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Can the EU challenge China’s proactive role in Africa?

On guard? Xi Jinping in South Africa. REUTERS/Sidney Seshibedi

When Chinese premier Xi Jinping unveiled some US$60 billion in deals at the recent China-Africa summit he underscored just how robust Beijing’s relationship with the continent has become. The impression from the media is that China is becoming the main external actor in Africa, and may even now be dominant. However, the European Union still has powerful cards left to play.

The EU’s role in Africa is not marginal. Its role has implications for the economic, political and the social fabric of African countries and institutions. The relationship is, of course, old and steeped in Europe’s prior colonisation of the continent, but it has also evolved in ways that tell an interesting story, on the one hand about the integration of postwar Europe and on the other its relationship with those former colonies.

Changing relationships

At the creation of what is now the EU, a relationship with Africa was part of the plan and articulated in the founding treaty. The signatories committed themselves to “fostering trade and promoting jointly economic and social development”. For the better part of five decades, this relationship between Europe and Africa has been mostly economic. It has been institutionalised through a series of framework deals, the latest being the Cotonou Agreement which runs until 2020.

Aid flight in Kenya. European Commission DG ECHO, CC BY-NC-ND

Until 2007, this development and economic relationship played out on an unequal footing. It was initially developed as a donor-recipient hierarchy with African countries relying on the European Development Fund. To access this fund, a formal partnership was formed among former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific; a kind of hybrid region created specifically to coordinate cooperation with the EU. This guaranteed Europeans ready sources of raw materials for manufacturing and consequently aided the development of postwar Europe.

While the Chinese are today happy to deal in direct exchanges of infrastructure aid -– building roads for example -– for natural resources, the disbursement and trade terms to Africa made under the European Development Fund were politically conditional on practices associated with democratic values as Europe sought to help establish democracies and protect human rights. However, poverty, violent conflicts, unlawful changes of governments, corruption and fragile institutions persisted.

And so, by the mid 1990s it was clear that the EU had failed in its developmental aims. Africans were worse off and wary of external actors. Furthermore, Africa’s ruling elites and civil society felt they had no voice in shaping the economic and development agenda of the continent. This frustration created the space for Africa to embrace new partners, like China, that provided an alternative to the EU.


In acknowledging Africa’s various and growing alternatives, the EU in 2005 presented the EU Strategy for Africa as way to rethink its relationship with Africa. This laid the ground work for a new model of relations that emphasised partnership, a faster pace of development and acknowledged the overlap between economic and political challenges. A renegotiated version with substantive African input led to the 2007 Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES).

Flags lined up at the China-Africa summit. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

This is now the basis on which the majority of contemporary Africa-EU cooperation takes place. Within the JAES, Africa is its own distinct region and its main regional institution – the African Union – is interlocutor. This integrates economic and political concerns, and especially cooperation on peace and security. The EU is the largest donor to the African Peace and Security Architecture. Perhaps most importantly, the negotiation process and its outcome showcased African political will in determining the nature of its external partnerships, and forging its own international relations.

Grace and favour

This is clearly progress in how Africa and the EU conduct their business. However, the imbalance in the relationship still persists precisely because Africa remains heavily dependent on the EU’s graces. Although China has now overtaken the US as the largest single trade partner in Africa, the combined EU is still out front. And the EU is also the largest development aid donor with 27.5% of its 2013 budget of €14.86 billion going to sub-Saharan Africa. The EU’s experience in forging a union in Europe has also come in handy, as it is able to support African aims of deeper regional integration.

So, although China provides an alternative vision of engagement to African countries – a business-like market relationship uncluttered by post-colonial obligation – the EU has not lost its foothold. European aid might bring its own baggage, but it still builds both economic and political partnerships in tandem with still large-scale trade.

The different approaches to Africa fuel the narrative of competition between China and the EU. There are problems in the Africa-EU partnership, but crucially the EU remains entirely relevant for Africa’s ambitions in development and peace and security. While its absolute influence may have diminished as Beijing’s money arrives, Europe continues to enjoy a premium position, and deeper ties which may hold greater reward in the future.

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