Europe and Africa Forging A New Relationship

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By Kestér Kenn Klomegâh

Late January 2024, prominent African leaders and corporate business executives attended the summit intended to forge a new relationship between Europe and Africa. It was hosted by Italy’s hard-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni who who came to power in 2022. The significance of the summit was to reshape and place on track the European policy priorities and, at the same time, to highlight economic diplomacy and fix the long-trailed systematic development plans for Africa.

Within the context of the geopolitical changes, African political leaders have shown high enthusiasm and pragmatism, in developing relations with external countries. As trends in their approach with a new sense of diligent optimism show, African leaders fundamentally support the current global reconfiguration. Far beyond analytical talks of the scramble for resources by external powers, Africa is noticeably glued to the United States and Europe, while capitalizing on laudable offers from other players such as China, Russia, India, Turkey and those from the Arab world.

Given the current situation in the world, Africa has to step forward to harvest, with appropriate mechanisms and transparent procedures, concrete development-finance agreements, infrastructure engagements, trade and economic cooperation and above all humanitarian assistance for the most disadvantaged segments of the population that these external players offer at these summits. African leaders have to tone down all ideological manifestations and capitalize on existing challenges, contradictions and complexities of these geopolitical players including the United States, Europe Asia and Latin America to address instability, and socio-economic deficits and effectively coordinate strategic policies toward achieving sustainable development in this multipolar world.

At least during the past two decades, Africa’s invitations to international summits and conferences have been primarily due to, perhaps, a complex relationship with China. China started when Russia exited, and China has landmark achievements across the continent. Russia is struggling to regain or retrieve part of its Soviet-era influence. Now, the United States and Europe aim to counter the fast-rising influence of China and Russia.

Despite the lengthy process of persuasion and consensus building on previous partnerships, Europe still faces challenges. Late January 2024, Italy became the European country of convergence, with Italy as a key bridge between Africa and Europe. Approximately two dozen African leaders, the African Union, top European Union and United Nations officials and representatives from international lending institutions were in Rome for the summit, the first major event of Italy’s Group of Seven presidency.

Meloni’s so-called “Mattei Plan” is named after Enrico Mattei, the founder of Eni – Italy’s state-owned energy giant. In the 1950s, he advocated a cooperative stance towards African countries, helping them to develop their natural resources. “The basis of the Mattei Plan is a new approach – non-predatory, non-paternalistic but also not charitable,” Meloni told state-run RAI station. “It’s an approach of equals, to grow together.”

Political Diplomacy

Italy being part of the European Union has played on historical heart-settings with Africa. Over the past years, it has forged multi-dimensional cooperation as part of the foreign policy, and similarly the members of the European Union. Now these European Union members are pushing hard to showcase the future trajectory in their individual and collective relations with Africa. Europe promises to develop large-scale investment in various sectors, especially in the energy sectors in the continent, and straining efforts at curbing migration of Africans to Europe.

A former Prime Minister of the Republic of Chad and now the African Union Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, jolted his Italian hosts with sharply worded comments at the opening of the summit dubbed “A Bridge for Common Growth” held in Rome. Rome holds the presidency of the G7 group of nations this year and has vowed to make African development a central theme, in part to increase influence in a continent where powers such as China, Russia, India, Japan and Turkey have been expanding their political clout.

“We are not beggars, our ambition is much higher, we want a paradigm shift for a new model of partnership that can pave the way towards a fairer and more coherent world. You can well understand that we can no longer be satisfied with mere promises that are often not kept,”  he told the gathering.

With the rapidly changing times, Europe has to wake up to the immense potential of Africa. European Union and individual members have made financial pledges but seriously lack practical evidence of undertaking projects. And African leaders at the summit were frank, unreservedly endorsed criticisms of making distinction between rhetoric and reality as suggested in remarks by the AU Chairperson Moussa Faki.

Reports pointed to Mahamat who categorically emphasized the necessity for Africa to be consulted on priorities and stressed the urgency of moving from promises to concrete actions. He underscored the frustration with unfulfilled commitments, calling for a more results-oriented approach.

The plan, which includes more than €5.5 billion ($6 billion) in investments, credits, gift operations, and guarantees – including building a training centre on renewable energy in Morocco, education projects in Tunisia, and other projects in Algeria, Mozambique, Egypt, the Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Kenya – was not well received by the African leaders in attendance, who said that they had not been consulted in the formation of the plan.

