EU squanders opportunity to reshape its relationship with Africa

How deeply mired Europe remains in its postcolonial donor mindset when dealing with the African continent.

Symbolbild zwei einzelne Puzzleteile. Ein Puzzleteil mit dem Kontinent Afrika und eines mit dem Kontinent Europa. Sie werden von zwei Männchen zueinander geschoben, sodass sie passen würden.

Image: EU Afrika of FES

The fact that Africa has been receiving more attention in Europe than it has for a long time is undisputed. Thankfully, many approaches to encouraging capital expenditure on the neighboring continent are based on an honest effort to foster economic development and social consolidation, even if not always for the right reasons. However, the fact that there is a tendency to forgo any strategic and conceptual coordination with the respective African counterpart, or that they are only taken into account when requested and with Europe’s own interests at heart, reveals a great deal about Africa’s priorities as presumed by Europe – and its own – and demonstrates by implication how deeply mired Europe remains in its postcolonial donor mindset when dealing with the African continent.

Especially in connection with the so-called refugee crisis of 2015, the EU operated first and foremost from the standpoint of an internal crisis and misjudged the conflicting goals of its actions, focusing on short-term results and thus jeopardizing enduring peaceful and sustainable development on the neighboring continent. The spillover effects can be clearly seen in Niger in particular, taking the form of impaired economic regional integration, the further weakening of democratic structures due to corruption, and incentives to the criminalization across entire industries, such as in the transport sector in the context of alleged migration control.

The goal of ensuring a partnership on equal footing has been a mantra ever since the »Joint Africa-EU Strategy« (JAES) from 2007, permeating throughout the EU’s speeches and resolutions. However, the European Union’s actual Africa policy did not change its tone until 2015, which is why we can hardly blame African decision-makers for dismissing this expression as simple lip service.

At the same time, fundamental institutional structures are currently being established as the Post-Cotonou Agreement is being renegotiated, with substantial implications for the EU’s future relations with Africa but largely overlooked by the big players. The Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission, Moussa Faki, did not mince his words on this subject during the last EU-AU summit: »It is high time that we assess the 42-year-old partnership between the EU and the ACP countries together with our European friends. I believe that this type of relationship is outdated.«

As the Post-Cotonou Agreement expires at the end of 2020 with the ACP countries – a group of 79 former colonies, primarily of France and Great Britain, in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific – Europe would have had the opportunity to rejuvenate its partnership with African and adapt it to the changes in the global political landscape. However, the current state of negotiations on future ACP-EU relations appears much more like the preservation of a system that perpetuates postcolonial dependencies and cements inconsistent EU approaches regarding Africa. The EU’s actions in this regard reveal not only an alarming path dependency but also the lack of a political strategy for and with Africa.

The ACP contractual relationship that has served as the authoritative legal agreement for development aid, economic development and political dialog to date has been overtaken by subsequent developments. For example, the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) has been in force since 2004 and is relevant for North African countries, the AU has been responsible for implementing the JAES since 2007, and a separate strategic agreement was signed between the EU and South Africa in 2007. In order to address this complicated and multi-faceted conflict situation, the EU initiated a consultation process in 2015 for a follow-up Cotonou agreement. After doing so, it quickly became clear that there was a strong resolve to continue the relationships between the ACP and the EU. At the same time, the political map for restructuring the relations between Africa and Europe had changed and had become significantly more complex. Most notably the AU, founded in 2002, represented an actor that doubted the legitimacy of the ACP, rejecting it as a postcolonial construct and considering itself to be the sole »voice of Africa« and its interests. This sentiment is certainly fueled by the fact that high-level representatives from the AU and EU regularly meet with one another – even outside of the joint summits. It is no coincidence that these summits are no longer called EU-Africa Summits but rather EU-AU Summits at the insistence of the AU ever since the last summit at the end of 2017 in Abidjan, which reflects the increasing recognition of the AU as an international player as well as its self-perception and aspiration. By contrast, the ACP has lost a great deal of political relevance since the turn of the millennium, although it continues to perceive itself as the advocacy group for its members vis-à-vis the European Union and would prefer not to have the AU at the same table during negotiations. The fact that 49 African countries, with the exception of North Africa and South Sudan, are members of both the ACP and the AU complicates the matter further.

