The COVID-19 crisis reveals a need for change in EU-Africa relations

New Europe - Marta Martinelli, Head of the EU external relations team for the Open Society European Policy Institute, where she oversees policy development and EU advocacy; Bram Dijkstra, Senior policy analyst covering Africa for the EU advocacy office of the Open Society European Policy Institute

Africa won’t weather this crisis on its own. The EU’s global support package that was announced by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen provides welcome relief, but COVID-19 is a symptom of a much deeper crisis that makes it harder for economically and politically unstable countries in Africa to deal with the outbreak. The EU should seize this moment to shift its longer-term partnership with Africa accordingly. The bloc’s new leadership already started to reflect on how it can forge new relations with Africa.

Right before the pandemic hit Europe, Von der Leyen visited Addis Ababa, seat of the African Union, accompanied by 22 European commissioners, and outlined a new EU-Africa strategy. Issued on March 9, it can shape relations between the two continents for years to come, but the current offer falls short. Whilst the pandemic should not dictate the new strategy, it reveals structural challenges the EU should address to make the partnership work.

Four priority areas, in particular, stand out. Governance has been the Achilles Heel in EU-Africa relations. Already the continent with the largest democratic deficit, many leaders in Africa will use the health crisis as an excuse to tighten their grip through the postponement of elections, the stifling of civic space, or through unaccountable security responses. An extended lockdown – impossible to enforce in Africa’s large informal economies and high-density cities – could rapidly create widespread social and political unrest, especially in the low-trust contexts of many African countries. The EU has a strategic interest in strengthening democratic resilience in Africa, but in the proposed strategy its values agenda takes a backseat.

The EU’s reputation in Africa has suffered greatly from its transactional handling of the migration crisis that has been perceived as self-serving. It is not too late, however, to reverse this trend if it sets out a coherent approach to counter democratic backsliding, attacks on the rule of law, and the closing of civic spaces.

Secondly, faced with an unprecedented crisis, governments around the world are resorting to a range of tracking technologies to limit the spread of the virus. The impact on civil liberties is likely to outlast the current crisis, while African countries already struggle to keep up with regulating technology.

At present, only 14 of Africa’s 54 countries have data protection and privacy laws, and only nine of these are well enforced. The EU has started to roll out a progressive model for the digital transformation at home. In the meantime, global digital competition is continuing apace, and big technology companies have long been pushing hard for African markets. To offer an attractive model to Africa, the EU will need to balance its commercial interests with the promotion of a digital agenda that respects rights and puts humans first.

Thirdly, the COVID-19 crisis could set back the fight against climate change, including by diverting money assigned to climate policy to address the pandemic. At the same time, it has demonstrated how quickly states can mobilise efforts in the face of an existential crisis. Whilst Africa’s contributions to global warming are negligible, the impact is not. Neither the United States nor China seem willing to lead a global push for managing climate action. The EU, by contrast, has put forward far-reaching, ambitious proposals to transition to a climate-neutral Europe by 2030. It now needs to use its trade, aid and investment policies to ensure that the burden of global adjustments is fairly distributed.

Finally, a fair climate transition could advance social and economic justice in ways that market economies have failed to deliver. The coronavirus crisis demonstrates that lack of access to public goods (health, sanitation and education, in particular) is not only an existential threat but a shared global responsibility. The same institutions hollowed out by decades of structural adjustments and other austerity policies must now rapidly and sustainably be strengthened. This requires more than patchwork. The pandemic cannot be used to further a fundamentally unsustainable economic orthodoxy.

As a first step, the EU could use its clout in multilateral banks and institutions to pause private and public debt, for the almost 40% of African countries in danger of slipping into a major debt crisis. In the longer term, future relations with Africa will need to include a sovereign debt workout mechanism to avoid a series of economic collapses, which in turn threaten the stability the EU has put such a premium on. The coronavirus outbreak has left the EU struggling to assert its leadership in Europe, let alone in the world. But it’s in the EU’s interest to think globally as well as locally. The current crisis does not suspend that reality; it raises the stakes.


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