By William Kennedy.
In an ever connected and interdependent world, it is time to embrace opportunity in Africa – Europe relations. The two continents share a long and intricate history, with both positive partnerships to advance and historical grievances to address. Forums for cooperation – including EU and AU institutions – are already in place, but colonial legacies persist. Moreover, Libya’s destabilisation presents contemporary problems. Europe has a responsibility to tackle these issues, not least because ignoring them will worsen security threats and do nothing to defuse a demographic time bomb. Additionally, mutual benefits await both sides of the Mediterranean through sustainable and valuable developments in economic, political and cultural exchange.
Africa effectively began human history, with the continent the source of numerous fossil discoveries from a region termed the “Cradle of Humankind”. The history shared by inhabitants of Europe and Africa reconverged throughout the centuries. A two thousand year link to Christianity brought Ethiopia the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela. Egypt secured a mention in the Bible and the Great Library of Alexandria was a North Egyptian intellectual centre during the time of Ancient Greece and Rome. Coastal West Africa had links for trade and commerce with 15th Century Europe.
Sadly, these developed into routes for the Transatlantic Slave Trade, a tragedy lasting over 400 years and affecting more than 15 million people. Followed later by partition and colonial rule, the legacy left by Europe was largely one of an Africa exploited and underdeveloped, with cultures uprooted and traditions, languages and social systems displaced. Decolonisation left Africa bound by unequal terms of trade and the newly independent states resembled those drawn up by European powers.
Fortunately, this legacy has long been acknowledged. Decades have passed and institutions were established to foster positive Africa – Europe relations. The 1975 Georgetown Agreement granted 48 Sub-Saharan African countries a formal means of EU cooperation and promoted Pan-African solidarity. Relations with North African states developed separately, via the EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy. The Cotonou Agreement in 2000 strengthened Africa’s economic development through tailored trade arrangements. It also furthered democratisation and civil society in the African states involved. Other forums for cooperation include the Africa – Europe Youth Summit and the African Union, modelled on the EU.
The African Union (AU) was established in large part by the late Libyan leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, in 2002. The stated vision of the AU is to create “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena”. The charter emphasises Africa’s development and member state integration, in addition to the protection of human rights and democratic principles.
However, al-Qadaffi’s election as AU chairman raised eyebrows, being a leader associated not with democracy, but military dictatorship and alleged links to terrorism. He envisioned a “United States of Africa” and preached non-reliance on the West. He was accused of holding Europe to ransom, demanding EU funding in return for safeguarding the continent from unchecked immigration. His regime was toppled and in 2011 he was assassinated during the Arab Spring, with the backing of NATO forces.
The upheaval saw Libya descend into chaos, bringing with it security concerns that Europe must address. The North African country, which remains fractured and largely ungovernable, is key to understanding the migrant crises of the past few years. The Central Mediterranean route, across the sea from Libya, has been the migration channel for over 90% of those headed to Europe. 181,000 arrivals were detected in 2016, while thousands died at sea. The EU has taken action, through the funding of Libyan coastguards and initiatives including Operation Sophia and the Malta Declaration. Numbers have since fallen.
However, this hasn’t repaired the hub of human trafficking that Libya has become. According to the Guardian, “criminality and human trafficking is so rampant that gangs hold public slave auctions.” The continents must work together to address not only migrant inflows, with continued search and rescue operations and avenues for legal migration, but also to tackle root causes for which both sides are partly responsible. While Europe’s population is set to decline, Africa is heading for 2.5 billion people by 2050. Without common strategies for Africa–Europe cooperation in security, sustainable development, politics and migration, the situation will likely get worse.
Aside from security necessities, an immense opportunity exists for a positive continental relationship based on mutual understanding and cooperation. In 2018, European Commission Chief Jean-Claude Junker called for a “partnership of equals”. Describing Africa as Europe’s twin continent, Junker stated “we need to invest more in our relationship with the nations of this great and noble continent. Africa does not need charity, it needs true and fair partnerships. And Europe needs this partnership just as much.” While both sides stand to gain from development through trade and investment, Europe would also benefit from arrangements for orderly, legal migration, and Africa from European funding and expertise.
With competing influences on the African continent, Europe should take the opportunity to engage and promote the values of a stable, democratic relationship. Likewise, Africa has a wealth of culture and history to share with Europe, from the history of the Ashanti and Songhai empires to “Nollywood,” Nigeria’s popular film industry. By 2020, the EU will have supported 35,000 African students and researchers through its Erasmus programme. Diaspora from both continents continue to prove Africa and Europe can live side by side.