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Empty words on Africa are a costly political mistake for EU leaders.

On Wednesday, 14th September (yesterday), Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen made her third state of the Union speech. In her 2020 speech, she prioritised EU-Africa relations. However, crisis in Europe has resulted in Africa falling by the wayside. This is both a moral mistake and a geopolitical one. A ‘Europe first’ approach will, long-term, make Europe finish last.

Empty words on Africa are a costly political mistake for EU leaders.

The European Union is often criticised as a talking shop, a place where issues are discussed and debated rather than resolved. Although I disagree with this characterisation - just look at the wide-ranging responses to the energy crisis being developed at European level for evidence of important action – when it comes to Africa, the words of EU leaders are rarely matched by action.

In 2020, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen used her state of the Union speech – an annual speech in which the Commission president outlines her aims for Europe in front of the European Parliament – to make clear her commitment to strengthening the EU’s relationship with Africa. Von der Leyen spoke the language of ‘partnership’ rather than ‘development’ and made her first overseas visit as Commission President to Ethiopia. It seemed, for the first time, that the EU was finally getting serious about the continent and establishing a relationship of equals.

Unfortunately, sometimes a speech really is just a speech. Since then, The EU has failed to build a partnership with Africa. Solutions to the most pressing issues on our continent can only be found with the inclusion of our African partners. Empty words on Africa lead to incomplete solutions for Europe.

Although Von der Leyen made passing reference to Africa in her third state of the Union speech last Wednesday, a “Europe first” approach has become the standard across a variety of policy areas.

In tackling Covid-19, for example, the EU’s policy on vaccine distribution not only made it more difficult to flatten the curve, but also left a bad taste in the mouths of many African leaders. A report published in The Lancet in June estimates that 45% of excess deaths in low-income countries could have been averted if vaccine distribution targets had been met.

In terms of migration, the current EU budget makes the disbursement of some EU aid conditional on recipient countries preventing migrants from crossing into the EU or, in some cases, taking back migrants that already have made the journey. This hardly seems like a ‘partnership’, and the closed-door policy has led to human rights violations at the EU’s borders and bordering regions, overwhelming local authorities with vastly increased demand for shelter and legal assistance. In an aging Europe, migration is increasingly important.

Much has been made of potential food shortages across Europe this winter, but hundreds of millions of people are currently experiencing catastrophic levels of hunger in developing countries. EU leaders have yet to come up with a robust plan to control food prices in the global south and the European Commission’s draft budget for 2023 even proposed to cut humanitarian aid by €300 million.

To make matters worse, the food security crisis has been seized upon as an opportunity to increase environmental standards applicable to developing countries, protecting EU farmers against imports from Africa and other parts of the developing world.

To add insult to injury, the green finance promised at COP26 (with strong EU leadership) for climate adaptation in developing countries has not materialised.

Importantly, our current approach to Africa is not only a moral failing for a Union based on democracy and human rights; it is a costly geopolitical mistake.

Last March, 17 African nations abstained on a UN vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although this move away from Western priorities may have come as a surprise to some Brussels policy-makers, to others it was a predictable outcome of the ‘Europe first’ approach.

The EU’s global gateway - a pledge to invest €340bn in developing countries globally - is greener and more transparent than China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but a mere fraction of the value of BRI which reached €4 trillion in 2020. Moreover, African states have little prospects for prosperity if they continue to be crippled by (mostly Western) debt. Here again, the EU is allowing China to take the driver’s seat. On August 18th, there was a meeting of African and Chinese diplomats where China agreed to retire 23 interest-free loans to 17 African countries as well as to redirect $10bn of its IMF reserves.

In her first State of the Union speech in September 2020, President Ursula von der Leyen said that Africa was key to building the world we want to live in. She was right then, and she was right last Wednesday when she said that African partners are vital to meeting the challenges of the century. The question remains, however, whether the EU will be back these words by action.

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