In his 2018 State of the Union speech, former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared that the European Union was going to create a “partnership of equals” with Africa.
However, 18 months later, it is clear that if the EU is to position itself as a global leader, then action quickly needs to replace promises. African nations are unleashing their potential and becoming hubs for start-ups and innovation, driven by a young and ambitious population.
Yes, Africa has its challenges; but the Africa I know is resource rich, creative and entrepreneurial; and has only become more so in the past 10 years. Europe investing more in Africa is not only an important economic decision, but a decisive geopolitical one too.
Europe has spent the last few years preoccupied with Brexit, the European elections, and now the multiannual financial framework (MFF). Meanwhile, countries like China, Japan, and the United States have steadily increased their investment and diplomatic powerbase in nations across the African continent.
For too long, Europe’s approach to Africa has been perplexing in its simplicity and its stagnation. Yet Africa has been anything but stagnant.
African nations have been making bold strategic decisions on investment and global engagement so that they can provide world-class infrastructure to grow their economies and create a better standard of living for their citizens.
If Europe waits much longer to modernise its approach to Africa, it will find it’s too late to the party. It will no longer be able to balance out Chinese and US influence. Chinese, Japanese and American companies offer direct investment within a shorter timeframe, with fewer strings attached, and they complete their projects on time.
"For too long, Europe’s approach to Africa has been perplexing in its simplicity and its stagnation. Yet Africa has been anything but stagnant"
It would be patronising to suggest African nations are unaware of the potentially negative implications of Chinese investment and debts, or of the varying quality of projects completed. But many African nations see it as worth the risk, as the European model of investment is viewed as cumbersome, conditional, and time consuming.
Africa seeks a new kind of partnership with the EU. One that is built on a broad and deep financial and trade relationship, and not on the foundations of aid and limiting tariffs created for an Africa of 20 years ago or more.
Africa is seeking a relationship built on mutual interests, rather than mutual concerns. At last year’s ECR Africa Summit, the message was clear - modernise your approach, treat us like equals, and allow us the EU tariffs to build our own global brands to sell to the world.
While the strength of the European trading system is seen as lying in its rules-based approach, those rules are often viewed by African nations as weighing heavily in Europe’s favour.
Developing European policies that concentrate on investment over aid and which create independent African wealth, is not just better for the people of Africa, it is better for Europe too.
History has repeatedly taught us that free trade and open markets are the greatest tools for building freedom and stable democracies. Economic freedom drives forward equality of opportunity, rule of law and women’s rights.
"Developing European policies that concentrate on investment over aid and which create independent African wealth, is not just better for the people of Africa, it is better for Europe too"
While there have been pockets of success regarding women’s rights in Africa, such as quotas in government, schools and boardrooms; we should not see these examples as the whole picture.
Genuine women’s rights and social mobility remains a low political priority in many African countries. However, through trade and investment Europe can help make women a pivotal demographic of consumers and participants in the national economy.
Europe can help transform economic equality into real equality. The economic emancipation of women will help encourage better policymaking on education for girls and will help contribute towards ending female genital mutilation and forced marriage.
Europe should help encourage women to become entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers and programmers. By levelling up the African economy, Europe can help level-up wider society. The confidence and determination of African nations to achieve economic success is tangible.
The EU must now show the confidence to create a fresh and modern approach towards its Africa policy. We often ask the question, “Why should Europe choose Africa as a partner?” But we should also ask why Africa should choose Europe. I believe a purely economic partnership pursued by the likes of China can always be undermined by the next highest bidder.
My hope is that Europe can cement its place in the world by creating economic relationships that are built on equality, trust, shared values, and the genuine desire to build partnerships that can last for a generation.