Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


On 29 and 30 November 2017, African Union (AU) and European Union (EU) leaders gathered in Abidjan for their 5th Summit since 2000. Their goal was to strengthen political and economic ties between the two continents and reserve a prominent place for the younger generations in the Africa-Europe partnership.

On 23 May 2018 AU and EU Commissioners adopted concrete measures to address pressing global issues in key areas such as peace and security, migration, job creation and agriculture.

This 9th Commission to Commission meeting of the two organisations was co-chaired by the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker and the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, with the participation of all African Union Commissioners and 16 European Union Commissioners. 

The two sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding reinforcing the existing cooperation in the area of peace and security. In addition, they agreed to continue and consolidate the important work made by the AU-EU-UN task force on migration. The parties committed to invest in economies and people by stepping up existing cooperation on agriculture and digital economy, and dedicated themselves to continue the active engagement with youth in the Africa-EU partnership in innovative and meaningful ways.


Three times the size of Europe, Africa consists of 54 countries and is home to 3,000 ethnic groups and communities, 3,000 languages and countless religious faiths. Africa is the cradle of humankind.

Africa and Europe are distant 145 Km between Sicily and Tunisia and only 14 Km between Spain and Morocco. At the Berlin Conference in 1885, Africa was divided without considering history, tradition, culture and right to self-determination. Paternalism, humiliation and exploitation followed provoking conflicts and wars up to now.

Africa is a rich continent with land and agricultural resources able to feed all Africans. Poverty, hunger and malnutrition can therefore be overcome taking also in account that the continent has 15% of oil, 40% of gold, 80% of platinum global reserves.

In many African Countries, corrupt elites still have too much influence, sending their money abroad instead of investing it locally, while letting multinationals exploit the natural resources without creating domestic value chains.

Africa's population growth has far outstripped that of Europe and projections suggest it will continue to do so. The forecasts predict that Africa will represent a quarter of the world population by 2050 (2,4 billion people) well over four times larger than the EU. This is the result of a high and continuing growth rate in Africa’s population (2.7% per year between 1995 and 2017) compared with a much slower growth for the EU (0.3% per year between the same years).

Africa-Europe Strategic Partnership

Sixty years ago, the signing of the Rome Treaty (1957) paved the way for Europe to engage in development cooperation, starting with African countries. The Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) , agreed in 2007, defines long-term policy orientations between the two continents, based on a shared vision and common principles. Within this framework, the African Union and the European Union work in partnership on a range of important issues.

But there are structural imbalances in the partnership. It is still difficult to address openly the issues on which both continents have diverging perspectives and there is still a deep-rooted mistrust between African and European leaders making it difficult to build the necessary political traction in the partnership. While policy declarations speak of an equal contractual partnership and joint decision-making and management, in reality the partnership has never been one of equals. The EU transfers aid money to Africa via its state bureaucracies and elites, and in return expects loyalty to the European agendas.

But recipes of the past no longer work. An increasing number of assertive African leaders openly questions whether foreign aid should still interfere in the internal matters of their countries. In the meantime, there is ample evidence that EU aid conditionalities and the contractual type of cooperation have no real impact on changing the course of African political regimes.

A Marshall Plan to find a path to peace and development in the cooperation between EU and AU could be a solution. Focus should be on fair trade, more private investment, more bottom-up economic development, more entrepreneurial spirit and more jobs and employment with African ownership and African solutions to African problems.

Such initiative could entail political, economic, social and cultural cooperation. Young Africans must have enough food, energy and jobs. Natural resources must be protected and not exploited through a new model of colonialism. EU can play a role by offering knowledge, private investment, economic diversification, support for agriculture and small and medium size businesses. Such Marshall Plan's priorities should be: food security, water, energy, infrastructure, digitalisation, health care and access to education, particularly for girls.

Africa-China relationship

Trade between China and Africa increased by 700% during the 1990s, and China is currently Africa's largest trading partner. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was established in October 2000 as an official forum to strengthen the relationship.

There are an estimated 800 Chinese corporations doing business in Africa, most of which are private companies investing in the infrastructure, energy and banking sectors. Unconditional and low-rate credit lines (rates at 1.5% over 15 years to 20 years) have taken the place of the more restricted and conditional Western loans. Since 2000, more than $10bn in debt owed by African nations to China has been cancelled.

One-third of China's oil supplies comes from the African continent, mainly from Angola. Investments of Chinese companies in the energy sector have reached high levels in recent years. In some cases, like in Nigeria and Angola, oil and gas exploration and production deals reached more than $2 billion. Many of those investments are mixed packages of aid and loan in exchange for infrastructure building and trade deals. The problem is that manpower is mainly Chinese with little involvement of African workers.

