A long career in international bodies such as the WTO has endowed Pascal Lamy, 75, with a rich strategic vision. In an interview with Hichem Ben Yaïche and Nicolas Bouchet he outlines a path for Europe and Africa in the midst of crises and power struggles.
As President of the Paris Peace Forum, how do you judge your experience of the last few years?
The Forum is about focusing on international issues with a view to finding quick solutions to international problems by bringing in actors other than diplomats. Not without them, as they are the representatives of the nation states that legally constitute international society, but working with civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations, major academic institutions, and large companies. All of them, in fact, count equally in the need to find solutions to the major problems of our time.
At the next edition, on 11-12 November in Paris at the Palais Brongniart, we will once again look at a number of problems and solutions. Topics will include development, protecting children on the Internet, protecting the Southern Ocean, cleaning up low earth orbit, which is becoming cluttered with satellite debris, and creating a digital twin of the oceans, which we need to advance science.
The Paris Peace Forum was launched in 2018 to mark the centenary of the First World War Armistice. At that time, Emmanuel Macron considered that it was necessary to reflect on the ravages and follies of that era and also that we should look to the future and be interested in what causes peace or war –national, international, domestic, social, economic and environmental problems and tensions.
Does the Russian invasion of Ukraine create a tipping point?
I don’t have a clear answer to this question, which is whether there will be a before and after as there has been in previous crises. We know that we are in an enormous environmental and economic global crisis, which is also health-related. There is a crisis of democratic regimes all over Europe. For good measure, Mr. Putin decides to invade Ukraine and to return to the Middle Ages by eliminating all the rules that have been agreed upon for the past 50 years to avoid wars, to stabilise borders and to prevent countries from getting into the bad habit of laying hands on their neighbours.
This is an extremely difficult time, with great difficulties in international cooperation. The UN Security Council was totally blocked until its members were able to take part in a humanitarian operation to get grain-laden ships out of the Black Sea, which the Russians were preventing. In this spirit, we have tried this year, step by step, without necessarily dealing with major issues, to find solutions. For example, we have tried to address what I call “vaccine apartheid”. 500 million to buy vaccines for countries that needed them.
Are we able to respond with our resources to this multi-faceted crisis? How do you prioritise?
The backdrop that we know, without which what is happening in Ukraine is not understandable, is the geopolitical, geo-economic, geo-strategic and geo-technological rivalry between the United States and China. It started from the moment when China wanted to find its place in the international order. This is the big issue, and for us Europeans and Africans it poses formidable problems. If this tension continues to grow, we will both be under pressure to take sides. For Europe, there is no question of considering that we would be equidistant from the United States and China. From the point of view of values, and this is what counts in the end, we are closer to the Americans than to the Chinese.
But there is no question of systematically aligning ourselves with American positions that do not necessarily correspond to our interests or our values. Africa, country by country but also as a continent, has more or less the same problem. Moreover, if Europe and Africa talked to each other more, they would both be better able to navigate this situation, which will remain very difficult in the decades to come.
Is there any way today to influence and change the world?
When you are 75 years old, like me, you don’t see things in the same way as when you are 25. At 25, you have time for everything. When you’re 75, you have to say to yourself: “What am I doing with the rest of my life on this earth that can advance the ideas I believe in?” It being understood that, between the ages of 25 and 75, I have accumulated a certain amount of experience, knowledge and networks. I am clearer about what I want to do with my remaining years than I was at 25, but I also have more means to do it.
I have been very fortunate to have had an extremely rich and instructive professional life and to continue to learn every day, which is a great privilege. There are global issues such as environmental issues, those that revolve around globalisation and its control, around European or African integration. These are areas in which I continue to work because I think that this is the direction in which we must move for the progress of humanity. I belong to a generation that was educated in the idea that there is progress and that this progress is necessary.
As a member of the Board of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, how do you view Africa’s business model?