The structure of the relationship is changing

Although the EU relies on the three-pillar model, which maintains the overarching framework, it concentrates on the respective regions for the practical cooperation and implementation. The new regional EU-Africa agreement should then supersede the existing intercontinental strategy (JAES) and be replaced by a uniform Africa strategy (»One Africa«). The logic behind this approach is an attempt to merge the ACP and AU in whatever way possible. It is difficult to imagine that such an undertaking could succeed, since the organizations do not represent the same countries and even their respective mandates differ. As the only organization representing all of Africa, the AU pursues continental projects, which the ACP cannot initiate or carry out according to its mandate. The development project Agenda 2063, the Continental Free Trade Area and the African Peace and Security Architecture are worth mentioning here. In addition, the EU supports the projects both politically and financially because they are also important in the EU’s opinion for the peaceful and sustainable development of the continent. The AU will not surrender these undertakings to the ACP, regardless of the form a future agreement might take.

Even though a recommendation from the AU for reshaping European-African relations was a long time coming, the Union was finally able to approve a common African position (CAP) in March 2018, thus surprising all parties involved – especially the EU. Previously, no one had deemed it realistic for the North African countries to agree to a common negotiating position as they had always made it clear that they would not give up their preferential relations with the EU – governed by the Neighborhood Policy – in exchange for a continental agreement. Moreover, South Africa also agreed to the CAP. The consent of the North Africans was secured with the promise of maintaining existing agreements with the EU. However, that cannot belie the difficulty of the CAP negotiations, during which several AU members announced their concerns regarding a pan-African negotiating mandate: For example, there were reservations regarding the incorporation of the North African countries – which are perceived as too influential – the supranational aspirations of the AU, and the allocation of development funds from the European Development Fund to North Africa. In point of fact, the AU’s negotiating mandate only exists on paper. As a consequence, it does not have a seat at the negotiating table. The ACP on the other hand reached an agreement on a negotiating mandate on 30 May 2018 and is already in negotiations with the EU. In contrast, the North African countries are holding off and keeping both options open: They are strengthening their economic contacts with Sub-Saharan Africa while at the same time securing their relationship with the EU through the Neighborhood Policy ENP. At the moment, it seems the AU is assuming that the new ACP agreement will not endure at any rate, claiming that a pan-African approach (incl. North Africa) is impossible and important continental issues such as trade, sustainable development, peace and security or migration cannot be discussed without their involvement.

The EU has neglected to take a clear stance on this subject and to answer the question as to what (political) cooperation might look like beyond the traditional donor-receiver logic inherent in the ACP-EU relationship. For this purpose, the EU needs a clearly formulated objective and it must negotiate a corresponding agreement that includes all African countries. Instead, it seems that a great opportunity for a unified and political approach to cooperation with Africa is being squandered. This will ultimately be detrimental to both sides, as any negative impacts on Africa’s development will also entail consequences for Europe sooner or later.

The AU has a fundamental interest in the democratic shaping of Africa’s development, which provides the EU with a unique selling point compared with other players such as China, Russia, Turkey or countries in the Arab world, and which should be exploited on a cooperative basis. Despite all of the AU’s deficits, its high self-confidence and lofty aspiration to shape continental policy are unmistakable, offering a starting point for enhanced mutual and political cooperation. Given its 55 voting member states in the United Nations, it could also prove to be an important ally for the EU when tackling global challenges. Especially in view of the worldwide crisis of multilateralism, the EU should seek solidarity with the AU instead of snubbing the Union.

