, pandemics, trade and the future of work. Progress is being made on some areas.
Development cooperation will be needed more than ever to support the Covid-19 reset across Africa and this means adapting financial instruments and priorities to this new reality. We must also address ongoing unresolved challenges and disagreements such as the thorny issue of migration between the two continents.
Over the past few years, Europe has missed the opportunity to work with Africa to manage the reality of human mobility as a matter of shared prosperity and opportunities. Instead it has focused on migration through the lens of security, containment and deterrence.
It is time to move on. To address and resolve these tensions, we need a new, bolder vision coupled with decisive action, as well as investment.
Renewed alliances require new perspectives
The starting point must be that Africa and Europe are strategic partners as well as neighbours. This means capitalising on various dimensions of regional cooperation, making the most of and strengthening existing platforms and instruments of both the African and the European Union, as well as regional development banks and other key actors.
Where political stumbling blocks remain, we need a renewed investment in multilateralism coupled with the forging of new or stronger alliances. The re-engagement of the US in international processes provides an opportunity to increase collaboration globally on key issues, so the EU and AU now have a unique opportunity to set a new tone for transatlantic relations.
Competition between the US and China is an opportunity for Europe to step up and build strategic partnerships around the globe, particularly in Africa. In short, there is now a unique chance to design a new multilateral cooperative framework post-Covid, and Africa is the most natural ally for Europe.
Secondly, Africa is a business opportunity for Europe. It is in Europe’s interest to no longer look at Africa as only a humanitarian case but as a business case.
This calls for a change of mindset and perspective in the EU. For example, Africa will be a key supplier of skills to meet the demographic needs of Europe. This is only likely to be reinforced by the immediate and long-term labour market gaps in key sectors for the recovery, from healthcare to social care and agriculture. Designing mechanisms to manage skills partnerships and visa regimes to address these shortages will be key and requires a trusted partnership between Africa and Europe on this topic. Some of the proposals included in the new EU Migration Pact signal a move in this direction, but a lot more needs to happen to make the so called ‘Talent Partnerships’ a reality to bring mutual benefits to both continents.
We need more than just states to make the most of migration
Private foundations, employers and investors, alongside diaspora and workers organisations are all key for deepening cooperation on migration, climate and trade in the years to come.
We know that human mobility can be a powerful engine of economic development. Too many restrictions limit what migration can bring for those who move and those who stay. Employers need to access talent and skills, no matter where they are from. This is all the more important in the era of digitalisation and low-carbon transitions. Economies will need to change and adapt, and new skills will be required for new and different jobs.
We simply cannot afford to have migration policies limiting access to labour markets and curbing the opportunities that migration can bring to economies and societies. Finally, Europe needs a more sophisticated and efficient approach to private sector investment in Africa: many European SMEs would like to expand into Africa, but need systems, visas and support to make this possible.
Focus on local communities and cities
Looking to the future, more and better investment needs to be made in local communities and cities. While migration policies are a prerogative of national governments, increasingly we have seen local political leaders taking decisive action to collaborate across borders.
A group of visionary mayors from cities across Africa and Europe, led by Milan and Freetown, are working together to make their cities places of opportunity, where young people can thrive, mobility is a choice and newcomers can find a home. The resulting Mayors Dialogue on Growth and Solidarity is a city-led initiative delivering practical solutions for human mobility by pooling their efforts and resources to collaborate in key sectors of urban development, including skills for green economies, housing and other urban services and inclusive local governance.
Civil society — and youth in particular — in Africa and Europe play a key role in countering anti-migrant narratives but also championing local innovation. Partnerships between civil society organisations (CSOs) are often involved in piloting practical ways for managing skills and technology shifts. At the same time, it is CSOs who have kept European governments in check when it comes to human rights violations, especially since the so-called ‘migration crisis’ of 2015.
Youth groups in Africa and Europe can change the narrative of historically viewing Africa-Europe relations through the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. So, providing support and instruments for young people to collaborate between the continents and solve global challenges together is a smart investment.
Finally, we have learnt that tackling polarising issues like migration with economic evidence, benefits and figures alone is not enough to persuade European politicians to help shift the narrative. We need an honest conversation on this, which must come from think tanks, foundations and others who can develop and test practical propositions to bridge the gap between political narratives and the lived realities of people on the move. They must be connected with our collective endeavour across the Mediterranean Sea to emerge from Covid-19 as stronger and more equal partners.