EU-African cooperation on COVID-19: identifying socio-political and economic priorities to fight inequalities


Africa Week, S&D Group, Brussels. HR/VP Josep Borrell sets out the need for the EU to invest in its partnership with Africa, helping the continent to fight pandemic and its consequences. He stresses how Africa is changing and how the EU and the African Union can be strong partners for multilateralism.

Check against delivery

Thank you very much for inviting me. Thanks to the group of S&D [Socialists and Democrats Members of the European Parliament] for organising this Africa Week.

It is the fourth time you are doing so which is timely because Africa is very high on our agenda and it is important to bring us together even in COVID-19 times. It is always full of interesting people and many cultural events. Therefore, this meeting is important for the European Union’s relationship with Africa.

I am very honoured to share this high-level session with the Sakharov Prize and Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr [Denis] Mukwege. His efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war in armed conflicts and his dedication to victims of sexual violence and his fight against impunity for such crimes, are very inspiring for all of us.

Let me concentrate on a few key messages, as High Representative/Vice-President of the Commission. I am working hard, together with my fellow Commissioners [for international partnerships, Jutta] Urpilainen and [Commissioner for crisis management, Janez] Lenarčič, to prepare the next European-African Summit. It has been delayed due to the coronavirus, but we expect to have a lot of deliverables to concretise our partnership with Africa.

The relationship between the EU and Africa is one of the rare cases where the word ‘strategic’, a word we use a lot, is justified. The future of our partnership matters and it is something that we can really shape together through common choices. The time is over when we said ‘We have a strategy for Africa’; now we say ‘we share a common strategy, Africans and the Europeans, all together’.

Where people go is a reflection of their priorities. This year I have already been twice to the African continent, despite of the coronavirus and all the restrictions. And I intend to go back next month to North African countries and to Sahel countries which are facing quite a number of challenges. I am just back from a three-day visit to the African Union in Ethiopia. Together with my colleague Commissioner Lenarčič, we were there with a humanitarian air bridge flight and we handed over a large batch of 1.4 million COVID-19 test kits to the African Centre for Disease Control. It was a concrete and visible example of European solidarity in our joint fight against this common enemy.

In total, over €8 billion have been mobilised for Sub-Saharan Africa by the European Union and its Member States through our ‘Team Europe’ approach, which brings together the European Institutions and its Member States. I know it is far from enough and more is needed. But it has been difficult for us because we are reaching the last months or weeks of our EU budget or financial perspectives and the resources are ending. Let us hope that the next financial perspectives will give more resources and capabilities to continue engaging with Africa.

This is just the beginning of a long road. Unfortunately, the economic fallout will be so huge that we will need do much more. I am very worried about the consequences of the pandemic in both Africa and Europe. In Africa the economic consequences will probably be bigger than the health consequences. The constraints to mobility, the limitations to economic activities and the difficulties to the transportation of goods will unfortunately produce more suffering and more victims than the disease itself. And these economic consequences of the pandemic will be lasting.

We have to reinforce our capacities of working together to overcome this crisis. For starters, we have to talk about debt relief, and not just about the freezing of debt payments. We have to go further and it has to be agreed. This will require international mobilisation, including China to play a full role at the level of the international community.

In Africa, we have the paradox that 6 out of 10 of the fastest growing countries are African economies. But at the same time, 36 of the most vulnerable countries are also in Africa. So it is a very heterogeneous continent and all countries will be affected by the crisis. In addition, for most, if we do not give debt relief - and I mean going beyond just freezing interest payments - we are going to go into a crisis of external debt. And this we cannot afford. That is why we are calling as the European Union for an international effort of debt relief for the most vulnerable countries.

But we also have to beyond the pandemic. One day the pandemic will be over, as all pandemics in human history do. I was in Addis last week and I had a long discussion with our partners on how we can step up our partnership, making it more ambitious and more political, more geared towards the future.

Africa is a young and dynamic continent. We look at Africa most of the time through the lens of migration. And we look at that as a danger. But Africa is much more than migrants going towards Europe. In fact the most important part of migration takes place among the African countries themselves. Migration is mostly an intra-African dynamic and we have to help some of the countries who receive the most important part of this migration, to be able to cope with it.

I noticed things are changing in Africa. People are much more self-confident: they believe more in their future. The young people are much better prepared. And if we want to work together with Africa, to promote growth on both continents, then this growth has to be more green, more digital and mainly more equal. I know that when you talk about ‘going green and digital’ in a refugee camp on the Somalian border, it is a little bit strange, because for these people green and digital does not mean the same thing as for us.

But it is not a luxury, or a ‘top-up’ coming from the Western world. We need to engage Africa on the new wave of economic development, leaping forward. Maybe jumping one of the stages of development? They do not need to go step by step in the same way that we did. You can leap forward and go directly to the next phase with the dynamics that the digital revolution is creating.

We also need to take into account the big potential of Africa on renewables: hydrogen, solar, wind, hydro. Africa has everything in order to engage with the green revolution.

And also engaging the young people and women is going to be very important. Africa is a very young continent. It has one of the rare resources in the world: young people. Here in Europe young people are a rare resource, because we do not reproduce ourselves and so we need migration. Despite of everything, we need to accept in our social fabric people coming from Africa. You cannot keep out at the same time, both the people and the products they produce.

In the digital field, we see that Africa has a number of very exciting entrepreneurs, also on green technologies. There are enormous opportunities in solar, biomass, hydroelectricity. Just look at the incredible potential that the rivers in Africa have. We have to support these initiatives and bring them to scale.

In Africa I explained that the European Union Green Deal that we are promoting worldwide is not a hidden form of protectionism. Sometimes it can be perceived as such: “come on, you talk about green, but in fact what you want is to put a stop to our production”. No, it is not about this. It is and should be seen as a new model of economic growth, more sustainable and designed to turn climate and environmental challenges into opportunities, trying to do it in a just and inclusive way.

Our wider goal is to support Africa to avoid some of our past mistakes. We did a lot of mistakes and we cannot afford that Africa’s development would be just a repetition, step- by-step of the same path that we have been following. No. Fighting poverty, improving the quality of life while protecting the planet. This is the real challenge.

Allow me to make a couple of last final points.

First, in the world at large there is a battle of narratives and socioeconomic systems are fighting each other to show the people who is the most performant. Who is best one in order to be able to face the challenges of the 21st century? And a big strategic question is: what future model of society will Africa choose? One based on sustainable development, solidarity and human rights, or a more authoritarian model?

And second, multilateralism is in crisis. We see a growing trend of countries playing power politics. Because the alternative to multilateralism is just the rule of the strongest. Power politics means: “I am the strongest and I impose my rules”. Africans and Europeans have a massive shared interest in protecting the rules-based international order. I know that this is not a very sexy expression, “rules-based international order”. “America first” or “Take back control” sound better, more moving to people. But we do need a rules-based international order and avoid the drift into “might makes right”.

Europe and Africa have more than 40% of the United Nations membership. Our collective weight is real and we can change the course of action at the global level.

These are the thoughts I wanted to share with you.

Thank you very much for your time and your attention. It has been an honour to join this discussion. Congratulations, once again, for this initiative and best wishes for the rest of this Socialist & Democrat African week.

Believe me, this coming year should be the year of Africa for the European Union. The virus has delayed it. It was supposed to be the 2020- now it will be in 2021.

We have to engage more with African people, with civil society, NGOs. So not only with governments, but with the rich and dynamic society that Africa presents to the world. We should not be afraid of what some people call the “demographic boom” of Africa. It is a source of opportunities for all of us and this has to be done through a shared partnership. This is part of my job and I will do my best.

Thank you.