Last month’s EU-Africa Summit in Brussels might have been overshadowed by disputes over who should and who should not be invited, but it was the long-standing issue regarding the European Union’s trade stance that was the real “elephant in the room”. Stephen Williams reports from Brussels.
The fractious relationship between the European Union and African nations was once again up for public scrutiny as African delegations arrived in Brussels, Belgium for the 4th EU-Africa Summit, a two-day event that brought much of the Belgian capital to a standstill.
As police motorcycle outriders and busloads of security personnel, blaring sirens and flashing blue lights, accompanied the limousines carrying the big men (and women) across the city, ordinary citizens fumed in the resulting traffic congestion, and the public were left to wonder just what the purpose of the summit could be.
Overshadowing the event were the bitter arguments surrounding President Robert Mugabe’s invitation, and the lack of an invitation for Zimbabwe’s First Lady, Grace, to accompany him.
A boycott had been called to protest against this snub, but few national delegations responded to it. In fact, two of Mugabe’s closest allies in the SADC grouping, President Michael Sata of Zambia and Namibia’s PM Nahas Angula, led delegations to Belgium.
Perhaps the most notable absence was President Jacob Zuma’s, but also missing from the summit was Malawi’s President Joyce Banda. Some observers commented that Zuma’s absence might have more to do with his need to mount a rearguard defence against the charge he faces of personally benefiting from the $23m spent on his Nkandla residence – supposedly on security upgrades.
But Zuma did say: “I think that the time must pass wherein we are looked at as subjects, we are told who must come and who must not come. I thought the African Union and the European Union are equal organisations representing two continents, but there is not a single one of them who must decide for others.”
Another aspect was the timing of the summit with South Africa’s polls being held in less than a month, and Malawi’s Joyce Banda also with her hands full with critical elections looming.
But the controversy surrounding invitations also extended to countries further north. There were huge misgivings over the Egyptians being invited to Brussels, as that country’s unelected administration came to power through a military coup, in all but name. Yet no invitation went to Sudan’s President Omar Al Bashir.
The Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a full member of the African Union, failed to be invited, yet Morocco (which occupied the SADR), although not a member of the AU, was represented by Salaheddine Mezouar, Morocco’s Minister for Foreign Affairs.
So the EU’s attempt to meet an acceptable standard of diplomatic protocol, even before the start of the summit, misfired.
As one member of the Namibian delegation told New African: “It is difficult to know whether the EU’s actions were just ignorant blunders or calculated insults – but I certainly feel that the decision not to issue a visa for Grace demonstrated that the EU has no idea of African sensibilities. To invite an African husband and not his wife is simply vulgar and hugely offensive…”
Ironically, the EU-Africa publication Two Unions – One Vision commented: “Much remains to be done at the political and operational level in the run-up to the Africa-EU Summit in 2014, and both partners need to define the priorities of their cooperation in the years to come.”
They might have made a mess of the protocol, but there was no shortage of EU statements, carefully crafted by the bureaucrats, expressing the solidarity between Europe and Africa as “continents bound together by a shared history, culture, geography and by the close exchanges between our peoples … cooperation between the EU and Africa has reflected the rich and diverse nature of relations between the two continents.
“Since the adoption of the joint Africa-EU Strategy in Lisbon,” the EU noted, “both continents have undergone profound economic and political changes.” That is something of an understatement. The Lisbon EU-Africa Summit was the second summit after the 2000 inaugural meeting.
Lisbon took place in 2007, the year marking the start of the global economic crisis that saw the economies of the developed world nose-dive even as African economies continued to demonstrate, if not rude health, at least a remarkable stability.
While Europe struggled to emerge from this severe recession, followed by the Euro crisis – in effect a debt nightmare that seriously threatened the whole of Europe, and which some economists believe is still a potent threat – Africa continued to post an impressive economic transformation.
It averaged a 5.2% GDP growth rate each year between 2003 and 2011, and eight of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies were in sub-Saharan Africa during that era.
And with the economies of Europe demonstrating such lack-lustre and stagnant performance, international investors turned their attention to the emerging economies, particularly in Asia and Africa. The risk/reward ratio suddenly appeared acceptable.