More recently, China has sent troops to the continent to participate in Peacekeeping Missions. In 2004, China deployed around 1,500 military personnel under the UN umbrella and is contributing to the NATO-led counter-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden. China also provides military training and equipment to a few countries, though this does not require military forces to be deployed. During the December 2015 FOCAC meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, Chinese President Xi Jinping restated "China strongly believes Africa belongs to the African people and African problems should be handled by the African people."

An increasing number of African countries have recently shifted their source of supply from traditional providers such as Russia to China due in part to the competitive prices offered by Chinese suppliers. Arms sales by China to some African states have troubled Western critics who point out some buyers like Sudan are accused of war crimes.

In July 2017, China set up its first overseas military base in Djibouti in Africa.

China's mutation from an economic power to a global security player has been widely documented, yet its security role in Africa is not yet well understood in EU and NATO circles. China's more assertive stance in Asia may risk accentuating a number of latent tensions, and its “One Belt, One Road” initiative (a network of railways, roads, pipelines, and utility grids linking China and Central Asia, West Asia, and parts of South Asia) has clearly led to reactions.

Last but not least, the African Union's Headquarters in Addis Ababa, a 100 meter tall, 20 story skyscraper built by the Chinese government in 2012, has a plaque saying: “Gift from Chinese to African people”.

Africa-United States relationship

In the battle for influence in Africa policy, experts say, United States is losing.

The United States economic influence has been waning in Africa driven by a decrease in crude oil exports from the continent that began in 2011. The United States is positioning itself poorly for the future by not fostering a strong relationship with the continent now. But if the United States does not prioritize this rapidly growing bloc of countries soon, it will be too late: Africa will have moved on to others partners who will. By relying only on a security posture, experts say United States capacity to curb famine and conflict and promote development will be severely limited.

This bloc of countries should not be overlooked because how Africa develops will shape global events in the future. Over the next 32 years Nigeria will surpass the United States as the third most populous country in the world. More than 40% of sub-Saharan Africa still lives in poverty, presenting its own set of economic, humanitarian and security challenges for both Africa and global players such as the United States.

While China badly needs Africa to get raw materials and energy, the continent is currently representing just a strategic interest for the United States. Will there be a confrontation between the two giants for Africa? Probably not: for the time being they have different interests. Nevertheless the United States should change its African policy.

Africa, United States, China and others

These days, Africa is variously referred to in positive terms such as emerging, rising and hopeful. This positive view of Africa is justified as Africa is the host of some fast growing economies. This growth is not just due to rising commodity prices but is also driven by a more vibrant private sector supported by an improved business climate. There have also been some improvements in governance and economic management. The information technology revolution has become an important aspect of the new Africa, particularly in terms of mobile technologies. As a result of these developments, Africa’s middle class is now growing, and the continent is becoming a major market for consumer goods. Africa could be on the path to claiming the 21st century.

Notably, China and India are investing in the continent, while Russia, Brazil, Turkey, Iran and many others have augmented their engagement with Africa both diplomatically and commercially. The increased interest in Africa by these new actors has been due to the realization that Africa has much to offer. In many respects, the United States has been slow to seize the opportunities availed by the new Africa. While the American private sector has begun to take advantage of some of these opportunities, the scope of engagement by American businesses is still small in scale. Likewise, the United States government's engagement has not changed much. But Africa matters to the United States, a reality that will only grow more important as the continent's economies and governance structures continue to transform. Africa matters for United States for key issues such as national security, China, energy, trade and investment, and U.S. development assistance.

In particular, the security of African countries is interlinked to broader global security. Therefore, proactive engagement with Africa is vital for the mutual benefit of both Africa and the United States. Furthermore, due to the increasing role of China in Africa, the United States must take this opportunity to engage more substantively with African countries in order to mitigate some of the environmental and human rights consequences of China’s “no strings attached” approach to Africa. Opportunities also exist for a joint United States-China collaboration in order to advance common goals in the region.

The global strategic “competition” between Western (including NATO and the EU) and Chinese values is a political reality that is now extended to the field of security, not precluding NATO and China to work towards the same objectives. African peace-building is the shared goal. Ultimately, African nations will decide which political model suits them best. As a result of constructive interaction in many parts of Africa, NATO and China may gain strategic and tactical benefits: strategic, in the sense of finding common objectives and mutually reinforcing efforts that include dialogue; tactical, in the sense of working alongside and learning from each other.

Africa in Europe's eyes

As already stressed the African population will double in size by 2050: one in four citizens on earth will be African. Each year, Africa needs to create 18 million jobs, while only 3 million are provided right now. Enough reasons for African and European leaders to be worried, and to make commitments to increase investments in the transformation of African economies.

