LONDON — An acrimonious summit meeting between EU leaders and the leaders of African countries ended last week in Lisbon. The EU was trying to offer the Africans a new trade deal, but many of the African representatives argued that the deal would make them worse off, not better off. They denounced European efforts as a continuation of colonialism that would “amputate” African state budgets and ruin African industries.
The atmosphere was further soured by the presence of Robert Mugabe, who has brought his own nation of Zimbabwe to its knees in a frenzy of repression — a living symbol of human rights abuse who ought never to have been invited to the gathering. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stayed away from the event in protest.
It was not meant to be like this. The declared intention of the European Union policymakers in Brussels was to wash away postcolonial guilt, forge a new strategic partnership and open a new development chapter for the peoples of 76 former European colonies, 40 of them former British colonies and the others mostly part of the Francophone group.
The central idea was to offer these countries better preferential tariffs on their exports into EU states than what they’ve enjoyed for more than 40 years and, in return, to require the African economies to cut their tariffs on the import of European goods. The new deals were to be presented as so-called Economic Partnership Agreements.
This stuck in African throats. They did not see the concept as one of partnership, and 10 of them refused point-blank to sign up, including major participants South Africa, Nigeria, Zambia and Senegal. For them it was tantamount to exposing their infant industries to fierce European competition and, in the words of one leader, “slamming the door on development.”
Poorer countries of Africa, they insisted, with their weak and fledgling economies, need more protection, not less. They also claimed that the EPAs would damage African trade with Pacific countries.
Behind the European approach was a deeper fear — namely that Europe is losing its influence on the African continent to the Chinese. The Chinese are indeed everywhere in Africa these days with ready cash and no strings attached, “sweet” and easy agreements to provide infrastructure, as well as weapons and military support. Their products are also highly competitive with European goods.
As one delegate put it “For the price of one European car, you can buy two Chinese cars.”
Why was the European approach so clumsy? At root are two major flaws in EU policy. The first is to push the theory of absolutely free trade too far and too fast and to ignore the practical realities of development in very impoverished economies. A belief lingers in official minds in Europe that protection in all circumstances is bad and must be swept aside. Inequalities in trade relations, they appear to believe, can be compensated for with large aid packages.
This completely overlooks the fact that much of Europe’s own industry grew under cover of protective tariffs and that without a certain amount of well-focused tariff protection, the infant industries in Africa’s struggling economies will just never take off. It also overlooks the glaring fact that most of Europe’s agriculture is still protected by high tariffs, subsidies and quotas.
The second and much deeper fallacy is that Africa is a bloc or that Europe is a bloc, and that by putting the two together, face to face, trade and development solutions can be found.
Not only is the geographical continent of Africa a conglomeration of vastly diverse societies and cultures, each with its own unique problems that require understanding and solutions. But on the European side interests vary and a real unity of approach is lacking.
The proposition that if the EU countries all stick together they will always carry greater weight in trade negotiations — with America, China, Japan or anybody else — sounds superficially true.
In practice, and in the modern global context, it could well be that bilateral negotiations and bargains — say between Britain and Nigeria, or France and Senegal, or Germany and South Africa — could create more business opportunities and generate more growth than mighty deals between the whole of Europe and the whole of Africa — which anyway are proving impossible to achieve except in general, watered-down terms that have little impact on Africa’s starving millions.
The one area where a united European approach might really help African states is in promoting techniques of plain good governance and in standing up strongly for human rights at every opportunity. That would at least help distinguish European engagement from Chinese involvement, which hitherto has shown itself to be somewhat blind to human rights matters and to the records of regimes being assisted and supported.
By letting Mugabe come to the Lisbon table, the Portuguese government, the summit host as holder of the EU presidency (shortly to pass to Slovenia), made a colossal error of judgment. They have sent the clear signal that even in this vital area the EU, while it may talk of putting human rights at the top of the agenda, in practice has no principled position and is ready to hob-nob with dictators and men of darkness. The misplaced ambition to show that the EU is a big shot and has a central place on the world stage has pushed aside common sense and practical measures.
And that is a tragedy both for Africa and for Europe.
David Howell is a former British Cabinet minister and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now a member of the House of Lords (www.lordhowell.com).
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