The most striking feature about Africa today is its geopolitical centrality. Predominantly because of the strong economic growth it experienced in the last decade, the technological innovations linked to the fourth industrial revolution, and heightened hopes for peaceful transitions, a new narrative of Africa as a “land of opportunity” has emerged in the international community. A number of global powers have hence started to engage, or intensified their engagement, with the continent, projecting economic or political influence and creating new patterns of multipolar competition, which some have described as a “new scramble for Africa”.
It is no coincidence that the partnership between the European Union (EU) and Africa also reached a critical juncture in 2020, particularly given the geopolitical ambitions of the European Commission. The fact that the three top EU leaders (President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, and High Representative Josep Borrell) travelled to Addis Ababa – where the African Union (AU) is based – in the first three months of their mandate (December 2019 - March 2020), and later notwithstanding the COVID-19 pandemic’s restrictions, has been a clear sign of the strategic importance of Africa for the EU’s foreign policy. The EU has also been working on a new strategic approach towards Africa, on the basis of the joint communication “Towards a comprehensive strategy with Africa” released by the European Commission and the High Representative on 9 March 2020, which builds on five pillars: (i) green transition and energy access, (ii) digital transformation, (iii) sustainable growth and jobs, (iv) peace security and governance, (v) migration and mobility. The sixth AU-EU Summit, which gathers together the AU and EU heads of states and governments, was postponed to 2021 because of the pandemic, but is also expected to further develop common strategic priorities and provide political guidance for the future Africa-EU partnership.
Will Africa’s geopolitical centrality and the EU’s geopolitical ambitions align? The EUISS African Strategies report tried to address this question, and the quick answer is: not automatically, nor necessarily. Why?
On the one hand, African voices should be heard, now more than ever. The “new scramble” gave African leaders a wider pool of strategic partners, enabling them to choose their allies and partnerships in function of their needs and associated benefits, and reinforcing African agency in multilateral fora. Africa’s capacity to seize the momentum and translate strategic assertiveness into a collective African voice shaping the global order is yet to be fully determined. An increased African presence on the international scene could potentially align with the EU’s vision of a multilateral and cooperative global order, and bring the two continents closer together. If instead Africa is divided by nationalisms and protectionist measures, it could be subjugated to the influence of external powers who offer support without normative conditionality, and move away from a close relation with Europe.
On the other hand, Europeans should be on the watch. Adverse power competition in Africa is likely to increase in the coming years, which may jeopardize Europe-Africa partnership prospects, particularly in five domains.
The first risk is a battle of strategic narratives. In a multipolar world, we can expect sub-Saharan Africa, as well as North Africa, to become frontlines in this battle. Attempts to discredit the EU and fuel an anti-Western rhetoric will intensify and assume various forms to ensure geopolitical gains or cause cracks in the Europe-Africa relationship. Already, China’s growing economic presence and soft power in Africa inevitably competes with Western political and diplomatic ties. Moreover, Russian disinformation campaigns may fuel anti-European sentiment, while Turkey’s “Neo-Ottomanism” emphasises an anti-Western rhetoric, reinforced by a history of opposition to colonialism and by religious solidarity. Competing narratives will also be pushed by non-state actors, such as terrorists and extremist groups, particularly in peripheral areas where governance is weak.
The second issue relates to transition processes. In its pursuit of a foreign policy based on the promotion of democracy, rule of law, fair and transparent elections and peaceful transitions, the EU will be increasingly confronted with other actors who, depending on their interests, may support authoritarian leaders, fraudulent elections, and violent state repression, as well as turn a blind eye to political violence and human rights violations. Russian support for the Transitional Military Council in post-Bashir Sudan and its efforts to delegitimise the Sudanese opposition have been at odds with the EU’s support for a peaceful transition based on civilian rule and its condemnation of any form of violence and human rights abuse. In Somalia, Turkey and the UAE’s support for two different factions is detrimental to stability insofar as it fuels internal polarisation.
Third, armaments and defence cooperation initiatives by other global powers may clash with the EU’s efforts to provide security. Nowadays, the growing volume of Russian arms sales to sub-Saharan Africa already has an impact on the mandate and effectiveness of the EU’s CSDP missions, such as the EU Training Mission in Central African Republic (EUTM-RCA), in matters related to security sector reform (SSR) and the implementation of the integrated approach to supporting the transition process. Russian mercenaries present in sub-Saharan African countries, for instance the Wagner Group in northern Mozambique, may also undermine international security cooperation and fuel instability.
Fourth, global power competition may be particularly strong in two geographical areas: the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean. The integration of the Horn into the Indo-Pacific and Middle Eastern/Red Sea dynamics has created a broad geostrategic space, characterised by increasing militarization, the growing economic presence of China, India, Japan and the Gulf States, and diversified threats to maritime and mainland security – including expanding violent extremism, strengthened proxy rivalries among Muslim countries impacting regional allegiances, or the distress resulting from the US-China trade war.
A final area is infrastructure development, including both physical and digital one. Sub-Saharan Africa’s infrastructure gap is huge: its infrastructure services are costly and of poor quality compared to other parts of the world. It is estimated that this holds back productivity by up to 40% and lowers the continent’s GDP by about 2% per year. The implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in the next decade will increase the urgency for infrastructure development. Brazil, China, India, Korea, Malaysia, Russia and Turkey are examples of new partners that will increase their contribution to infrastructure development, driven by national interests such as access to commodities and natural resources, and the desire to enlarge their spheres of influence.
Sandwiched between picky African partners and pushy global competitors, is there anything Europeans can do to fulfill their proclaimed geopolitical ambitions towards the continent?
First, the paramount strategic issue for Europe is to understand what Africans demand (as opposed to what it believes they would need). This is especially important in the post-COVID-19 world where extraordinary efforts to sustain recovery and resilience will be required. Rethinking geopolitical orientations in line with new African dynamics would be important. For instance, integration under the AfCFTA creates a need to re-link North and sub-Sahara Africa. Going past the outdated “arc of instability” paradigm, stretching from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa, could be helpful at a time when violent extremism spreads fast in other areas of the continent, from Democratic Republic of Congo to Mozambique. New urban and digital spaces are examples of functional areas in dire need of policy attention, and where Europe’s contribution could provide real added value.
Second, fostering a cooperative approach with other global powers may prove difficult, but can be worth trying, to mitigate the risks of multipolar competition. Developing an EU-China-Africa tripartite cooperation for infrastructure development, based on know-how complementarity, can have positive effects in terms of conflict sensitivity and the financial sustainability of large projects. India and Japan’s commitment to forging stronger strategic and commercial links in the Indian Ocean fits in well with the EU’s priority of promoting connectivity and can help in stabilizing the region. Room for cooperation between the EU and the UK in Africa remains substantial despite Brexit, as is their convergence in terms of values, narratives and strategic objectives.
Third, and finally, Europeans need to avoid internal divisions. Competing national interests have in the past weakened a coherent EU foreign policy in Africa, making it less than the sum of its parts. Squabbling for economic and political influence could severely undermine the EU’s credibility and effectiveness on the continent, and result in Europe losing important ground or exposing its flank to external manipulation. The biggest threat to the EU’s geopolitical ambitions in Africa must not be self-competition.