Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET)

Bless the trade down in Africa: The EU is Africa’s largest trading partner, with the EU trading EUR 225 billion worth of goods in 2020 with the continent. Bearing in mind the adverse history between the continents, the effects of which are still being felt, what should the EU do to improve relations and boost equitable trade with Africa?

By Raphael Gross-Chartuni (NL)


Africa and Europe have a shared history that spans over millennia. However, much of that history has included horror and inhumane practices such as slavery and genocide. The negative effects of Western colonialism and imperialism are profound and are still being felt. The current situation has improved, but the benefits brought by modern trade and investment in Africa are not felt by African nations. Over the past 20 years, the EU has tried to improve their relations and aid the African continent, but despite billions of foreign aid and countless policies, minimal progress has been made. In 2020, the Commission published a strategy paper on renewing their ties with the African continent, aiming towards the creation of equal partnership rather than a donor-recipient relationship. However, such plans have yet to become concrete strategies and many talks are yet to be had.

Key Actors and Measures

African Union (AU)

Africa has its own union called the African Union (AU), which was founded in 2002 and consists of 55 members. The AU aims to create an autonomous continent, foster international and internal trade as well as create homologous legislation. The AU represents the continent and collaborates with the EU for deals and legislation.  The EU and AU collaborated to create the Joint-Africa EU strategy (JAES), seven years after the initial partnership in 2000. 

The Commission

The Commission and the AU collaborated to create the Joint-Africa EU strategy (JAES), seven years after the initial partnership in 2000. The JAES outlined the shared goals and values between the EU and AU, such as trade and peace. The enforcement of this strategy has been undertaken in many ways, such as advisory groups and foreign aid. 

JAES is enforced according to certain timeframes. The first six years were defined under two Action Plans while the 4th AU-EU summit prompted a plan for 2014 to 2017. The priority areas have decreased since the first Action Plan as the political and economical landscape changed. Areas such as energy and climate change were merged, for instance. 2014 also brought forth the Pan-African Programme, which was a financial instrument for the execution of JAES, with an allocated budget of EUR 845 million. This financial instrument ceased in 2020. In 2018, the Commission aimed to renew its strategy in several steps. The first of which being the Africa-Europe Alliance.

Africa-Europe Alliance

The Alliance was launched after the AU-EU summit. It aims to improve the AU’s economy and labour market through capitalising on strategic investment, creating a dynamic which reinforces the labour market by providing new job opportunities and increasing financial autonomy. In 2020, the Alliance was decentralised into four individual task forces, which will all publish research on problems in their respective fields and offer recommendations in 2022. 

A key part of this alliance is the External Investment Plan (EIP), which aims to increase and improve public and private investment in the AU. The European Fund for Sustainable Development (EFSD), aimed towards financially aiding third nations, is the platform that finances the EIP’s plans. EIP is founded under three pillars, which consist of the EFSD, technical assistance to aid projects to ensure financial prosperity, and creating an environment ideal for further and sustainable investment.

Towards a comprehensive strategy with Africa

The task forces were not the only initiative taken in 2020. The Commission published a white-paper named “Towards a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa” which outlines the EU’s vision for future relations with the AU. It focuses on creating sustainable industries, digitalisation, improved job availability in accordance with sustainability, peace and good governance and migration policies. Much focus is given on the sustainability of Africa’s industries, in light of the European Green Deal, which aims to turn the EU climate neutral by 2050. The contents and strategy is planned to be further discussed during the sixth AU-EU summit, but due to COVID-19 it has been indefinitely delayed and the contents of the white-paper are yet to be revised.

Key words and Core Concepts

  • COVID-19: A disease caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) which has become a pandemic. Vaccines minimise the risk of infection. As infection leads to the mutation of the virus, it can prompt the existence of variants. Variants are genotypes coined by the WHO as worrisome and distinct as they have increased virulence or infectivity.
    External factors such as HIV infection, quantitative or qualitative malnutrition, stress and immunodeficiency can severely worsen the prognosis of COVID-19 and enable higher infection rates, as well as promoting mutagenesis, which has been showcased in Africa, especially due to low vaccination rates because of privatised inoculations. 
  • Cycle of poverty: There are many variables or factors which induce poverty, but generally speaking there is a cycle which positively reinforces itself. A person in poverty has less access to education and healthcare due to financial restraints, like privatised schemes or the necessity to work. This in turn creates a situation where an adult is stuck with low-paying jobs due to the subsequent educational restraints, which severely restrict social mobility. This mechanism prohibits sufficient pay to allow their children to have adequate access to education and healthcare, which then elicits a vicious cycle of poverty. Nations are affected in a similar way, where they can only export cheap raw material in exchange for expensive imported goods, which takes away the profit and introduces debt and dependency. 
  • Colonisation and imperialism: Is the act of oppressing and controlling a demographic by a foreign entity, often for financial gain. Onwards of the 15th century, European nations and kingdoms invaded African nations and enslaved the people. European nations set up trans-atlantic empires for the trade of slaves and resources taken from African colonies. Furthermore, certain mechanisms were created where African colonies solely provided rough materials for the industrialising Western (mostly European) nations, thus enabling innovation and growth while enslaving, exploiting and killing African people. While slave-trade slowly became illegal in the 19th century, this exploitation mechanism has persisted until this very day, now recognised as neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism. The 20th century was marked by decolonisation efforts, which took roughly until 1975. Although the slave trade was eventually banned, the exploitation and oppression by European nations continued. By the 20th century, almost all of the African continent was controlled by Europe. These nations had partitioned Africa on a map to indicate ownership, with complete disregard to the genuine boundaries set by African nations. This has  catalysed regional conflicts that have persisted to the modern day.

