Toward a New Trajectory for Africa-EU Cooperation

July 28, 2020
Europe is Africa’s principal trading partner and primary investor, and the European Union remains Africa’s largest donor. Cultural exchanges and tourism have been important growing arenas for cooperation and business opportunities. However, despite the long history of economic relations between Africa and Europe and the geographical proximity between the two continents, the economic benefits of the relationship have not been fully realized.

Current economic ties between Europe and Africa suffer from multiple weaknesses and constraints.

Lack of internal cohesion within the EU is a major impediment. So too is Europe’s sluggish economic growth following the 2008 global recession, which recalibrated the scope of collaboration with African countries. Even where collaboration does exist, Europe has been shown to lack a strong commitment to a coherent strategy or a strong commitment to the relationship. New partnership initiatives begun by some European leaders have been short-lived and often linked to election cycles, for example.

Now, the evolving multi-dimensional crisis associated with the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the weakness of international collaboration, including between Africa and Europe. The response by most African countries to COVID-19 has been swift and bold in the face of a world short of progressive global leadership and a unified global response. African governments, in cooperation with communities and international actors, can take steps now to limit the damage—and lay the foundations for a healthier, more resilient future. But to be successful, African governments will need external support.

In a paper recently published in the CESifo Forum journal on European economic issues, I explore how this crisis could be used as an opportunity to kick-start a new trajectory for EU-Africa cooperation. After all, an extraordinary crisis of this nature brings with it not only challenges but also opportunities for learning and starting afresh.

In my view, three principles must guide the future of Africa-Europe economic ties.

  • First, the relationship must be centered on activities that positively impact economic transformation and high growth in Africa, including Africa’s economic integration.
  • Second, the relationship must evolve beyond its historical asymmetric structure to one that emphasizes mutual benefits and recognizes Africa as a true economic power and a partner among equals.
  • And third, the relationship must focus on fundamental global threats. Environmental sustainability is vital for Africa, Europe, and the global community. In an increasingly globalized world, global pandemics are likely to undermine all countries. Global partnerships must aim at improving international governance rules, with a particular focus on resolving the constraints that affect developing countries.

Such collaboration can be realized only if there is strong political commitment by both sides, supported by strategic and institutional frameworks. Lessons from the recent expansion of China-Africa economic ties over the last two decades may provide insights on what improvements to make. A Eurocentric view that questions the legitimate rights of African countries to develop economic ties with West and East is dangerous and must be rejected.

There is no doubt that Europe wishes to see a growing, dynamic, and prosperous Africa. As noted above, Europe is the major donor to African countries. The point is that Africa’s prosperity and economic transformation will not be achieved through aid alone. It requires investment in productive sectors and infrastructure, the creation of a strong domestic knowledge base generating well-paying jobs, and technological learning through linkages. Above all, it is achieved by building the domestic productive capacity that is critical for producing a wide range of products that African countries need, both for consumption and to sell competitively in international markets.

What Africa expects from its ties with Europe is a partnership that enables it to acquire these capabilities. The post-COVID-19 recovery period may finally offer a new opportunity for a paradigm shift.


Arkebe Oqubay is Senior Minister, Special Adviser to the Ethiopian Prime Minister and Distinguished Fellow at ODI. He is a member of the ACET Board of Directors. His full article, “Africa’s Economic Transformation and the Future of EU-Africa Cooperation”, is available for download (PDF) in the CESifo Forum, July 2020, Vol. 11.

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