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EUREN Brief 15
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Values vs Interests: EU and Russian competition in Africa

The first official trip [1] by the European Commission president outside of Europe was to the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa in December 2019. This is an important political statement as 2020 could be a watershed year for EU-African relations. The next EU-AU summit will take place this year, probably in Brussels, and major negotiations are underway regarding a new comprehensive partnership with Africa as the 20-year old Cotonou Agreement expires in 2020. [2]

The Cotonou Agreement of 2000 succeeded the Lomé Convention and it emphasised reciprocal trade, as opposed to preferential access to the EU market that the ACP had initially enjoyed. The 1975 Lomé Convention designated African, Caribbean, and the Pacific group of states (ACP) as a group to engage with the EU (and then the EEC). The aim was to integrate newly independent countries that were former European colonies into the global economy and provide a basis for cooperation.

Renegotiation talks for the Cotonou Agreement stalled in 2019 because the AU was unhappy at being included as a member of the African Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP, excluding North Africa) and it aspired to have a continent-to-continent agreement. This would build upon the African Continental Free Trade Area, [3] an agreement signed by 53 of Africa's 54 countries that plans to remove 90 percent of tariffs on intra-Africa trade.

Alex Vines

Africa Programme, Chatham House, London

A "Comprehensive strategy for Africa"

In her opening statements, [4] the EU Commission President-elect, von der Leyen, talked about the EU being a "neighbour" and "partner" of the African continent (in a similar way to her predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker). More recently, however, she has called for Europe to adopt a new "comprehensive strategy for Africa". [5] This is a welcome statement as it is a move away from paternalism, executed through the delivery of international development. Europe should treat Africa as an equal partner and a business opportunity, not just as a threat that needs to be contained.

There are three EU Commissioners that deal with EU-Africa relations in the new Commission. These are the Foreign Affairs High Representative, Josep Borrell, the Commissioner for "Protecting the European Way of Life", Margaritis Schinas, Vice President of the European Commission, who is responsible for promoting the European way of life and whose portfolio includes migration control, and the International Partnerships Commissioner, Jutta Urpilainen. The only significant change was that the "Development" Commissioner was replaced by a Commissioner for "international partnerships". Significantly, the emphasis is now on "partnerships" rather than "development", which indicates a shift away from traditional donor/recipient relations. Urpilainen, a Finnish parliamentarian who served as her country's special envoy to Ethiopia, has significant experience of Africa.

The EU Commission President-elect, von der Leyen, has called for Europe to adopt a new "comprehensive strategy for Africa". This is a welcome statement as it is a move away from paternalism, executed through the delivery of international development

EU-Africa relations are currently governed by the Cotonou Agreement and the Joint Africa-EU Strategy, which covers political, economic and development partnerships. The EU is engaged in the promotion of peace and security in Africa, particularly in the Sahel, and it engages with the AU in various policy dialogues, including on democracy and human rights. Migration has recently emerged as a key EU priority. Funding is the key EU tool for engagement with Africa and the European Development Fund remains the main channel for EU development cooperation in Africa.

Migration and extended neighbourhood security remain the key drivers of EU-African policy in 2020. The EU unsuccessfully tried to emphasize trade at the last AU-EU summit in Abidjan in 2018. The EU executive has provided €50 million to fund technical support for the AU's team tasked with drawing up regulatory standards for the African Continent Free Trade Agreement. The von der Leyen Commission's first African-related priority will be to finalise what the successor will be to the Cotonou Agreement, which includes 51 of the 54 African states.

Completion of post-Cotonou negotiations is key

The negotiations on a successor to the Cotonou Agreement in 2020 are important as the existing Joint Africa EU Strategy [6] has only achieved modest results. The AU's common position is that the ACP relationship is an outdated one that is based on the delivery of aid and has contributed to African fragmentation (such as North Africa being excluded). There are also splits in the EU – with DG DEVCO seeing the ACP as being a more convenient interlocutor for financial aid support – while the External Action Service has pushed for the prioritization of a more strategic policy towards the AU. 2020 really is a watershed year and negotiations are likely to speed up, especially as Berlin will take over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union and will be succeeded by Portugal in 2021. Both Berlin and Lisbon believe that the bloc has neglected its ties with Africa for many decades and now is the time to strengthen the relationship, especially at the sixth EU-AU summit, which is scheduled for 2020. Therefore, 2020 provides a window for EU and AU thinking on the future of EU development assistance in the emerging new partnership and how strategic EU leadership could reduce poverty, encourage inclusive growth and build up better climate resilience and improved health coverage.

Dialogue with Russia on Security

Europe needs a coherent African policy on security, immigration and climate change that goes beyond trade. This provides, at the very least, an opportunity for dialogue with the Russian Federation, which is re-engaging in Africa (see EUREN Brief no. 14 by Alexandra A. Arkhangelskaya). The first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in October 2019 was co-chaired by the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Egyptian President and African Union Chairman, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. It also attracted 43 heads of state or government and more than 6,000 participants and media representatives from Russia and 104 foreign countries and territories.

The EU and Russia have limited economic, political and strategic interests in sub-Saharan Africa compared with the Middle East and North Africa (see EUREN Briefs no. 12 by Maxim Suchkov and no. 13 by Andrea Dessì), their Eastern neighbours (see EUREN Chronicle no. 2) and parts of Asia (see EUREN Chronicle no. 4). There are clearly areas of interest on security, including maritime security and countering violent extremism, that overlap, such as North Africa (particularly Libya at the moment) and the Sahel, as well as the Gulf of Aden and the Western Indian Ocean and East African coast.

