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EU, Africa and China in the 2000s: Bilateral relations and trilateral failure

By accident, I’ve come across a very fascinating academic journal article on EU-Africa relations and the role China played in this relationship in the first decade of the 21st century.

The European Union and China’s rise in Africa: Competing visions, external coherence and trilateral cooperation” by Maurizio Carbone, published in April of 2011 in a special issue of the Journal of Contemporary African studies on Chinas rise in Africa, is a beautiful look behind the scenes of EU decision-making based on interviews and document analysis.

While the article also covers the processes leading to the 2005 EU strategy for Africa and the 2007 Joint Africa-EU Strategy, most revealing are the insights on the 2008 Commission Communication “The EU, Africa and China: Towards trilateral dialogue and cooperation“.

In short, Carbone describes the process as pushed by civil servant within the Commission’s Directorate General (DG) Development and then taken Commissioner Luis Michel. It then met strong opposition from other DGs (in particular External Relations) and the Commission’s Secretariat General. It then becomes so much watered down in the internal coordination of the Commission that it’s almost empty when finally published.

Under the French Presidency, it was quickly endorsed by the Council as there were no controversial issues left in it, but once this was done those in the Commission who worked on it leave and the next Council Presidencies don’t really care. So shortly after, the trilateral idea is politically dead.

The reason that it didn’t work out, and the article shows this more in detail that I did here, is the general lack of coherence of interests at EU level, already within the Commission but especially between the institutions. The Commission’s strive for the EU to become a global power, the Parliament’s strive for European values and the member states’ strive not to lose their privileged relations with African countries seem to make an effective EU-Africa or EU-Africa and EU-China-Africa policy impossible according to Carbone.

Altogether, one of the most interesting academic reads on EU affairs in a while with fascinating behind-the-scene insights of how EU foreign and development is (not) functioning.

One Response to EU, Africa and China in the 2000s: Bilateral relations and trilateral failure

  1. avatar André says:

    Nice read and an interesting institutional analysis. The EU indeed has a very strong interest to continue its intimate relationship with African countries, possibly to the detriment of a sober tripartite dialogue. Yet, there are bumps in the road: the new EU trade and development policies suggest that the EU is becoming a lot tougher on African countries which do not comply with the aid conditions (Malawi has recently seen most of its funding disappear).

    China has different priorities than the EU in Africa, focusing much more on construction and infrastructure projects without political conditionality but with other heavy strings attached (contracts for Chinese companies, extraction of natural resources etc.). Some authors argue that China’s activities in Africa are not necessarily detrimental. But you could certainly argue that the EU’s development efforts have shown more lasting results than China’s activities (Rwanda, for example, had 40 doctors after the genocide and since then almost doubled average life expectancy from 29 years to 50 years, full analysis here).

    These differences don’t bode well for a coherent EU-Africa-China strategy. But then, there is no coherent strategy for China either. The last trade agreement between the EU and China dates back to 1985. A new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, dearly needed between two of the biggest world economies, has been opened in September 2006. But negotiations for a long time have been about as alive as the Doha round.

    Nor is there a perfectly coherent strategy for Africa. Policy Coherence for Development is a nice catchphrase, in particular within DG DEVCO, but when you ask people down the road in DG AGRI, the picture looks completely different. The Common Agricultural Policy may serve European farmers’ interests (from 2:13) but a recent report by Concord found that the EU’s policies, and in particular the CAP and biofuel mandates, are seriously undermining European development efforts in Africa.

    Then again, how much coherence can you have in a Union of 27 member states without compromising democracy?

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