Key issues and conflicts  

Africa is a large continent  with a population three times that of the EU. However, dissimilar rates of economic growth have been reported when compared to other previously colonised nations in Asia. African countries rely on the export of raw materials to industrial nations, a persistent phenomenon designed during the colonial age. The reliance on their previous colonisers is highlighted as almost all products are imported from foreign nations. Not only does this chronic dependency on singular export goods pose a threat due to the ever-changing future of the market, it also creates a clear disparity between import and export value. This gap in value prevents growth as raw materials are low-profit commodities and thus only allow marginal or non-existing profits. Furthermore, frustration has been expressed as African leaders feel that the EU is playing a dominant role in maintaining and shaping relations, especially towards certain climate-related regulations. Some of them believe that Africa should be exempted from them as the content only contributes 2-3% to global warming.

This economic burden supersedes Gross Domestic Product and average wage. Less than half of all people in Africa have access to modern healthcare facilities, which leads to an average health expectancy of 63 and 66 years respectively for men and women. The lack of healthcare facilities is made worse by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Africa has been hit exceptionally hard. Despite promises from the Covax platform and the EU, minimal quantities of western vaccines have been given to Africa, while the UK and Member States received a surplus. To combat this shortage, some nations and organisations called upon the EU to ignore Intellectual Property (IP) patent laws to enable worldwide production of vaccines, including in certain African nations. However, the EU did not, which prompted African leaders to express their discontent, labelling these measures as “global Appartheid”. To combat the void of inoculations, many African nations received vaccines from Russia and China instead. Still, the vaccination rates in Africa remain below 80%. The combination of ill-equipped hospitals, low vaccination rates and vast-spread immunodeficiency has contributed to COVID-19 mortality and SARS-COV-2 mutagenesis, as HIV causes immunodeficiency and is widespread in Africa, particularly the south. Not only is this harmful to the African people, but SARS-COV-2 can easily mutate, an example of which is the Omicron variant. The spread of this variant is a consequence of the discrepancy in worldwide COVID-19 vaccination rates and AIDS medication distribution, and shows the increasingly dire and global nature of these healthcare crises.

In recent years, the dire situation created by Western corporations has been highlighted by corporate crime. African nations miss out on tens of billions of euros each year due to corporate tax-evasion, money that is vital for infrastructure, improving healthcare, and providing welfare – the very things needed to break the cycle of poverty.  The lack of corporate taxation leads to further taxation of the African population to compensate for lost income, which only increases poverty. The necessity to borrow from other nations or rely on foreign aid creates a stronger mechanism for Africa’s chronic dependence on other nations.

Corporate exploitation does not just involve taxes, however. Africa counts over 9.2 million slaves. Most products available in today’s market involve slavery somewhere down the pipeline. This is especially true for products containing cocoa, as many plants are harvested through child slavery or exploitation. Further labour exploitation in other industries is rampant as well. A notable example is the industry behind batteries, which relies on cobalt mining. As digital innovation grows and the need for alternative energy resources grows, such as windmills and electric cars, the necessity and demand for cobalt to manufacture such goods poses serious questions to both the human and environmental sustainability of these supply chain. The labourers in these mines are exposed to toxic gases, endure chronic physical pain, have violent conflicts with other mine personnel, and are underpaid severely. The negligence that these workers have to face has caused lung disease and occupational deaths, even among children who are paid less than one or two dollars a day. Despite this, the need for cobalt has increased in the past few years and will continue to do so in light of climate-change initiatives, such as the European Green Deal.Despite the direct and indirect roles that European corporations play in labour exploitation, slavery, and the health and environmental crises in Africa, very little accountability is held or mandated by law. Justice cannot be served and the status-quo broken if corporate invincibility is not diminished.

Key Questions

  • Should the EU take a completely new approach to African development?
  • Which steps should the EU take to ensure that the cooperation is not one-sided?
  • What role can the EU play in aiding Africa’s development and pursuit of economic autonomy?
  • How can the EU ensure that European corporations no longer exploit African nations while still maintaining economic stability?
  • What can the EU do to improve vaccination distribution, as was promised?

Things to look at