Africa and the European Union: Securing a Sustainable Economic Future

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Written by Britt L. Bolin

Could the coming century belong to Africa instead of Asia? The idea of “Africa Rising” has taken off in recent years based on Africa’s fast-growing economies, young population, natural resource wealth, and expanding consumer class. Despite these advantages, Africa must grapple with a number of problems that could hinder its economic, political, and social progress. Its population is projected to double to 2.4 billion people by 2050, and could double again by 2100. Africa has the fastest urban population growth rate in the world, but its cities lack the basic infrastructure to adequately manage influxes of people. Security concerns, such as the threat of terrorism, also present significant risks to both northern and sub-Saharan Africa. In an increasingly interconnected world, these problems will not remain Africa’s alone.

Securing a sustainable future for Africa will require intensive international cooperation from all G20 countries. However, the European Union has a special role to play due to its historical, geographical, economic, and political ties to the continent. In order to ensure sustainable economic progress for Africa in the coming decades, the European Union should focus on three key areas in which it can make significant long-term contributions: agriculture, trade, and regional integration.

Agriculture, and its importance for issues including population pressures and climate change, is crucial for Africa’s economic development. Africa possesses more than half of the world’s uncultivated arable land. Agriculture makes up roughly one-third of the continent’s gross domestic product and employs over two-thirds of African workers. Yet Africa’s agricultural production per capita has not increased since 1961. Moreover, nearly 220 million people in sub-Saharan Africa suffer from undernourishment. The dramatic projected population growth by 2050 and the increasing effects of climate change will only add to food insecurity issues across the continent.

Unfortunately, the European Union’s agricultural policies to date have been more damaging than beneficial for African farmers. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy provides “export refunds” that allow European farmers to dump subsidized exports in developing markets at artificially low prices. This undercuts local producers who cannot compete with cheap European agricultural products and drives them out of business. The European Union has proposed ending such market-distorting subsidies by 2018, but more efforts are needed for Africa’s long-term sustainable agricultural development. African farmers suffer from myriad problems, including lack of investment and capital, low productivity, poor storage, inadequate infrastructure and transportation, and unreliable electricity.

The European Union should focus its development and assistance efforts on addressing these critical issues, as even small efforts could bring large improvements. European expertise could help African countries adopt more efficient farming methods and technologies, focus financial assistance on key infrastructure and transport projects, and improve storage capacities to prevent food wastage and blight from disease and rot.

Trade is another area in which the European Union can assist sustainable economic development in Africa. European trade policies are viewed skeptically in Africa. Since the signing of the Coutonou Agreement in 2000, the European Union has introduced and negotiated Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with individual African countries and regional communities. While EPAs are reciprocal, they are asymmetric in that the European Union provides full duty free market access while partner countries open around 80 percent of their markets to the Union. Critics contend that African countries receive no concessions for removing protections for nascent industries and opening their markets to direct competition from cheaper and better quality European goods.

The European Union should recognize that many African countries are in various stages of development and do not yet have diversified industrial economies. Therefore, some forms of protection may still be necessary to develop and encourage domestic African industries. In order for Europe and Africa to mutually benefit from trade, the EPAs should take into account the potentially distortive effect of forcibly opening African markets to free competition.

Finally, one area in which the European Union is particularly well-positioned to share expertise is on regional integration. Africa has long been an enthusiastic proponent of regional integration, even if it has been more successful in some regions than others. The continent currently has eight regional economic communities, three of which are highly integrated and developed. Although Africa will never have a political union as in Europe, the benefits of open borders and trade cooperation could greatly enhance economic prospects. The European Union could play an important advisory role for Africa’s regional communities by assisting them with the design and coordination of an economic union.

“Rising Africa” will face innumerable challenges in coming decades, including continuing conflicts, corruption, autocracy, and impediments to developing health and education sectors. The European Union can contribute significantly to meeting these challenges by changing its distortive economic practices towards Africa and focusing on improving outcomes in agriculture, trade, and regional integration.

About the author: Britt L. Bolin is a Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). Britt is also a doctoral candidate in political economy at the University of Mannheim, where she earned her MA in political science in 2016.