Most African countries are showing signs of progress but reforms need to move faster. Failure to do so will create major problems of insecurity and migration on the African continent, also affecting Europe. Against this worrying background, several European leaders have put Africa at the centre of their foreign policy concerns. The EU also demonstrated its commitment to support Africa with a major investment plan of more than € 40 billion.

But this longer-term perspective was overshadowed by short-term measures to curb migration, which dominated the discussions between both continents. Several EU member states just want to obtain a strong and fast commitment from Africa to accept the return of economic migrants. Possibly on a voluntary basis but, if needed, even by force.

The international media focused almost exclusively on the migration issue, as a follow up of the detention camps in Libya. In this case, European and African leaders demonstrated vigour by agreeing on immediate action to evacuate thousands of African migrants from the Libyan detention camps. More efforts will hopefully be deployed to dismantle criminal networks.

In such contest, the recent peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea will likely promote democracy and reduce migration. Refugees camps in Ethiopia are currently hosting 900.000 Eritreans, Sudanese and Somalis ready to move to North Africa and then proceed to Europe.


Africa and Europe are traditional neighbours. People from these two continents have been interacting for at least the past 500 years through various forms including the slave trade, missionary work, colonisation and recent flows of both Africans and Europeans moving from and going to each direction for work, education and settlement among many other reasons. The interactions between Africa and Europe have not been always peaceful. In fact, the last 500 years have been characterised by the desire for Europe to conquer, dominate and take over resources of Africa as part of its quest for global domination.

After the African independence, Europe is still trying to dominate Africa through culture, language, religion, finance and technology. There is no doubt that Africa is yet again at the receiving end of the Europe-Africa “partnership”. By defining and imposing political models for managing African countries, Europe seems determined to maintain the way the Africa-Europe “partnership” is currently structured.

It is clear that in recent years Africa has undergone significant economic, socio-political and technological transformations, a process which is likely to accelerate over the coming decades. While it would be an overstatement to proclaim that the future will be African, there are strong indications that the global importance of the continent is set to rise and not only as a source of risk factors spilling over from poverty and instability.

In Africa, the European Union is currently perceived both as the home of former colonial masters and as the greatest supporter of free trade and liberal democracy. It is now high time for Europe to definitely drop the colonial legacy and appear and act as a reliable promoter of freedom and democracy.


The 2016 EU Global Strategy goes as far as to incorporate the entire African continent in the ‘peaceful and prosperous’ cooperative regional order it seeks to promote around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Similarly, it devotes much attention to the continent, both directly (e.g. Nigeria) and indirectly (climate and conflict-related vulnerabilities). Yet Africa is not just a source of concern: it is also a vibrant and dynamic macro-region .

The diversification of Africa’s relationship with external partners – which now not only include traditional Western partners, but also Asian, Middle Eastern and Gulf countries – will also contribute to increasing Africa's prominence in the global arena. These developments are accompanied by growing assertiveness on the part of African countries, institutions and citizens in taking the lead in framing what Africa’s future will look like. The activism of youth movements, growth of innovation hubs, and reclaiming African ownership on matters pertaining to Africa, all attest to the dynamism of the continent.

But as African countries experience an acceleration of economic, socio-political and technological transformations, they will also confront dislocations in various areas. The capacity, readiness and willingness of African governments to manage these obstacles will be key to defining the course of Africa’s future. Significant challenges also need to be overcome if African countries are to realise their potential. These include their resilience to global economic uncertainty and climate change pressures and their integration in the world economy in a productive rather than extractive role.

In Africa the EU should be modest because the levels of unpredictability are quite high. First is the demographic element. Contrary to history no region of the world has had the same youth bulge. Then there is the fact that what is really going to make a difference is the possession of the strategic materials that will become indispensable: cobalt is a good example.

The industrial sector has a chance to provide jobs but it is more and more about agro-processing: the current levels of agricultural productivity are so low that any gains, even marginal, can boost the sector and create opportunities for synergies allowing for the transformation of agricultural production and that in itself is industrialisation. The next step is to scale it up by constructing national value chains and sub-regional chains which should be relatively easy for Africa. 

This is why the voice of African civil society representatives – including business leaders, parliamentarians, local authorities, young people and women – must be heard by the EU interlocutors and African officials.
Africa is going through a period of strong economic growth and is producing a growing number of entrepreneurs. To be successful, they need greater opportunities to expand, as well as the means to trade more easily both within Africa and with the rest of the world. At the same time, young Africans need to be properly educated, trained and equipped with all the required skills.

At the core of the partnership between Africa and the EU is the need for a strengthened dialogue and institutional cooperation that not only addresses issues of peace and stability in Africa, but also challenges that Europe is facing. This is a tough job for Europe which can be carried out by resorting to the support and cooperation of the international and national institutions the EU is able to mobilize.