EU must treat Africa as an equal if it wishes to counter China’s influence on the continent
The European Union is investing more than €150 billion (US$153.2 billion) in Africa in an attempt to counter China’s influence and expand its own. However, as long as the EU fails to realise that investments per se aren’t the answer, China will maintain its lead.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced the package during a visit to Senegal earlier this year, pontificating that Europe is the African continent’s largest and “most reliable” partner. The reality, however, reveals a different picture.
Africa is a primary example of how China’s geopolitical strategy is potentially shifting the balance of power decisively across an entire continent. And the formula is surprisingly uncomplicated. Unlike Brussels, Beijing does not see Africa as a problem, where famine and civil war prevail, but as a continent of opportunity.
Between 1960 and 1997, the West sent in excess of US$500 billion in aid to Africa, almost five times the (inflation-adjusted) amount that the US transferred to Western European economies after World War II.
Unfortunately, this resulted in neither many new jobs nor a noticeable increase in value as the aid focused on improving social infrastructure. What happened instead was an increase in dependence on foreign aid. In fact, by 2005, the budgets of Ghana and Uganda were more than 50 per cent aid-dependent.
But along came China. Between 2007 and 2020, China’s two leading development banks invested US$23 billion in infrastructure projects on the continent, more than the total contributions from Africa’s other eight-largest lenders, including the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and American and European development banks.
China’s impact is primarily made possible because of complementarity. Most African countries are rich in natural resources, but poor infrastructure remains one of the main stumbling blocks to development. China has the interest and funds to bridge this gap at a time when infrastructure projects of Western countries and international development banks are stagnating.
China has also been Africa’s largest trading partner for 12 consecutive years. Trade between the two rose by 35 per cent from 2020 to a record high of US$254 billion last year, mainly due to increased Chinese exports to the continent.
Considering these realities, it is not hard to understand why many African countries consider China, not Europe, their most important partner.
But it is not merely the “what” but also the “how” that has widened the gap between Brussels and Beijing. China’s state-owned enterprises are increasingly moving ahead of their European competitors with quick decisions and even quicker implementation of orders in Africa.
And while China is equipped with shovel dredgers and cement that create visible change on the continent, Europe focuses on primarily exporting its values to Africa and continues attaching regulations and conditions to its investments in a typically European fashion. Brussels’ paternalistic behaviour is in stark contrast to Beijing’s lack of interference in African affairs.
Or, to put it somewhat polemically, China is asking which road should be built and to where, then delivering it in virtually no time. Meanwhile, the European Union first checks to see whether the road is vital, then commissions studies assessing and analysing the amount of African wildlife that could be harmed by the road.
Essentially, not only are Brussels and Beijing no longer playing the same game, they are playing entirely different sports by now.
However, despite this apparent reality, the European Union has yet to make any significant changes to its policy. Certainly, it should not neglect or compromise its values of democracy, human rights and sustainability.
But Brussels has to ask itself critically whether it should continue to approach conditions in Africa with European standards or whether it is going overboard – particularly if the current approach has left it in trailing in the new scramble for Africa.
When abiding by one’s own standards equates to not having any impact, these standards become questionable. And one must not forget that while values are undoubtedly admirable – in theory at least – the actual value of, for example, a finished road that leads to a village adds to Africa’s situation and will outweigh the former.
Yes, fair elections, fewer coups and human rights are important. However, these premises alone will never create the better, more stable Africa that the EU wishes to see, and the past 62 years are a testament to this.
Europe needs to be flexible and regionally tailor its investment plans and approaches to engagement, offering a competitive and strategically focused policy instead of fighting against the status quo.
Above all, African youth need a local perspective from Europe. Every year, young people enter the job market. An additional 15 million jobs will be required by 2025 to reduce unemployment. Europe can help here, with investments in education, employment and social participation. This will not only fight poverty but also help build up a strong trading partner.
Moreover, Europe must finally start thinking and acting in consequential categories, worthy of its status as a global economic powerhouse. At the same time, it should be building a relationship with Africa that enables them to be on an equal footing, with African no longer treated as a supplicant. China understands these concepts well. The EU, so far, seemingly does not.
-Thomas O. Falk is a UK-based independent journalist and political analyst. This article was first published by South China Morning Post.