EU-Africa summit and its implications for China-Africa relations
China and the EU are competing for the African sphere of influence to boost their global geopolitical standing
The EU and African leaders met at the 6th EU-Africa Summit in Brussels, Belgium, between February 17 and 18. The summit, initially scheduled to be held in 2020, was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It marks 22 years since the inaugural EU-Africa Summit in 2000 in Cairo.
The EU is one of Africa’s major trading partners, with trade between the two parties reaching over $327bn in 2021, rising from $255bn in 2020. The EU also serves as a vital source of foreign direct investment for Africa, with its capital stock reaching almost $250bn in 2017, way above the $47bn from the US and $43bn from China. As such, the EU is an important strategic economic partner for Africa.
The parties used the latest summit to cement their economic and geopolitical ties even further. The summit produced a document titled “A Joint Vision for 2030", which maps out the key areas of strategic co-operation between Africa and the EU for the next eight years.
Tackling the Covid-19 pandemic was highlighted as one of the crucial areas of co-operation to help accelerate the vaccination campaign in Africa, which is lagging behind with only about 10% of its population fully vaccinated. The continent has only received 540-million vaccine doses of the close to 10-billion that have been produced thus far.
The lackadaisical vaccination rate means Africa remains susceptible to recurring Covid-19 infection waves, with devastating impact on its economy and development prospects. Hence, the EU has promised to facilitate the supply of 450-million vaccine doses to African countries by mid-2022, accompanied by a $482m fund to expedite the distribution of vaccines in the continent.
Beyond the pandemic, the two parties will work together to establish a sustainable and robust healthcare system in Africa, building the capacity for manufacturing vaccines and facilitating technology transfers. However, on the sticky issue of the transfer of intellectual property rights on vaccines, EU and Africa did not reach any conclusive agreement.
Africa has been at the forefront of calling for the waiver of the Covid-19 vaccines’ intellectual property rights at the World Trade Organization to enable it to produce the vaccines on its own. However, the EU and US have voted against this proposition, saying it would stifle innovation while its effectiveness remains questionable. Clearly, the two parties are not on the same wavelength in terms of their strategic approaches to tackling the Covid-19 pandemic. This casts doubt on the prospects of their continued partnership in combating the pandemic.
In a major announcement the EU committed to availing an Africa-Europe Investment Package of €150bn ( $170bn) in investments in Africa in the next seven years. If successful the investment will have a huge impact on Africa’s economy. The package will be directed towards key areas such as infrastructure development, the transition to a green economy, digital transformation and human development initiatives.
Perhaps this is connected to the G7’s resolve to deepen its current partnership to a new deal with Africa announced at the June 2021 G7 Summit, in which the EU and SA participated as guests. The EU promised to use public funds and other innovative financing instruments, both national and international, to implement the investment package.
While this is certainly exciting, it is important to note that this is a promise that remains to be fulfilled. Even worse, the implementation plan of the investment is not concrete enough to inspire confidence. And if the track record of the EU in following up on pledges in the past is anything to go by, especially the failed annual $100bn climate finance package that rich nations, including the EU, promised to deliver to poor nations, then Africa would be wiser to wait to count these eggs only when they hatch.
SA President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed gratitude at the announcement of the investment package but stressed that Africa will not accept any investment that undermines its sovereignty. This is in reference to the usual funding models from the West, which come with conditions that are widely perceived to be usurping the sovereignty of African countries.
The EU-Africa Summit came barely three months after the Forum for China-Africa Co-operation (Focac) held in Dakar in November 2021. It certainly looks like China and the EU are competing for the African sphere of influence to boost their global geopolitical standing. While the previous two Focac summits had seen China pledge up to $60bn in financial packages for Africa, the 2021 event was a major climbdown to $40bn in packages up to 2024, when the next Focac gathering is due.
Instead, China committed to ramping up its imports from Africa to a staggering $300bn in the next three years. The 2021 Focac Action Plan and the Joint Vision for 2030 address broadly similar issues, including the Covid-19 pandemic, infrastructure, climate change, education, investment, and governance.
However, the two giants bring different qualities to the table. China, acting unilaterally and with few checks, has mostly honoured its financial aid and investment packages to Africa. Nonetheless, the EU has seen China’s financial aid over the years as contributing to the debt distress experienced in some countries in Africa. Its otherwise commendable infrastructure investment drive in Africa has been blighted by accusations of environmental degradation, lax governance standards and a disregard for human rights.
On the other hand, the EU’s insistence on good governance ensures that aid does not serve the political elite. However, some of the conditions in its financial aid packages are not consistent with the policy priorities of the countries they are intended to help, and often come across as paternalistic and undermining African sovereignty. Moreover, the EU’s ability to disburse the promised aid is undermined by numerous checks and accountability measures to the point of failure.
All things considered, Africa seems to be a prized sphere of influence in the geopolitical competition for global influence. This stems from its immense economic potential and its huge influence as a voting bloc on multilateral platforms. As such, the continent should avoid being used as a pawn in the great powers’ battle for global supremacy. African leaders should exercise agency and ensure that their dealings with the major countries serve African interests. They should also learn from history and embrace some of these seemingly generous pledges with a healthy dose of caution.
• Monyae is an associate professor of political science & international relations at the University of Johannesburg and directs the Centre for Africa-China Studies. Nkala is a postdoctoral fellow at the centre.
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