EU jamboree seeks fresh start, but Africa looks east

Kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers, eurocrats and countless diplomats from 80 countries will mingle on Friday evening at a sprawling exhibition centre in the east of Lisbon, at the biggest gathering of European and African leaders ever staged.

For the leaders of some of the world’s richest and poorest countries, the first European Union-Africa summit in seven years is about the future, with talk of fresh starts and new partnerships. But amid the banqueting and the bands, the past will cast a long shadow.

The unequal relationship between the former colonial masters of the old European empires and the descendants of slaves and subjects causes African leaders to bridle and look elsewhere for assistance.

“Africa was holding out a begging bowl. But now it is sought after and not necessarily calling out for our help,” said a senior official in Brussels.

Instead it is looking east towards China, which, since the last EU-Africa summit in Cairo in 2000, has organised three such jamborees.
Europe is playing catch-up in the race for Africa.

“Africans are full of praise for the Chinese and less happy with how we manage our aid,” said an EU official. “We moralise, we talk about human rights, we insist on conditionality.”

Europe remains Africa’s biggest donor, biggest trade partner, and the biggest market for Africa’s exports by some distance. But in the new scramble for Africa’s resources that supremacy is being eroded at breakneck speed by Beijing’s appetite for African oil and other raw materials, and its conquest of African markets by flooding them with cheap consumer goods, soft loans, and huge infrastructure projects.

Unlike the EU, China’s operations in Africa are unburdened by colonial hangovers or strictures about human rights and good governance.

Chinese trade with Africa rose 700% in the 1990s and has quadrupled to around $40-billion since 2000, according to Chris Alden of the London School of Economics and Andy Rothman, a China analyst.

That remains a long way behind Europe’s current level of two-way trade of more than â,¬200-billion ($300-billion). But the growth rate since 2000 has been 400% for China and around 50% for Europe.

Alden and Rothman say China has 900 companies active in Africa and 82 000 Chinese workers employed directly in Africa last year, almost double the total a year previously.

The world’s second biggest oil consumer, China now gets a third of its oil from Africa, taking two-thirds of Sudan’s output and a quarter of Angola’s.

“China has adopted an oil-for-aid strategy,” said a study from the United States Council on Foreign Relations this year. “Beijing aggressively courts the governments of those countries with diplomacy, trade deals, debt forgiveness and aid packages. The strategy is working.”

Beijing’s trade and investment is growing exponentially in the continent, with about $8-billion already delivered or pledged in loans. The World Bank says China is likely to emerge as Africa’s biggest lender.

Chinese trade with Africa is tipped to more than double again to $100-billion by the end of the decade, still way behind Europe as a whole, but overtaking the US and France to make China Africa’s leading national trade partner.

Besides, China’s extraordinary success in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over the past two decades often appears more exemplary and relevant to the leaders of the world’s poorest countries than lectures from wealthy Europeans.

Confronted by these challenges, and under orders from the World Trade Organisation to create a level playing field for all developing economies who trade with the EU, Brussels is rushing to agree new terms of trade with Africa.

Peter Mandelson, the British Commissioner of the EU for Trade, and Louis Michel, the Development Commissioner, are trying to conclude new economic partnership agreements (EPAs) with 78 countries in Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean, including the world’s poorest 42 countries, many of them in Africa.

The proposed deals are controversial. The anti-poverty lobby, a coalition of NGOs, and many African officials accuse the EU of neo-colonial bullying and diktat, aiming to open vulnerable African economies to predatory European businesses which will wipe out local industry and agriculture.

But a commission official involved in the negotiations insisted the problem was not European over-investment in Africa, but the acute lack of interest of European businesses in African markets.

“You could say we’ve done a very bad selling job,” admitted another commission source. “If you’re being constantly told you’re being taken for a ride, [that] you’re being had by the Europeans, it makes it hard to negotiate.”

Mandelson complained this week that the EPAs “have been misrepresented as a market grab by the EU—almost bizarre given the zero level of interest that EU businesses have shown in these negotiations”.

Fighting an uphill battle, Mandelson and Michel have abandoned hopes of concluding the agreements in time and are now concentrating on “interim” trade pacts.

There are ample other disputes and problems clouding Europe’s policy options in Africa. Officials in Brussels admit they have no idea how tens of millions of euros for combating HIV/Aids in Africa is spent.

One branch of the European commission is drawing up plans for controlled immigration from Africa to attract the best and the brightest and keep them from going to North America, while another branch is worried about being blamed for an African brain-drain.

Peacekeeping, conflict resolution, human trafficking and climate change are all on this weekend’s probably over-ambitious agenda set by the Portuguese, for whom the summit is the pinnacle of their six months chairing the EU and a chance to try to make amends for the uglier aspects of their imperial history in Angola and Mozambique.

“We in the EU tend to be pessimistic about Africa. We think of famine and war. It seems to be a hopeless case. But Africa has changed,” said the senior Brussels official. “We need to move from charity to partnership. Europe is caught up in a donor-recipient straitjacket. The begging-bowl approach is no longer acceptable.” - Guardian Unlimited Â

Client Media Releases

Tribute to Johnny Clegg - Doctor of Music (honoris causa)
VUT Vice-Chancellor addressed the Somali National University graduation ceremony
NWU summit focuses on human capital in Fourth Industrial Revolution