Historically, EU relations with Africa have remained fragmented, based on relatively short-term arrangements, and with a weak capacity to command attention and political support. In an effort to inject new vigour into EU-Africa relations – and in line with a pledge to lead a ‘geopolitical Commission’ – early in her mandate president Ursula von der Leyen called for a ‘New comprehensive strategy with Africa’.
The draft strategy, issued in March 2020, is de facto an overhaul and re-launch of the Joint Africa-Europe Strategy of 2007. It proposes a ‘political alliance’ between European and African countries to address global challenges together, with joint initiatives and a stronger political weight in international forums. The starting focus of the New Strategy is meant to be on five partnerships in the areas of green transition and access to energy, digital transformation, sustainable growth and jobs, peace and governance, and migration and mobility. Progresses in all these areas are to be pursued by acting together at three distinct levels. At the global level, by using the majority bloc that Europe and Africa represent at the UN and in UN agencies to strengthen rules-based multilateralism. At bilateral level, by intensifying African Union-European Union political cooperation. And within the European Union, by increasing coordination with EU Member States and effectively mobilising resources. The latter points to the fact that, for the New Strategy to gain traction, a high degree of consistency has to be there in terms of how different EU Member States intend to operate in Africa.
Individual European countries have traditionally pursued national approaches to Africa, besides formally acknowledging and contributing to the broader EU frameworks for the region. During the 2010s, in particular, a number of EU Member States turned or returned to Africa, and in the process adopted new policies and initiatives towards the area.
There is substantial common ground, with regard to sub-Saharan Africa, among EU Member States and between them and the EU. Most notably, migration control has increasingly come to accompany peace and security as core components of foreign and development policies. Yet there are also evident variations in the forms as well as in the substance of EU Member States’ Africa strategies, including in their stated priorities, channels and adopted narratives. Some have a long established presence and influence south of the Sahara (France more than anyone else), while others rediscovered, expanded or accelerated their initiatives targeting the area (Germany, Italy or Hungary are cases in point). A number of smaller European countries, on the other hand, essentially lack an identifiable or active policy towards the region (as, for example, Croatia, Greece or Romania).
As the heat map of Table 1 shows, the topics privileged by the EU’s proposed New Strategy are generally well covered by national agendas of some key EU Member States. Across the latter, the top five priorities for Africa are peace and security, migration, inclusive growth, women and youth, democracy and good governance, and environment and climate change. The two weakest subjects in terms of cross-country attention, on the other hand, are digital and culture (the latter not a partnership area, if briefly touched upon by the draft strategy). Germany emerges as the EU country with the broadest coverage of the themes under examination, followed by Portugal, France and Italy. At the other extreme of the table are Denmark, Hungary and Poland.
The narratives adopted by EU Member States in referring to Africa share most tropes of the development discourse. As a matter of fact, many of the examined policy documents have large tracts that are hardly distinguishable from each other. Calls for such fundamental principles as multilateralism, security and human rights are scattered virtually everywhere across European states’ official policies, as are ideas and development jargon such as partnership, accountability, ownership, African opportunities, common challenges, and so on. This is in line with the EU’s traditional eagerness to remark differences between its approach to Africa and that of the world’s major powers – notably the US, China and Russia – with a narrative aimed at depicting itself as a ‘civilian power’ and a ‘force for good’ focused on promoting virtuous norms, whether in defence of human rights, the environment, world peace or some other universal value.
Differences are not entirely absent from EU Member States’ storylines, however. Two examples are migration and the role of the EU in relations with Africa. With regard to migration, a shared European concern with decreasing and controlling it is quite evident from across the policy documents. There is a systematic emphasis on the need to manage the entire process, with particular regard to tackling its ‘root’ or ‘structural causes’ as well as more practical aspects of migration (visas and border controls, illegal movements, repatriations, etc.). But there is a rather clear distinction between countries calling for somewhat more progressive approaches – in line with the EU’s general acknowledgement that “well-managed migration and mobility can have a positive impact on countries of origin, transit and destination” – and those that espouse a stricter position. It is possibly the distance between Spain and Hungary that best illustrates this point.
A second example has to do with the role the EU is called to play in Euro-Africa relations according to different EU Member States. Here, too, a widespread recognition that the EU “must be there” is a common theme. This is both because the challenges are massive (climate change, international security, etc.) and the competitors include major global players (China, Russia). Yet it is smaller countries that tend to place greater reliance on a larger EU role, often openly recognising that this is the best or only way they can exert influence and make a difference in spite of their limited resources. For Paris, Europe is a key but additional component – if an increasingly relevant one – in the pursuit of French interests in Africa. For Copenhagen, Warsaw or Stockholm, the EU is the way their national interests in Africa can be advanced. In this sense, it is the latter that most count on a common and coherent EU Africa policy.
The EU Commission’s decision to embark on a process of revising, streamlining, and strengthening its external action towards Africa comes at a critical time for Euro-African relations. The Cotonou Agreement between the EU and a large group of primarily African countries expired at the beginning of 2020, when negotiations for replacing it with a new deal were supposed to be completed. The 6th European Union-African Union summit, on the other hand, was originally scheduled to take place in October 2020, when the EU Commission wanted its proposed New Strategy agreed upon and adopted. None of these processes, however, managed to proceed smoothly or as scheduled. The Covid-19 emergency inevitably adds to the complexity of re-negotiating relationships between the two sides. At a time when the pandemic may favour more inward-looking attitudes – with the risk of eroding the development progress Africa made over the past two decades and of dampening Euro-African relations – it is important that the EU and its Member States pull as much as possible in the same direction.
Table 1. Priority themes in Africa policies: the EU and EU Member States
Source: The data show the relevance of a specific theme in the EU’s/European member state’s
three to five key policy documents on sub-Saharan Africa
(see G.Carbone, Europe: team play in Africa? The Africa policies of EU Member States,
Friedrich Ebert Foundation, December 2020)
 The ten EU Member States were selected based on two simple criteria, namely the need to include the larger and more influential actors and the effort to account for countries belonging to different geographical regions within the EU.