It depends on the scale of measurement. In book I published with Nicole Gnesotto, Strange New World, I considered that the essential question for Africa is who will win the race between the economy and demography. Hence the importance of helping economic growth win over population growth.
Africa is a continent full of entrepreneurial opportunities. We see them developing and, from this point of view, I am an Afro-optimist. When I see the energy of the younger generation, how they use their talent and what they have learned in Africa or often elsewhere and put it to work for the continent, I find it very amazing and sometimes very admirable. Even if this entrepreneurial burgeoning, this profusion of initiatives, is sometimes done in a certain disorder. With government systems that could clearly do better in ensuring the rule of law, the absence of corruption, and a long-term vision
There is a lot of progress to be made and we are working hard on this with the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which is dedicated to improving governance in Africa from the point of view of democracy, human rights, the fight against corruption, and transparency in public life. I also do this with Trademark East Africa, a technical cooperation organisation for economic integration in East Africa, which, by the way, is in the process of being extended to West Africa and Southern Africa. And also, every two years, with the Europe-Africa meetings that are organised by Aspen.
I believe that, in the areas of further economic integration, I am among those who consider that one of the main mistakes we made when we were in Africa, and which the Africans perpetuated when they decolonised, is to have populated this continent with borders. This is a disease that must be overcome. Africa needs to integrate its markets to enter globalisation. In the short term, this is the key problem.
Yet growth is no longer producing wealth and prosperity, the machine seems to have broken down.
It depends on the country. Benin, which has never been among the African performers like South Africa, Kenya, Ghana or even Nigeria were at one time, will experience growth of around 6% to 7% this year. This is about what is needed, in the long run, for the contest between the economy and demography to be won by the economy.
At the same time, there is still a lot to be done, at least by us Europeans, to put what is happening in Africa at the right level of our geopolitical priorities. I have been saying for a long time in Brussels that what is happening in China or the United States is very important for Europe, but that what is most important for Europe, looking ten, twenty or thirty years ahead, is what is happening in Africa.
There is certainly room for improvement in our cooperation. For example, in the financing of infrastructures, the main bottleneck to more African growth on a continental scale is there: transport, energy, networks. It has gone much faster in terms of communications because a generation has been skipped that no longer needs fixed installations to carry telephones. And there is a lot to be done in the field of transport. In electricity production, it is known that 600 million Africans do not have proper access to energy. An economy cannot grow without energy, even if the potential for renewable energy is very strong in Africa.
I followed and partly participated in the controversy that followed the Glasgow conference on the attitude of Northern countries towards financing gas investment in Africa. I am among those who believe that, as in Europe, gas is a transitional energy until we are much greener. This is the area where we should be putting our priorities. From the European point of view, the most important thing is to help the Africans to de-risk, as we say in finance, their investments. Where a normal capitalist asks for 10% profitability, he asks for 15% in Africa because there is a 5% risk premium. This risk premium has to be reduced from 15% to 10%.
It depends partly on Africans and what happens in the area of public security and the fight against terrorism and religious fundamentalism. This is a matter for Africans by Africans. It is not for us to give lessons, but we must be able to help.
How do you see the direction of Africa-Europe relations in concrete terms?
I have often said in Brussels that Africa has a choice of partners for the future. It can choose the United States, China or Europe. We Europeans have no choice. We cannot not choose Africa as a partner, given the importance of what is happening there. I am not necessarily talking about migration or security. It goes much further than that.
Cooperation between Europe and Africa has undergone a turning point in recent years. It is no longer called cooperation but partnership, and this is important in semantic terms. A good part of the European credits devoted to what was traditionally called development have been shifted to the provision of guarantees and to financing that is much more oriented towards development, health and education, which are essential ingredients. Little by little we are moving towards a better Euro-African partnership. We are not there yet, and you only have to look at what happened when it came to voting at the UN to see whether countries were condemning Russia or not. We know that the states representing the majority of the African population did not vote with us.
