With the UK’s withdrawal from the EU now imminent, a dramatic power shift is changing the balances behind the scenes of the fifth African Union-European Union summit this week in Côte d’Ivoire. It is an opportunity for the EU to forge a new Africa strategy.
Two former colonial powers of the European Union, France and the United Kingdom, have long shaped the bloc’s approach to Africa. France kept the EU’s focus on West Africa and the Sahel, while the UK made sure that the Horn of Africa and East Africa would not be ignored. After Brexit, that may all be about to change.
The UK provides almost 15 percent of the budget for the European Development Fund, which runs until 2020, and through which the African Union’s peace and security activities are funded. Somalia, which has close ties to Britain, is by far the continent’s greatest recipient of this funding.
Meanwhile, France has championed the efforts of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, known collectively as the G5 Sahel, to combat cross-border jihadist and criminal threats. A French military force comprising 4,000 troops has been based in Chad since 2014, leading the effort to counter the spread of jihadism across the region.
The EU’s strategy has thus been more a compilation of national strategies than a truly European plan. The UK’s withdrawal opens a major funding gap for the EU’s development fund, and the European response must be more than a mere redeployment of limited resources toward West Africa.
Germany’s New Interest
France, with good reasons, will undoubtedly push the EU to give a higher priority to the Sahel. The paltry €50 million awarded by the EU to the G5 Sahel force are largely the product of French diplomatic efforts, as is EU support for the recently launched Alliance for the Sahel. This increased European interest in the Sahel is welcome, but it needs to have a broader base than French diplomacy. By chance, Brexit coincides with increased German interest in Africa.
Partly because of the European migration crisis, Germany has recognized that instability in Africa directly affects its national interests. In January 2017, it unveiled its “Marshall Plan with Africa,” hoping to promote bottom-up economic development and greater employment opportunities for Africans. Germany also raised its troop ceiling from 650 to 1,000 for MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali. It is now Berlin’s largest military deployment, exceeding those in Afghanistan and northern Iraq. However, there are still major differences between Germany, which favors a largely civilian approach to African issues, and France, which has not shied away from bold military missions in an emergency.
A truly European strategy for Africa should borrow from the best of the diverse cultures of its member states, and the EU should use the likely reduction in funding as an opportunity to review its priorities, its methods, and its procedures. The Europeans should discuss with their African interlocutors the best way to support an African security architecture able to respond to new and emerging threats: is it through ad-hoc, regional coalitions like the G5 Sahel and the Multinational Joint Task Force combating Boko Haram in Lake Chad, or African Union-led peace operations such as AMISOM?
They should develop a more strategic vision of the relationship with Africa, and of the respective roles of the private sector and public development aid. They should also take a hard look at the way they disburse funds, with excessive management costs, uncoordinated national and EU rules, and rigid procedures that pale in comparison to the swift decision-making of China.
Thursday and Friday’s AU-EU summit in Abidjan should thus be seized as an opportunity to identify shared strategic interests: Africa and Europe are neighbors and they need each other to succeed, but the asymmetric nature of the relationship, as research by International Crisis Group shows, has led to much frustration. An honest appraisal of past successes and failures of past African-European relations would be a good foundation for the future.