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Home Current Issue Borderless Debate 2020: A Turning Point for EU-Africa Relations

2020: A Turning Point for EU-Africa Relations

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  • Autore:

    Andrea Cofelice

  • Titolo:

    Research Fellow at the Centre for Studies on Federalism, Torino, Italy

2020 can represent a decisive turning point for EU-Africa relations. The combination of three distinct processes, which are expected to see the light of day by the end of this year, can lead to a qualitative leap in political and economic relations between the two continents.


The first process, which is entirely Africa-led and Africa-owned, deals with the establishment of the African continental free trade area (AfCFTA). After adopting the legal framework in March 2018, negotiations on the operational clauses of the agreement are underway, although slowed down by the Covid-19 pandemic: free trade is expected to start in early 2021.

AfCFTA’s objectives are ambitious and consist in promoting the development of intra-African trade, by removing tariff and non-tariff barriers on goods and services, in order to contribute to the economic and social progress of the continent. Despite the several hurdles that must be overcome for its realization, many observers tend to attribute a potential game changer role to AfCFTA: the expected benefits in terms of increased trade, industrialization and employment would be so relevant as to trigger a structural transformation of African countries, boosting their integration into global markets.

From Brussels’ point of view, the realization of the AfCFTA would open up interesting opportunities to enhance trade and investments. EU-Africa trade already represents about a third of total African imports and exports: no other African trading partner can display similar levels (China stands at around 10%, the US at 6%). The EU is also the main investor in Africa: the stock of European investments in 2017 (i.e. pre-Brexit era) amounted to about 260 billion euros, equal to 40% of total foreign direct investment in Africa.

Furthermore, the AfCFTA would give a decisive boost to the consolidation of African regionalism, strengthening the role of the African Union (AU) as well as of regional economic communities. Spreading regionalism is one of the most long-standing goals of EU foreign policy, which, in turn, is part of a broader strategy aimed at promoting a rule-based global governance system centred on multilateral institutions. To this end, the EU considers the AU as a “natural” partner and neighbour[i]: President von der Leyen’s choice to visit the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa just few days after her “Geopolitical Commission” formally took office in December 2019 exemplifies this vision.

From a European perspective, the AfCFTA may represent an intermediate step to establish, in the medium-long term, a joint EU-AU intercontinental free trade area. To this end, the EU is politically, technically and financially supporting its implementation, especially in terms of infrastructure investments and the promotion of its inclusive and sustainable character.

In spite of its relevance, the AfCFTA alone cannot offer an all-encompassing solution to the set of multifaceted challenges affecting both Africa and Europe. Thus, the European Commission proposed to the AU to develop a new comprehensive strategy[ii] by the end of this year (which will replace the 2007 joint EU-AU strategy), to be built around five priority areas: green transition; digital transformation; sustainable growth and jobs; peace and security; migration and mobility. The Commission intends to adopt a more equal approach in its relations with the AU, starting with the elaboration of the strategy which - unlike other recent plans – is being negotiated with the full participation of African partners.

The comprehensive strategy with Africa may be significant, for its timing and content, at least in two additional respects. First of all, it could play a role as a policy hub for EU-AU relations, transforming the current fuzzy and dispersed framework (consisting of numerous sectoral plans and agreements in almost every political area: development, trade, migration, security, climate change, human rights etc.) into a coordinated series of “action plans”, equipped with adequate monitoring tools to ensure that the results are in line with the agreed objectives.

Secondly, the strategy can represent the blueprint to set up a common strategy for the post-Covid-19 phase. The pandemic reaffirmed the urgent need, already recognized in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, to promote huge investments in public services, to ensure universal health coverage, access to social protection and adequate standards of education and research. A strong and effective EU-AU partnership should build on the lessons learned from the management of the coronavirus pandemic, giving priority to strengthening health, social and educational systems (to be financed also through the promotion of progressive tax systems, the reduction of remittance costs, the revision of fiscal treaties and the fight against illicit financial flows), in order to reduce inequalities and build resilient societies.

Finally, the EU is engaged in complex negotiations to set up the successor of the Cotonou Agreement, expiring in 2020, which will define the long-term political, commercial and development relations with African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) States. Within this framework, it has to be stressed that the talks on the development cooperation pillar are inherently linked to intra-European negotiations on the multi-annual financial framework 2021-2027 and the proposal to establish a single development-financing instrument (the so-called Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument).

In conclusion, if negotiations on AfCFTA, the new comprehensive strategy with Africa and the ACP-EU Partnership will be carried out according to a politically coherent and long-term vision, aimed at identifying shared solutions to common problems and enhancing the role of regional actors, then a window of opportunity will be opened for a new phase in EU-Africa relations.


[i]“ […] this is one of the most important, maybe the most important international partnerships that we are going to work on”: remarks by HR/VP Josep Borrell at the press conference on the Joint Communication towards a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa, 9 March 2020, at



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