Europe without a plan

Due to its inconsistent behavior, the EU is gambling away not only political capital but also economic benefits. Although the EU is still Africa’s biggest trading partner, players such as China and India have made up a great deal of ground and now enjoy a solid position in the economic fabric of various African countries. Countries such as Russia, Turkey and Indonesia are also stepping up their involvement and make no secret of their economic interests. It is easier for these countries as they are not bound to democratic principles. This approach may prove advantageous in the short term, but it remains to be seen how long it can hold up against a value-based approach in the long run. This is precisely why the EU and its member states should declare their interests candidly at long last, think strategically and act together to a greater extent when it comes to Africa.

In this case, it is important that Africa’s political and economic development be conceived for the benefit of the Africans instead of seeing cooperation and development strategies primarily as a means to curtail immigration. Why does the EU not approach African countries individually and assess their national development plans together with the AU in order to ensure that they are compatible with Agenda 2063 and fulfill the needs outlined therein? By continuing along its present course, the EU leaves the field open for undemocratic countries, such as China, thus running the risk that African countries will develop economically but not politically to the extent desired and necessary for sustained stable development. It was not without reason that the EU recently declared China a »systemic rival« with whom it is now competing on this terrain as well.

Brexit, too, will bring about lasting changes in African-European relations, regardless of how and when it finally happens. It is noteworthy that the UK is currently preparing to expand its diplomatic missions in francophone West Africa while France is similarly concentrating on ramping up its political presence in East Africa, which has traditionally been more closely aligned with the former British colonial power, based on clear economic interests. In this context, Germany is also thinking beyond Europe, subverting European political strategies with its own bilateral partnerships.

The German social democracy is divulging very few specifics on the matter: Although the European election program is demanding a new North-South strategy, the details remain vague. Even though Africa is mentioned as the sole international partner in the Global South and the clear rejection of disembarkation platforms is welcome, there is a lack of straightforward proposals beyond that – a strategy to be precise. A partnership with Africa geared towards the principles of human rights, peacekeeping, sustainable development and overcoming structural inequalities is without a doubt desirable, but it does little more than repeat buzzwords uttered by European politicians for some time now while other players capitalize on the emerging opportunities. EU relations with Africa are not likely to change much in the future either.

But back to Post-Cotonou and prolonging postcolonial institutions: The ongoing juxtaposition of unconnected political strategies with regard to Africa is the fault of the EU, enlarging the Gordian knot of various funds and political guidelines rather than severing it. Instead, a policy aimed at overcoming postcolonial structures, striving to be post-postcolonial in this sense, has to fulfill the following three criteria: Firstly, it needs to take the AU’s representative nature seriously in line with »One Africa« and strengthen its position. Secondly, it has to clearly state its own legitimate interests without presuming to anticipate the alleged interests of a counterpart that has not been consulted. Against this backdrop, it would be possible to, thirdly, develop a value-oriented partnership as a multilateral counterpoint. Could this be the start of a wonderful friendship?

Ironically, France – the epitome of a former colonial power stuck in the past – is currently undertaking a notable fresh start at a symbolic level: In the wake of President Emmanuel Macron commissioning Senegalese scholar Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy to draw up a restitution report in November 2018, an extensive public debate is currently taking place in France with many (predominantly francophone) African countries on how to deal with artistic and cultural objects owned by the state. Of course, this is just the beginning of a process and many questions remain unanswered. Nevertheless, Macron recognized the full magnitude of the transformational potential in French-African relations and decided post-haste to spearhead the movement, or was well advised to do so.


An article by Elisabeth Braune, Desk Officer, Africa Department, responsible for EU-Africa relations, and Florian Koch, Desk Officer for Europe, 2015-2018 head of AU office in Addis Ababa, published in Neue Gesellschaft Frankfurter Hefte, Issue 5/2019.



Contact Person

Elisabeth Braune
Elisabeth Braune
030 26935-7420

Africa Department

Head of Department

Dr Henrik Maihack


Konstanze Lipfert

Hiroshimastraße 17
10785 Berlin

030-269 35-74 41

030-269 35-92 17


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