Europe and Africa: Interests and values must be aligned with mutual respect

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The second Russia-Africa summit took place in St. Petersburg recently. Despite the Russia-Ukraine war 17 heads of state or their representatives attended, far short of the first summit in 2019 when 43 of the 54 African states were represented by presidents or vice presidents. Whereas $12.5 billion of investment commitments were pledged in 2019, this year hardly any agreements were signed.

Why aren’t Africans supporting the West’s isolation of Russia?

Nonetheless, the summit demonstrates that many African countries don’t clearly side with the West and ostracize Russia for its barbaric war that violates international law. Does this have to do with the fact that human rights are less respected in Africa or that there are different views on who started the attack on Ukraine? Hardly. Rather, many politicians in Africa are tired of being lectured and patronized by developed countries and in particular European governments, preferring neutrality, and pursuit of their own interests — including choice of partners.

This holds a lesson for European leaders wanting to deepen their partnership with Africa: Refrain from explaining international law and governance with a raised forefinger.

Europeans need to understand what motivates African leaders

Rather, the approach must be to convince African governments that it is in their interest to cooperate with Europe. To achieve this, Europeans should be guided by an interest-based, rather than values-based, economic, and foreign policy approach. Europeans need to understand African interests and preferences, then convince them that it is in their interest to seek close cooperation. An alignment of interests and values may be more likely after a history of trustworthy cooperation, and not extended upfront.

In doing so, Europe first must overcome the heritage of its common history with Africa. The former colonial powers are said to continue to exert great influence. It has also to be acknowledged that for historical reasons Russia is viewed favourably in some important African countries. In South Africa, for example, the African National Congress government still remembers that Russia — more accurately the Soviet Union — supported them during apartheid. The dominant parties in Angola and Mozambique each had close ties to the Soviet Union during the Cold War period, while their civil war opponents were supported primarily by the United States. A high proportion of the leadership in these countries knows Russia from their own experience. This historical rucksack cannot be directly influenced by Europeans but contributes to closeness to Russia and distance from the West.

Trade and investment are central concerns

Yet African interests centre on trade and investment. Their governments’ political stability depends on providing jobs for rapidly growing young populations. This requires an influx of investment funds and technological know-how. African leaders have been asking for this kind of support for decades. Neither Russia, nor Europe, nor the United States respectively have really delivered in this regard. So far, Chinese investment has been the most visible and least associated with lectures, albeit without creating many jobs in Africa.  Even though China has drastically scaled back its involvement in Africa owing to its own economic problems, African governments have learned that it may be unwise to ignore relevant economic powers based purely on value considerations.

Therefore, to bind Africa more closely to the European Union (EU), the Europeans must ensure that they make a greater contribution to what Africa and its political decision-makers really need: investment and jobs. Without a strong international economic policy serving the interest of African leaders and citizens, there will be no successful foreign policy strengthening generally accepted values.

What next?

Three suggestions could help:

  1. Europeans should take a different approach to foreign policy. Take the example of the German "feminist" foreign and development policy, which is mainly symbolic, lacks economic substance and thus comes across as paternalistic. In fact, it may even be counter-productive and harm the just case it has. In the future, European policymakers including the Commission should focus on mutual interests and refrain from lecturing partner governments from above. The latter will only lead to more states seeking proximity to Russia and China because they have the impression that they are not perceived in Europe as partners on an equal footing with their own interests and positions. In addition to the economic damage, political friction will arise that may damage our relations with Africa for decades to come.
  2. Financing projects in Africa remains difficult because many banks are unable to take on the country risks, which are perceived to be high, or can do so only on very expensive terms. Projects that are desirable in terms of development policy must therefore be supported by a new distribution of risk between the private and public sectors. So, we suggest to expand government guarantees for investments in Africa and redirect funds earmarked for official development aid increasingly for this purpose. Even among African decision-makers, calls for more development aid are rare as compared to requests for business activities on the continent. This is particularly relevant against the background of European ambitions in climate policy. Europe needs Africa to turn these efforts into a success.
  3. Finally, both European governments and EU agencies should resist making investment on the African continent more bureaucratically onerous. The example of the German Supply Chain Act shows how such legislations hampers activities on the African continent; companies hesitate and postpone investment projects in developing countries. They already maintain high standards in Africa without government regulations on the sustainability of supply chains and feel overburdened with the bureaucratic efforts needed to prove their adherence.

In an ever more difficult global political situation, Europe will be increasingly dependent on close and equal cooperation with Africa to solve major European, but also global problems. The necessary political corrections must largely be tackled in Europe. To increase the acceptance of universal values, economic cooperation is to be preferred over paternalism.

Prof. Dr. Stefan Liebing is CEO and owner of Conjuncta GmbH and Honorary Professor at the Centre for Business and Technology in Africa, Hochschule Flensburg. From 2012 to April 2023, he was Chairman of Afrika-Verein der deutschen Wirtschaft e.V., the German-African Business Association.

Prof. Dr. Andreas Freytag is Professor at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Visiting Professor at the Institute of International Trade, University of Adelaide, Honorary Professor at Stellenbosch University, and Member of the CESifo Research Network.

The views expressed here are the author(s) alone, and do not represent the views of the Institute for International Trade.


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