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3 May 2023

Europe’s focus is on Ukraine and the east – but relations with Africa are as important

By 2050 two in every five children in the world are projected to born in Africa. It is the continent of the future.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, Europe has been looking east. Attention has turned not only to the support of Kyiv but to other previously neglected neighbours in the region.

Instability in the western Balkans, the geopolitical trajectory of the Caucasus, and the future of Turkey: these have all risen up the agenda in London, Paris, Berlin and Warsaw. One manifestation is the European Political Community (EPC), a forum for strategic dialogue championed by Emmanuel Macron and launched at a summit in Prague in October 2022. The EPC is made up of every state on the continent (including Britain) apart from the twin pariahs of Russia and Belarus, and stretches as far east as Azerbaijan. It gathers for its second meeting on 1 June in Moldova, another eastern country increasingly accorded European prominence.

And rightly so. For too long, the non-EU states to the east and south-east have been overlooked despite their vital importance to the continent’s wider interests. Meanwhile China, and in some cases Russia, has been able to build influence in these nations. As I argued in March on these pages, the Union urgently needs to summon the self-confidence and ambition required to accelerate its next enlargement.

[See also: Joe Biden said “America is back”. So why are its foreign allies going their own way?]

Yet it is not enough to look east. What the shock of Russia’s invasion on 24 February 2022 exposed was not just a failure to look in that eastward direction, but a fundamental complacency about Europe’s vulnerability to turmoil from all directions. Britain is far from guiltless, with buccaneering fantasies about a new role as a de facto Indo-Pacific power that are often eclipsed by the hard-nosed reality that it is affected more by events closer to home.

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The conflict in Sudan is a reminder of this vulnerability. International headlines have concentrated on the evacuation of foreign nationals, but others have turned to the more disturbing longer-term outlook. “God forbid if Sudan is to reach a point of civil war proper,” the country’s former prime minister Abdalla Hamdok told an audience in Nairobi at the end of April. “Syria, Yemen, Libya will be a small play [in comparison].” Such a prospect means not only humanitarian catastrophe but ripples that will surely break on European shores – whether as a surge in migration, an overspill of the violence, or trade disruption (Port Sudan is a transit point on routes between Asia and Europe).

For years Europe has treated relations with its south as, if anything, an even lower priority than its relations to the east. Its re-engagement with North Africa after the Arab Spring petered out in the grim aftermath of the 2011 military intervention in Libya, and the more gradual failure of pro-democracy movements in states such as Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia. Franco-German military efforts to stabilise Mali are being wound down. The only new European interest in the region has been primarily concerned with securing alternative sources of gas to Russian ones.

In a paper for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Alberto Rizzi and Arturo Varvelli argue that “drawn-out instability and security challenges have led the EU to progressively distance itself from deeper engagement with the challenge of democratisation in the region and it has remained muted on promoting intra-regional cooperation and engagement”. They note that the Union’s Global Gateway investment programme – an attempt to match China’s network of “Belt and Road” infrastructure projects across Asia, Africa and Latin America – envisages North Africa merely “as the endpoint of corridors for manufacturing and critical raw materials in Africa rather than as a nearshoring destination to be directly integrated within EU supply chains”. The EPC is another example: it is focused on the continent’s east and beyond, with little to offer neighbours to the south.

The European establishment appears to see the Mediterranean less as a common space with a shared future, than a mere membrane across which can flow migrants and security threats (bad) or energy (good). The southern strategy, such as one exists, is largely confined to the management of those flows.

The states on Europe’s southern littoral are savvier than most. Spain’s government has recently normalised and deepened relations with Morocco. Madrid is also expected to make Africa a focus both of its presidency of the EU Council in the second half of this year, and of the third summit of the EPC in October, which it is hosting in Granada – a city symbolic of the continent’s ties with the Arab Muslim world.

That is a welcome start. But it must be just that: the start of something bigger, of a long-term expansion of the energies devoted to Europe’s south and beyond. The next steps might involve opening up the EPC to them (if Azerbaijan can be included, why not Tunisia or Morocco?), upgrading the relationship between the EU and the African Union, and reorienting the Global Gateway investments towards the south.

This matters for the short term – for the management, mitigation and ideally prevention of crises like the one breaking out in Sudan. But it makes even more sense in the long term. Where China’s population has already peaked, Africa’s demographic boom is just beginning. By 2050 two in every five children in the world are projected to born there. It is the continent of the future.

Considering this, Europe’s position on Africa is significant. The focus on the east is right. But Europeans must look south too.

[See also: Spain’s left coalition defied expectations. Can its leader, Pedro Sánchez, win again?]

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This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown