The EU’s ‘Eurafrica’ roots

A new “pan-Africa initiative” by the EU is really just an extension of colonial pretenses, writes Sa

In the EU's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, President of the European Council Van Rompuy said, "symbolic gestures alone cannot cement peace" [Reuters]

The European Union recently announced a $1.1bn “Pan-African initiative” aiming to integrate African countries with Europe. As the EU press release points out, the money will go to programmes that improve trade, set up election observation missions, establish academic exchanges and run governance initiatives.  

On the surface, this looks like a good deal for Africa. PanAf (as the initiative is referred to) will contribute to increased mobility within the continent as well as between Europe and Africa. For instance, student exchange programmes will enable African students to pursue academic interests in Europe. African nations will have easier access to STIs (Science, Technology and Innovation), and labour mobility will be facilitated.

And why would Africa turn down a partner that won a Nobel Peace Prize for its “pursuit of peace and human dignity,” as President of the European Council Van Rompuy put it in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech for the supranational organisation? Why would Africa not want to associate with a political union that is on the forefront of developments in anti-climate change action, medical research and strengthening democracy

The problem is that the EU is promoting a certain image that it is not necessarily aligned with its actions. As Desmond Tutu put it in a protest letter to the Nobel committee, “The EU is clearly not ‘the champion of peace’ that Alfred Nobel had in mind when he wrote his will.” 

Given the long colonial history of its leading members, perhaps Africans should be a bit sceptical about the “peace” part of the EU image-building project. It should not be difficult to imagine that Africans are suspicious of the EU’s supposedly benign intentions to “integrate” Africa at present. After all, the EU was not set up to promote peace and prosperity in the world, but to secure peace and prosperity for Europe.

A long history of abuse

Over the past decade, the EU has pushed to secure its economic interests in Africa, with some claiming that the pursuit is reminiscent of the colonial past. The EU’s pursuit of geopolitical ambitions and economic interests is apparent even under the guise of “a partnership of equals” in the overarching long-term framework for EU and Africa relations, the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAER). The EU’s Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with African countries hardly reflect a mutually beneficial deal. Instead, they encourage African states to sign onto damaging policies, tying 80 percent of their markets to Europe in exchange for short-term gains. Ghana, for instance, might lose over $300m per year when the West Africa EPA comes into effect. Nigeria may lose $1.3t. It should not come as a surprise then that the countries are resisting ratifying the EPA despite possible consequences.

People and Power – The battle for Africa – Part 1

European exploitation of Africa’s resources continues to have dire consequences on various aspects of Africans’ lives, including labour rights, food insecurity, and armed conflicts. Take for example the British platinum producing company, Lonmin, whose collusion with the South African police led to a violent clamp down on striking Marikana miners in August 2012; some 39 miners were shot dead during the strike. Or, of particular relevance today, consider a 2004 study by Science journal which argued that Europe’s high consumption of fish is driving overfishing in West Africa and as a result excessive bush-meat hunting. One of EU’s leading members, France, has not shied away from securing its interests in Africa militarily either. In the past few years it has sent troops to both Mali and the Central African Republic to secure its mining interests.  

In fact, the EU was set up in the first place to protect colonial interests. Rather than to prevent wars, as is widely believed, the idea of an European Union emerged after European powers being humiliatingly sidelined by the US and Russia following the Suez Canal crisis. The EU’s founders knew that Europe had to unite in order to remain relevant. The only thing they lacked was resources, which Africa, or rather “Eurafrica”, had plenty of.

As scholars Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson write in Eurafrica – a brilliant book that traces the geopolitical roots of the formation of the union – “the EU would not have come into existence at this point in time had it not been conceived as a Eurafrican enterprise in which colonialism was Europeanised”. All the documentation concerning the formation of the EU in the 1950s, they argue, reflects the stance that Europe had to strengthen its grip on Africa’s assets and resources.

This remains the case. As the EU itself declares, “Raw materials are fundamental to Europe’s economy, growth and jobs and they are essential for maintaining and improving our quality of life.” Today’s EU-Africa relationship is a continuation of a long and often painfully dark history of exploitation and co-dependency. 

Yet, the barriers for an equal partnership between the EU and African nations are not insurmountable. The two continents are, after all, bound together historically, economically, culturally and increasingly even militarily. Nor is this to suggest that African nations are not complicit in sub-imperialist agendas. As EU-Africa relations expert Ida Horner writes regarding Africa’s failure to strengthen its commitment to mutual agreements, “resources are not always used appropriately nor evenly distributed” due to impunity.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Van Rompuy continued to say, “symbolic gestures alone cannot cement peace”.  Perhaps the EU should make this its motto. It is impossible to be a hallmark of peace while pursuing an unethical agenda as the EU does in Africa. The EU may be benevolent in theory but in practice it is, in many ways, a neo-colonial bully.

Follow Minna Salami on Twitter:  @MsAfropolitan