Irish Times view on EU-Africa relations: envisioning a new paradigm

Harsher side of story to be found in parallel plan to protect borders against unwanted immigration

Strategic thinking is evident in the plan announced by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker for an Africa-Europe Alliance for Sustainable Development and Jobs. It proposes a 25 per cent increase in EU spending on Africa to €40 billion, concentrating on education, freer trade and infrastructure, alongside ambitious financing of employment creation by small and medium-sized firms. Africa's population is set to double this century so it makes sense that Europe, its most powerful and richest neighbour, should do all it can to ensure most of its people can find sustainable jobs there.

The plan has been developed with the African Union and signals a radical deepening of relations between the two regional bodies. Their engagement is being overhauled in line with a new EU emphasis on working with and not for Africa, in a promised transition from aid to mutual development policies. Europe is Africa's largest trading and investment partner but faces increasing competition from China. That is a welcome development for many African governments, which complain about difficult access to European markets and onerous conditions for its help. This initiative must be accompanied with a comprehensive review of existing policies in preparation for a longer term co-operative approach.

Irish development and aid programmes are substantially concentrated in Africa, along with an accumulation of expertise and research capacity. The Government has been a strong supporter of Juncker’s plan, especially concerning stronger political relations with the African Union and individual African states. Africa’s sheer scale and diversity must be taken properly into account as the effort is made to shift relations decisively away from colonial and aid paradigms towards more sustainable ones. It makes sense to concentrate on educational, trade and infrastructure investment programmes in the first stage. Difficult decisions open up about trade access for African goods to European markets and for financing of economic development but these are necessary if progress is to be made.

The harsher side of this story is to be found in Juncker’s parallel plan to fund and organise a 10,000 strong EU Frontex system to help protect borders against unwanted immigration. Agreements with Turkey and Libya have sharply and brutally reduced the numbers of Africans seeking jobs and asylum in Europe, even while the politics of resentment against those who have come here from wars and poverty is peaking in a right-wing populist backlash in many European states. Strategic thinking and planning with African governments about how to minimise those movements in the long term is essential. Securitising borders will not work if large numbers of people are determined to escape poverty and conflict and seek a better life away from where they have been born.