Prospects for Sustained Re-Engagement: Central & Eastern Europe and EU–Africa Relations After 2020

Written by | Wednesday, December 2nd, 2020

There has been a significant evolution in relations between Africa and an enlarged European Union in recent years, as African and European leaders have urged a departure from a top-down, donor–recipient dynamic towards a more equal relationship based on trade, investment and partnership. With negotiations for a new post-Cotonou Partnership Agreement and a renewed Joint Africa-EU Strategy now due to be concluded in 2021, there is the potential for a critical reset.

The negotiations are taking place at a time of significant volatility for the EU. Even before the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the context was shaped by the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc and the redrafting of the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF – the EU’s long-term budget); the rise of populism and growing influence of the extreme right; and the perspectives of the Central and Eastern European (CEE) member states, which are for the first time helping to set the legal basis underpinning the EU’s relations with Africa. Many of these internal dynamics have been concentrated around migration and the increased securitization of the EU’s development policies. Now the pandemic could potentially cause EU member states and African countries alike to become more inward-looking, while at the same time heightening the development challenges facing many African states.

An enlarged EU is a new EU. Most of the newer member states – 13 in total – which joined successively in 2004, 2007 and 2013, were part of the communist bloc, and all have participated in each of the processes highlighted above. Hence, there is a potential for CEE states to influence a departure from a top-down, donor–recipient dynamic in EU–Africa relations, towards a more equal partnership. In particular, drawing on the transition experiences of CEE members can help shape the EU’s approach to its relations with Africa in ways that better meet the goal of an equal partnership. Despite challenges across all policy areas, the engagement of EU member states from the CEE region in sub-Saharan Africa presents significant opportunities. In an increasingly complex global environment, multilateral alliances are key for maintaining a global community of states that share the values of the EU. And not least in the context of a changing transatlantic partnership, EU relations with African states become all the more salient. CEE member states can help enable a stronger and more genuine partnership between the two regions.

First of all, EU delegations can and do support member states in forging connections with partners in Africa. However, if the EU aims to have a more robust engagement with African countries, then that role must be expanded to include different formal and informal ways of working together, including joint representation, that would enable CEE member states to build a greater presence in African countries. Furthermore, the EU’s European External Action Service – the bloc’s diplomatic service – could implement special programmes targeting diplomats, academics, civil society workers and students from CEE member states for placements, internships, etc., related to its work with Africa. Such initiatives would help increase expertise among participating states and boost the potential for participating states’ ongoing engagement with Africa. Increasing CEE member states’ capacity to engage with African regional organizations could also help build opportunities for relationship-building, alongside engagement at bilateral level through the countries’ own diplomatic institutions or via EU delegations.

Moreover, given the period of relative disengagement since the early 1990s, shoring up diplomatic capacity is not, by itself, enough to achieve the deep mutual understanding and high-level political commitment that are essential to building productive and sustainable relations between CEE states and African states. Political dialogue, the forging of agreements, memorandums of understanding and sectoral cooperation, as well as establishing a network of honorary consulates, are all important factors that can help countries to reconnect and better understand each other’s perspectives, hopes and needs. Furthermore, sustained partnerships between research and education, media, business, youth organizations, and national and local authorities all have a key role to play. Ensuring consistency in political relations between CEE states and Africa will also be contingent on finding areas of common interest, most pressingly on migration, trade and investment. The internal politics of CEE countries demand a focus on migration, which is also a key area of interest for sub-Saharan African countries given critical issues that are often in tension with one another, such as remittances and concerns about the loss of highly skilled workers to more advanced economies. Job creation in sub-Saharan Africa can play an important role in addressing strategic concerns for both continents.

Furthermore, the EU is faced with development challenges in many of its own regions – notably including the CEE region – and can engage in a more equal partnership with its African partners by bringing together EU and African communities that share similar development challenges with the aim of fostering different forms of ‘co-development’. This could establish an equal footing for collaboration, as well as form a bridge between the EU’s external and internal policies and funding instruments, and could enable newer member states to play a meaningful role in the EU’s engagement with African partners. Such an approach would also enable the development of capacity for engagement within Africa and the CEE region alike, and would counter the perception among CEE member states that the EU, in the words of one interview subject, ‘has never been interested in helping us build such capacity [for engaging with African countries]’.

Despite criticism regarding the relevance of CEE transition experiences, they are seen by many, from both regions, as important. CEE member states, as well as EU institutions, should design better mechanisms for making the transition experience more visible and available for potentially interested sub-Saharan African partner countries. Showcasing past successes could make these insights more appealing, for instance the sharing of Slovakia’s devolution experience with Kenya, or the Polish experience of building the country’s first stock exchange with Ethiopia. Numerous further examples can be identified within the Eastern Neighbourhood and the Balkans. Indeed, there are early signs that CEE countries have started to draw on their communist-era experiences in supporting African countries. Hungary has relaunched its higher education scholarship programme, offering almost 900 scholarships annually to African countries, and collaboration in the field of education is expanding beyond offering scholarships to establishing joint degrees, including doctoral degrees, and to offering technical assistance in developing educational institutions. The bilateral relations of Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia with various African countries have also been characterized by an emphasis on educational cooperation.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, CEE countries should use their own experiences and influence within the EU to ensure that its policies and approach to the ongoing negotiations with Africa reflect the goal of an equal partnership between European and African states. Developed as part of a wider project focusing on relations between Africa and CEE region, Central and Eastern European EU member states can play a much more relevant role in EU–Africa relations. However that will only become possible if EU institutions and Western European member states respect them as full member states rather than accession countries, and employ their past history of working with African countries, their transition experiences, and current development challenges to inform progress towards genuinely equal relations with the African continent.

‘Central & Eastern Europe and EU–Africa Relations After 2020’ – Research Paper by Stefan Cibian – Chatham House / The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

The Discussion Paper can be downloaded here

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