It is often said that Africa is not a country, but when it comes to Europe-Africa relations, we should always bear in mind that Europe is not either. The European Union (EU) is pursuing a fresh and ambitious strategy for the continent, while nearly all Member States carry out their own Africa policy autonomously. The renewed EU strategic posture is laid out in the Joint Communication “Towards a comprehensive strategy with Africa”, which proposes a political alliance in five key areas: green transition and energy access, digital transformation, sustainable growth and jobs, peace and governance, migration and mobility. Against this backdrop, it is worth asking whether there is a certain degree of coherence among member states’ Africa policies, and between EU capitals and Brussels, in laying the foundations for a renewed and deeper EU-AU partnership.
Managing growing internal complexity
Coordinating national foreign policies towards Africa was easier in the past, when the continent was not yet as central as it is nowadays. Over the last few years, the situation has grown more complex, as a result of both quantitative and qualitative changes. In quantitative terms, the number of EU countries attaching greater strategic importance to Africa has increased: in addition to EU countries that traditionally prioritised Africa, such as France or Belgium, others have rediscovered it (Germany, Spain or Italy), or have enhanced their strategic footprint on the continent (Poland, Czech Republic, Malta and Estonia). From a qualitative perspective, the partnership with Africa is now much more multifaceted compared to just five years ago, when Member States’ engagement was monopolised by migration and security. Nowadays, these topics are just two elements of a broader picture, as new priorities, such as climate change, digitalisation, connectivity, trade, and human rights have emerged in national policymaking.
The combined impact of these quantitative and qualitative changes has made the effort to coordinate national foreign policies on Africa more costly and burdensome. The EU has sought to seize this complexity and catalyse it, through the new “Comprehensive Strategy”, in a strategic framework under which fostering synergies with, and between, Member States. On the surface, it seems that this effort has hit the mark. The five major areas largely overlap with the thematic priorities outlined by EU capitals in their national strategic documents. There is also a geographical convergence in terms of priority regions, with a special focus on the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.
Internal fragmentation, external weakness
Nevertheless, beyond this overall convergence, strategic interests among EU countries are obviously not the same and not always easy to reconcile. A case in point is West Africa and the Sahel, which have been overcrowded with diplomatic, economic and security presences and where traditional actors, such as France, will be confronted by a growing number of engaged partners, leading to a more complex and potentially problematic harmonisation of national interests and priorities. Migration management is a good example of this trend: while human mobility has been broadly delinked by a security-driven approach, member states still spell out Africa migration policies differently in their national strategies.
This scattered line-up is not just in the sector of security, but also in the field of business and trade. Indeed, many EU member states have launched different projects, summits and events with the specific objective to build or strengthen their economic partnerships with African countries to capitalise on the opportunities arising from the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and support the internationalisation of their enterprises. This plethora of initiatives highlights a certain fragmentation, which risks undermining the collective leverage that member states can have on their African partners, as they are now in a position to cherry-pick the most profitable deals.
Another important aspect of strategic divergence is the dissimilarity of historical trajectories, which results in multiple conflicting narratives. While countries with a colonial past are sometimes struggling to shed negative associations with the colonial period, other countries, namely those of the post-Soviet space, can benefit from a clean slate to set up a dialogue free from paternalism.
Intra-Europe fragmentation is extremely risky, as it can undermine the EU’s credibility and effectiveness on the continent, especially against the backdrop of growing geostrategic competition. Indeed, Africa and Europe do not interact in an isolated environment, but in a multipolar world, where other global actors, such as the United States, China or Russia - without forgetting Turkey, India or Japan - have the power to showcase a coherent and monolithic policy towards Africa. If EU countries did not establish a coherent and coordinated approach, they might expose their flanks to manipulation by external powers, which could capitalise on EU fragmentation to present themselves as the sole reliable partners.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
For the EU-AU partnership to be effective and gain traction, it is fundamental to mitigate these divergences and ensure internal consistency. As it is impossible – and not even desirable - for each country to carry out an all-encompassing Africa strategy, a focus on limited, clearly defined and attainable goals should be preferred. This pragmatic approach would be beneficial for both member states, especially for those constrained by limited financial resources, and the EU as a whole, as synergies could arise sector-by-sector with less effort. On more controversial dossiers, such as migration management, democratic transition or trade initiatives, the EU could play a key role in fostering a progressive alignment by facilitating internal dialogue and working on common denominators.
There are sound bases for this coordination to be successful, but a last strategic shift is still required. Indeed, to produce a substantial and not just a nominal alignment, it is crucial for EU countries to see the EU as an opportunity to advance their national interests in Africa. If this approach is already widely shared by smaller Member States, which conceive the EU as the way to amplify their projection on the continent, leading EU countries team up with more hesitancy. The potential of this strategic shift is extremely high: if full coordination was achieved, the EU strategy would be more than just an aggregate; it would be greater than the sum of its parts, impacting positively both on small and big member states. In an ever-shifting complex and multipolar world, “one for all and all for one” is more than a motto, is the only way forward to build a credible EU-Africa alliance.