New Europe | 5 December 2010
EU-Africa’s Summit plans left in tatters
by Oladiran Bello
The build-up to the 29-30 November Africa-EU summit in Libya often felt like two continents perfecting their best laid plans. In the end, constant deviation from the script highlights why Europe-Africa relations require smaller, firmer steps rather than big, oversized strategic ambitions. President Mbeki - chairing the African Union (AU) High Level Implementation Panel for Sudan - provoked European angst when he left it till summit eve to insist on participation of Sudan’s indicted President Al Bashir. Not to be outshined, summit host, Muammar Khadafy, opened proceedings with his now-trademark rambling, lampooning European irresponsibility over illegal African immigration.
The conference adopted a modest focus – investment, jobs creation and economic growth – but was dodged at every turn by assorted thorny issues, including Europe’s perceived economic bad-faith. In their Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) negotiations, a wide gulf separates the two sides, as highlighted in a paper released shortly before summit by five African Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and the AU Commission. EU EPA demands include elimination of tariffs on a full 80 percent of African imports, but Africans contend this will spell disaster for domestic industry and revenue collection. Absent any movement, African leaders at the summit echoed the view that a wide gap separates Brussels’ rhetoric and its negotiating posture. Two joint declarations were envisaged, including one on climate change billed by the EU to deliver a “powerful symbol” to upcoming Cancun climate talks.
This was ignominiously rejected by the Africans citing its non-reflection of their priorities. The official hopes of claiming converging global positions as one of the particular value-added of the Joint EU-Africa Strategic Partnership (JAES) was left in tatters. Both summit conduct and conclusion failed to clear doubts over participation and coherence in the new “continent-to-continent” partnership. The “official side events” aimed to involve ordinary stakeholders: in reality, some were originally private group initiatives retrospectively re-designated. Reflecting the uncertain economic climate, a sideline meeting of European and African business leaders attracted high level political participation. Though promising, prospects were circumscribed by lack of compromise on trade and investment.
Civil Society Organizations from both continents were envisaged as sources of critical input into the JAES second Action Plan ratified at the summit, though attempts to organize inter-continental CSO meetings were severely frustrated by official meddling. Political intervention to break the impasse was slow to come. A self-styled people-centered partnership partly left the impression of locking out some stakeholders. Many African CSOs complain of being excluded via the AU’s accreditation process, while African diplomatic officials in Brussels say they have not been carried along for the summit preparations. EU officials themselves argue the JAES is in fact work in progress and alignment of intercontinental processes amidst profound institutional changes on both continents will take time. A common European and African voice on the world stage will not emerge overnight: but if anything, the cacophonous tunes have grown louder with the EPA wrangling.
Both foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and crucially, her trade counterpart skipped the summit. This seems incongruous given the summit theme and Africa’s strong focus on addressing trade deadlock. Even leaders of the EU ‘Big-3’ – France, Germany and the UK – were conspicuously absent. The usually deferent AU Commission Chairman cryptically questioned European priorities when criticising the “two-speed” global justice system disproportionately focused on African war crimes. Others say Europe’s single-minded insistence on Al-Bashir’s exclusion was a lost opportunity for African counterparts to press the Sudanese leader on a peaceful referendum.
Progress on two levels is vital for the JAES going forward. Strategically, a dynamic partnership of equals will enjoy greater shared ownership as the reality or perception of capacity asymmetry is narrowed overtime. The public rejection of a joint climate declaration reveals the extent to which putative joint initiatives are seen as EU-driven. Practically, EU-Africa engagements are best placed to make immediate gains by concentrating on result-oriented simple, practical collaborations. Deepened dialogue at the highest political level - on EPAs and other issues – will be fed and facilitated by small building blocks of successful initiatives and demonstrative evidence, so political leaders don’t have to side-step contentious issue when they meet for business. Formally excluded from JAES discussion, EPA disagreements are corroding the other dialogues.
Oladiran Bello is researcher at FRIDE