Russian security engagement in the Central African Republic, Libya and, more recently, Mali and Mozambique have demonstrated the importance to the EU and its member states of continuing dialogue with Moscow. At the same time, however, such dialogue requires transparency and trust in order to succeed. Brussels and Moscow are currently continuing to promote rival norms and visions. For example, the EU advocates governance and building institutions, which sometimes clashes with Russia's "no-strings-attached" strategy that is based on geopolitical and mercantilist interests.

Russian actions in Africa need to be publicly exposed at times. In October 2019, Facebook ended the postings linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin [7] – the businessman who is allegedly behind Russia's troll factory – that actively sought to influence the domestic politics of a range of African countries. The company suspended three networks of "inauthentic" Russian accounts that targeted eight countries across the continent (especially around the times of elections): Madagascar, the Central African Republic (CAR), Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon, Sudan and Libya.

This recent Facebook experience is a reminder of the limitations of cooperation between Russia and the EU. The annexation of the Crimea and conflict in eastern Ukraine have made many EU members deeply sceptical about Russian intentions, particularly NATO and the Central and Eastern European states of the EU (and the Visegrad group, in particular) and the possibility of any constructive engagement with Moscow.

Opportunity to Avoid Confrontation

Even so, there are openings for Brussels and Moscow to contain the risks and reduce the costs of any confrontation. This could be partly achieved by not only aiming to make the African continent a new theatre for geopolitical competition and experimentation, but also through the sharing of information.

There are areas where Russia could enhance transparency, such as the disclosure of its defence transfers to the UN Registry of Conventional Arms. There is also room for collaboration with EU member states on the UN Security Council on the sanctions on the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Mali and Libya, as well as other issues, such as peacekeeping. For instance, the MINUSAMA in Mali, MONUSCO in DRC and MINUSCA in the Central African Republic.

Brussels and Moscow are currently continuing to promote rival norms and visions. For example, the EU advocates governance and building institutions, which sometimes clashes with Russia's "no-strings-attached" strategy that is based on geopolitical and mercantilist interests

Higher education is one area where Russia wants to expand. Moscow claims that half a million Africans have been educated in Russia or the former Soviet Union. There is potential in this area for cooperation in public health and the hard sciences, where EU higher education institutions might provide quality appraisal or joint training.

Supporting the higher education of Africans is a growing EU priority. In November 2017, the European Parliament adopted a resolution called the "EU-Africa strategy: a boost for development", which calls for the EU and the AU to promote exchanges between students, teachers, entrepreneurs and researchers between the two continents; welcomes the Commission's proposal to launch an African Youth Facility, expanding the scope of Erasmus+, and an EU vocational education and training facility; calls for a discussion on the recognition by the EU of certificates and diplomas issued by African schools and universities". [8] In October 2019, the European Commission hosted a high-level conference on "investing in people by investing in higher education and skills in Africa". The EU has concluded that "the scale of this cooperation is still inadequate given the number of African students and researchers". This might provide the EU with an opening for some triangulation with Russian higher-education providers on Africa.

Joint projects in infrastructure development and private-public partnerships could provide an opening for partnerships with EU countries in the future. but there would be a need for trust and transparency. The Cairo-based African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) is an example of an institution benefitting from increased Russian funding for African infrastructure investments. Projects through the Afreximbank might fuse funding. According to the Afreximbank, trade between Africa and Russia has doubled in the years since the bank started engaging with the Russian Export Center (REC) to promote trade between the two sides. At the Sochi summit, Afreximbank and the REC committed to double trade volume again over the next two years. [9]

Conclusion

The broader confrontation between Russia and the EU should not be allowed to stop all dialogue with Russia over their common interests and concerns in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, could be an area where the geopolitical rivalry does not need to be zero-sum and Moscow and Brussels might find niche areas for co-operation, either bilaterally or through the UN Security Council and other inter-governmental bodies.

Where there are evident clashing contradictions, such as interventions during elections by trolls or sharply focused security engagements that ignore rights and governance issues, these need to be spelt out. Both could provide Russia with short-term political advantages but are not sustainable long-term. The changes in political leadership in Sudan and Algeria are reminders of this. Russia invested heavily in the longstanding leaderships of Abdelaziz Bouteflika (who served as president for 20 years) and Omar al-Bashir (who served for 30 years). In 2019, both of these leaders were removed by popular protests, which has meant Moscow needs to build up new leadership relationships.

The broader confrontation between Russia and the EU should not be allowed to stop all dialogue with Russia over their common interests and concerns in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, could be an area where the geopolitical rivalry does not need to be zero-sum and Moscow and Brussels might find niche areas for co-operation

There will be an intensification of geopolitical competition in Africa involving numerous regional and outside players in the next decade. African states and the AU have a prime responsibility to manage their own destinies and how they engage internationally. Russia and the EU are increasing their engagement and interest in the continent. If they want to escape further geopolitical tensions, managing their own rivalries and visions will be as important as consulting their African partners on their strategies.


Alex Vines participated in the 11th EUREN meeting on "Russia and the EU in multilateral fora" on 31 October – 1 November 2019 in Moscow. This paper is based on his presentation. Its content is the sole responsibility of the author and does not represent the position of individual EUREN members or EUREN as a group.