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The EU's Africa strategy – leadership via old wine in a new bottle

The Africa strategy is a nice re-wrapping of EU policy towards Africa. Don’t get me wrong, this is not to belittle the paper. It is laudable to have the multitude of different policies in one reference document. The strategy refers to the new Development Policy Statement and supports the call for greater coherence without subjecting any one policy to the rationale of another (say, making development an instrument for security). Another laudable element is the clear focus around the MDGs without too narrow a focus. The chosen ‘concentric circles’ approach (preconditions, supportive environment, and MDGs proper) is a clever way to make the MDGs centre piece of one’s policy without falling into the trap of supporting unsustainable social services.

The strategy does not – and cannot – replace the ACP or the MEDA process, which lives on dialogue with partners. This makes it unclear and difficult to assess how “shared” the objectives actually are between Europe and Africa. It is good, though, that the EU (as a whole) gets clarity about what it wants to support, promote and achieve in Africa, which is neither monolithic nor politically stagnating. Supporting NEPAD and the implementation of APRM recommendations is also a good approach, I believe. It will take a lot of time and resources (and resistance to frustration) to get the process going.

The news is not so much the content of the strategy, but its existence. Some points, however, are worth mentioning. Interestingly enough, the annex under the heading of “geo-political dynamics” highlights the growing role of emerging economies in Africa, far from least: China. Sino-African trade has almost tripled in the last four years and China’s energy need in the future will make a further increase in figures likely. On the other hand, China operates “mostly outside of the traditional development and governance frameworks”, i.e. might run counter to EU intentions in a number of countries (e.g. Zimbabwe, to mention but one current example). Other countries, such as the USA, Japan, and Russia have also recently increased their engagement in Africa for a mix of geopolitical, developmental and economic reasons. The strategy also picks up the concept of regional “anchor countries”, developed by German policy, notably Nigeria and South Africa.

A number of critical points remain – critical in the overall perspective, as the strategy assembles existing documents and provides for a very limited number of new ideas. But that is not its intention nor its role, anyway. Probably not avoidable in a document of this political level, some of the rhetoric garlands are quite heavy: What is meant by “interlocking cultures” between Europe and Africa? And yet another watershed in the relations between the EU and Africa is declared – this time, the watershed is stretched over 2005 to 2015. The Cotonou Agreement is signed until 2020 and yet seems to be forgotten already.

A number of objectives are a new attempt to older plans which failed or were highly contested due to Member State resistance, such as the comprehensive donor atlas. This ambitious plan is re-staged in the light of the Paris declaration. Member states as a rule don’t like being coordinated – least so by the Commission (as some would say, why not the African partner?). This argument is unlikely to have changed. The idea of harmonisation at the country level and joint programming documents are both not new either. But they are as ambitious as they are plausible. There is a long, rocky road before us until we can implement – if ever – such thing as a coherent policy of “one Europe” towards “one Africa”.  However, with its well-written Africa strategy, the Commission is taking over a role of leadership in the 25+1 policies towards our neighbouring continent. This needs to be acknowledged as what it is: a good step in the right direction.