Shared Fortunes: Why Britain, the European Union, and Africa Need One Another

Written by | Thursday, April 28th, 2022

In April 2014, the first EU-Africa Summit for several years was held in Brussels. It was attended by almost every European and African head of state or government – except the then British prime minister, David Cameron. It seemed that neither the European Union nor Africa was that much of a priority for him – at least, not more important than the Conservative Party constituency event in Wales that he attended instead. In this, Cameron might have been reflecting the views of the many British voters who had little interest in Africa or, at the time, the EU. Alternatively, he may simply have taken both for granted, thinking that they would always be there when he needed them.

Following Britain’s exit from the EU, the current prime minister pledged that “Global Britain” would engage more actively with the rest of the world. In the event, the government’s February 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development, and Foreign Policy made few references to either the EU or Africa. Clearly, neither were government priorities. Yet Britain and Africa still have significant shared interests. The partnership between the two has great potential. But it will not fulfill that potential without some significant changes in Britain’s priorities and actions. And the effort will be all the more effective if Britain engages with Africa in cooperation with the rest of Europe.

Britain retains great assets in Africa and in its African diaspora. But, having neglected both, the country is now paying the price in diminished influence and reduced business. It needs to change policies and priorities if it is to reverse that trend. The key to this is for the government to listen to what Africans are saying – including those who are now an integral part of British society – and to address their concerns, not merely seek to impose its own policies on them. This is now a matter of domestic and international politics. Listening and responding is very much in Britain’s national interest – if only the government would admit it.

Britain’s position in the world depends on real power, hard security, and economic benefits – not on wishful thinking. Waffle, in Whitehall and Westminster has no clout in Africa. And Britain’s global influence depends as much – if not more – on African and South Asian opinion as on the views of China, with whom it is currently engaged in a stand-off, and the US, which too often takes Britain for granted. Having friends still matters in global politics. It is essential for Britain to build fruitful partnerships with African countries domestically and internationally. This is obviously true of Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya, which are courted by all major players and can pick and choose their partners. Therefore, Britain should make a particular effort to court Francophone and smaller Anglophone countries that global powers regularly ignore – Malawi, Botswana, Zambia, Gambia, Uganda, Somalia, South Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A real commitment to Africa’s interests and progress would produce big political dividends.

The transformation of the international order caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine makes Africa’s role in the world more important than ever. Some African countries will be tempted to equivocate or play one great power off against the others. This is a dangerous and potentially damaging game, as Russia’s involvement in Syria has demonstrated. It is fundamentally in the interests of Africa’s democracies, Africa’s development, and arguably all African people to enhance global stability rather than encourage or tolerate continued conflict. This is profoundly in the self-interest of both Britain and the EU. By acting separately, they weaken their ability to support Africa’s development. The case for democracy, liberal values, and an open economy needs to be argued, demonstrated, and won in public debate. By allowing its influence in Africa to fade, and by distancing itself from the European mainstream, Britain has limited its ability to affect the outcome of that debate in ways that have serious consequences for its role in the world.

Britain’s assets in soft power, security engagement, financial expertise, and political understanding could have far greater impact if they were linked to the EU’s resources and economic clout. The longer Britain continues to separate itself from the EU by avoiding close coordination on policies that are in their mutual interest, the faster its influence in Africa will diminish. A dogmatic commitment to autonomy will only hasten its irrelevance. Some in government may find such advice unpalatable, but ignoring it will only hasten Britain’s decline. If Britain cannot work with its friends and neighbors, it will swiftly lose the respect of all. Investing in Africa still makes economic sense, as the continent’s economies and populations are growing. And Africans will welcome it: faster economic growth is essential to manage the demographic shift, the impact of climate change, and the risk of conflict on the continent. These are important issues for all concerned.

Therefore, in practical terms, the key recommendations are: Firstly, the British government should consult and otherwise engage more directly with the African diaspora on its Africa policy, including on visas. Secondly, the UK should make common cause with the EU and Africa in the preparations for COP27. Thirdly, the UK and the EU should begin an intensive joint dialogue with all African countries on how to accelerate growth and to generate jobs for young Africans. Fourthly, Britain should encourage its representatives in Africa to liaise more closely with their European colleagues, and should accelerate negotiations for a foreign policy coordination mechanism in Brussels. Above all, both the UK and the EU need to make a greater political investment in Africa’s future – starting right now, before it is too late.

‘Shared Fortunes: Why Britain, the European Union, and Africa Need One Another’ — Policy Brief by Nicholas Westcott — European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.

The Policy Brief can be downloaded here

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