That says something. On that day, Europeans discovered a reality that some of us had perceived better than others by being more in touch in recent years. In particular, following what I have called the “Covid apartheid”, where I think that Americans and Europeans behaved very badly. This dimension must be integrated.
It is proof that, despite this proximity in words, there are still distances. No doubt the African countries that did not vote with us wanted to give a signal to Beijing and Moscow and to Brussels and Washington. In this matter, they are somewhat wrong in lumping Washington and Brussels together. Similarly, I would not necessarily put Beijing and Moscow in the same basket in the long run.
How can we develop when the house is on fire? Look at what is happening in the Sahel today.
I would tend to turn the answer around. From this point of view, I am very classically social-democratic. I think that the origin of the social instabilities that allow these movements to destabilise countries, to enlist young people by giving them a weapon, food and a distraction, is economic and social. Development rather than security is the primary answer to terrorism. Although, of course, a country needs some order to keep moving forward under its own power.
The way out is indeed to support economic development and what makes it possible. That is, the basic conditions, the physical, human, educational and health infrastructure. There is clearly progress if we look at the existing measures which should, in the long run, promote more economic development. But we must not give priority to security issues without taking into account the fact that the origin of the problems lies in the misfortune of people, families, women, girls and men.
Barack Obama said that Africa needs strong institutions and not strong men. We see the multiplication of coups and a deep structural malaise linked to the crisis of governance, particularly in West Africa.
I agree. Coups d’état are one of the permanent modes of adjustment in African governance. Moreover, we should perhaps look at them with slightly different eyes than those with which we look at Europe, Latin America or Asia. These are signs that when there is a political problem, there is a reaction from the population. From this point of view, Africa is closer to the democratic spirit, for reasons that also correspond to its cultural traditions.
In the end, I have a lot of faith in the progress of democracy in Africa, even if I recognise that it is slow. I note, contrary to what we learned at school, that there are companies, entrepreneurs, and successes in many areas without the minimum conditions of good governance being met. If they were, Africa would be devloping faster than it does today, and we are working hard on this at the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. The experience of the last few years has shown that this hinders but does not prevent economic development.
Let’s go back to your background, are you going to write books and translate your experience into long-term thinking?
I have done so from time to time. At the moment, I have so much to do, the world is going so badly and the question of changeover is so fundamental, that I need to think about it before I write something. I see ingredients of transformation but also things that do not change. With my European eyes, I can see that something is happening, but it’s not so sure. I will wait a little while before taking up my pen again on these major issues that are shaking humanity, the world, us Europeans and you Africans.
What can be done when there are emergencies that require quick responses and solutions that take time to provide results?
You have just stated the enigma of politics. As Jean-Claude Juncker said, there is the issue of what to do, which deserves reflection, and there is the issue of whether we will be re-elected if we do it. The first is a long-term issue and the second a short-term issue. How do we articulate them? For me, this is the mystery and the secret of politicians. Two very good examples exist at the moment with the invasion of Ukraine.
The first is the military, economic and psychological situation on both sides. Time will determine whether or not we succeed in pushing Mr. Putin back inside his borders. He has good reason to believe that if he plays for time he could do it better than us. In the short term, the real problem for us Europeans who want to help the Ukrainians repel this aggression is time.
A second immediate example is the energy problem. We have all begun the process of decarbonising our economies by 2050. Net zero carbon means switching to renewables, saving energy and moving away from fossil fuels. Unfortunately, and Vladimir Putin has been quite clever or even cunning in this respect, he has chosen to attack us on our energy vulnerability and to make sure that prices rise. In the meantime, do we have to rely more on fossil fuels and for how long because the rise in energy prices will slow down the transformation of the system? I often discuss this in Brussels, we have to be very careful in taking the short-term measures we need to take to ensure our energy security. But without deviating from our long-term trajectory, which is independence from fossil fuels. This is another example where the secret is in the articulation.