Italy’s first African-born parliamentarian Aboubakar Soumahoro, who is deputy and coordinator of the parliamentary intergroup for Sub-Saharan Africa, also criticized the plan.

Cristiano Maugeri of Action Aid Italia lamented that the government had excluded any consultation with civil society groups active in African development to formulate the plan, and said that it regardless represented something of a repackaging of existing projects. “We are talking about initiatives that have already been presented in other contexts, only with a new stamp on them,” he said.

The UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed praised Italy for focusing on the key pillars of energy and food systems, saying they complement an approach already mapped out by the African Union. But she lamented that overall, the 2030 targets of the globally-approved U.N. Sustainable Development Goals are “falling woefully short” and further urged the government of Italy to make such deep, effective, and equal partnerships a reality, and to use its presidency of the G7 to work with other countries to do likewise.

Given the fact that Italy currently holds the rotating chair of the Group of Seven (G7) major Western powers, the narrative around Africa has to change, to promote African interests during the G7 presidency. Europe has to take advantage of the largest renewable energy resources the vast arable land for agriculture, and the possibility of industrial production for the latest – the African Continental Market (AfCFTA).

African-Italian Negotiations

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni unveiled a long-awaited initiative aimed at helping African countries prosper in return for curbing illegal immigration, pumping a preliminary 5.5 billion euros ($5.96 billion) into the scheme. The schemes include efforts to develop African agribusiness and mobilize Italian transport and major works companies.

During a post-summit news conference, Meloni acknowledged the importance of translating promises into tangible projects on the ground. With more than 25 countries in attendance, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and representatives of UN agencies and the World Bank, Meloni explained the plan would initially be funded to the tune of €5.5 billion, some of which would be loans, with investments focused on energy, agriculture, water, health and education.

The prime minister, however, emphasized the need for collaboration with the private sector and international bodies, such as the European Union, to ensure the initiative’s success.

Energy needs stand at the core of Italy’s initiative, with the country aiming to serve as a gateway for African natural gas into European markets. The ambitious plan gains significance in the context of the European Union’s efforts to diversify energy supplies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the former Soviet republic. Meloni outlined a series of pilot projects in individual countries that would enable Africa to become a major exporter of energy to Europe, helping it reduce its dependence on Russian energy.

European Global Gateway

In the previous years, the European Union has sought to build strongly on its existing economic and trade relationship with Africa. It held the last summit in February 2022,  with African leaders and the African Union. It has been attempting to bring Africa and Europe closer together for strategic, long-term footing to develop a shared vision for EU-Africa relations in a globalized world.

In an official document, it said it would (i) Support AfCFTA implementation and the green transition; (ii) Improve trade and investment climate between the EU and Africa; (iii) Reinforce high-level public private dialogue; (iv) Enhance long-term dialogue structures between EU and Africa Business Associations; (v) Unlock new business and investment opportunities, including in the areas of manufacturing and agro-processing as well as regional and continental value chains development.

Referred to as the Joint EU-Africa Strategy, the document takes into cognizance the most common interests such as climate change, global security and the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The potential to increase trade, economic growth, job creation and integration across the continent remains enormous, because today, only around 17% of African trade flows take place between African countries. “Of course, there will be challenges along the way, and the EU stands ready to help. We want to share the lessons from our process of economic integration, and with our new Global Gateway Strategy, we have demonstrated that we are ready to support massive infrastructural investment in Africa,” Valdis Dombrovskis, Executive Vice-President and Commissioner for Trade as well as chairing the Commissioners’ group on an Economy that Works for People, noted when the EU-African Union Summit was held in February 2022.

Dombrovskis said: “We continue to support the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area. Achieving this will represent a historic milestone. the EU has a diverse range of trade agreements with countries in Africa. These are dynamic partnerships, in which we advance step-by-step for our mutual benefit. We aim to widen and deepen these economic and partnership agreements with those African countries that are willing to do so.”

The EU-Africa summit focuses on the search for more effective ways to scale-up sustainable development in Africa, according to various reports. Due to the shifting of geopolitics, the continent now increasingly turning into an intersection of global power players and it faces a precarious complex future. But what is important here is that the European players have to incorporate most aspects of partnership directions (adopt more effective ways to scale up sustainable development in Africa) within the framework of the 2030 Agenda of the United Nations and Agenda 2063 of the African Union.

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