Africa and Europe
A desperate suitor
Dec 6th 2007 | LISBON
From The Economist print edition
After China and America, it is Europe's turn to woo Africa
IT IS a coincidence, but an appropriate one nonetheless, that Europe should try to relaunch its relations with Africa in Lisbon. It was from here, in 1415, that Portuguese ships first set out to begin the European exploration and conquest of the dark continent; and it will be here on December 8th that politicians from 53 African and 27 European countries will gather at a summit to bury the old colonial relationships in favour of something more modern and “equal”, as the Europeans like to put it.
The get-together is the idea of the Portuguese, who currently hold the EU presidency; they see this first EU-Africa summit since 2000 as the capstone of their six-month tenure. They accept that the summit carries a “political price”: the one-man-against-the-rest EU split caused by the refusal of Britain's prime minister, Gordon Brown, to attend, in protest against the presence of Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe. But, the Portuguese say, they had little option. China, and others, have forced their hand.
For the Europeans are increasingly worried that they are losing both trade and clout on a continent that they used to regard as their own backyard. Over the past five years Europe has watched with a mixture of shock and awe as resource-hungry China has swept across a grateful continent, taking oil and minerals in exchange for anything the Africans want, be it money now, money later, ports or roads. African-Chinese trade has increased five-fold over that time to more than $50 billion last year. Europe's long-standing links mean that it is still Africa's biggest trading partner, but the Chinese are catching up fast. As a stark example of China's new muscle, in October the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China paid $5.6 billion for a 20% stake in Standard Bank of South Africa—the biggest single investment ever made on the continent.
And the Chinese are not the only newcomers. India has been buying up oil and mineral concessions in countries such as Sudan and Nigeria. America has revived its interest in Africa: it wants to take 25% of its oil supply from there to decrease its dependence on the Middle East. America has also been recruiting new allies, such as Mali and Ethiopia, in its fight against Islamist terrorism on the continent.
All this has left Africa's leaders in the novel position of being able to pick their friends rather than being dictated to by others, be they white development economists or the IMF. And they are enjoying every minute of it. As Shamsudeen Usman, Nigeria's minister of finance, says: “Nigeria is becoming a beautiful bride. What is happening is the Chinese, the Koreans, everyone is coming around, and if European companies do not wake up, they will see that most of the best businesses are taken. For us, really, whoever gives the best terms, the best conditions, and is willing to come and invest, those are the ones that we'll do business with.”
Europe, used to privileged access to African markets and politics, has been left floundering by the new competition. Europeans complain that China damages Africa by not linking its loans and investments to improvements in government and human rights, as the worthy Europeans do. But Africans are dismissive: as one official says, “Europe is jealous. They say we have gotten a new colonial master, but our old one wasn't so good.”
Getting hung up on democracy
The Lisbon summit will thus be an explicit counterpoint to the China-Africa summit of November 2006, when China cemented its new relationship with a promise of yet more money. Now the Europeans will try to woo the beautiful bride and her dowry of hydrocarbons back from Beijing. Europe's goodies will be a mix of concessions and inducements.
The main concession, a nod to the Chinese, is to be less critical of African regimes that are a bit light-fingered, or disdainful of human-rights. João Cravinho, the Portuguese minister responsible for the summit, contends that the Europeans have been “excessively simplistic” in insisting on European models of government for Africa. Instead, Europe will in future “focus on the essence of government, rather than the forms, [and be] less hung-up on particular forms of decision-making.”
Getting into the spirit, Europe overturned its own travel ban on Mr Mugabe, a complete stranger to decent behaviour, to allow him to attend the summit, even at the expense of losing the British government. Mr Mugabe will be lectured on his sins—and is then free to join in the cuddly group photographs. This is the “political price” that Europe feels it has to pay for warding off the Chinese. Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, will also be at the summit, but there are no plans to nag him about his army's brutality in Darfur.
Of the new inducements, trade deals called Economic Partnership Agreements are the ones Europe thinks will help Africa most. The EU argues that these are good for development, offering African countries full access to the European market while allowing them to keep about 20% of their own markets closed to protect fragile domestic industries. But some African countries, such as South Africa and Nigeria, argue that they are being bullied and threatened into making agreements before they are ready; the EU insists all must be wrapped up by the end of the year. The Europeans argue that the deals are designed to encourage regional integration in Africa. The Africans retort that by making separate deals with different countries they are doing exactly the opposite.
Europe's new insouciance about human rights will worry many, especially those suffering atrocities in Zimbabwe and Darfur, while the inducements hardly look tempting. Europe needs to do much better than this if it is to win the bride.