"We need to strengthen our ties with Africa. First and foremost, in order to get to grips with the current crisis, but also to foster development which is green, digital and fair on our two continents."
It is my view that relations between Europe and Africa represent one of the most fundamental issues for the future of the European Union and I have put them right at the top of my agenda. The Commission tabled its proposals for a new strategy with Africa last March. The task now is to make this more ambitious partnership a reality. As a result of COVID-19, the summit scheduled for that purpose at the end of October between the African Union and the European Union has been postponed. But we will use this time to think more deeply with our African partners about our common priorities for the coming decade.
The end of the 20th century was dominated by Asia’s rise on the world stage. The 21st century is expected to be dominated by Africa’s rise. Firstly, for demographic reasons: estimated at 140 million in 1900, the continent’s population now stands at almost 1.3 billion. According to the United Nations, it will reach 2.5 billion by 2050 and more than 4 billion by 2100. Today, one human being in six lives in Africa. By 2050 that will have risen to 1 in 4 and by 2100 to more than 1 in 3, according to the same forecasts.
As Africa’s neighbour and its main partner, we are directly concerned by the conditions in which the rise of this young and dynamic continent takes place. If we do not give this matter sufficient attention, others will - and probably at our expense.
In this and other areas, the COVID-19 epidemic is a game-changer. According to the WHO, with 26,000 deaths at the beginning of October compared with 238,000 in Europe, to date Africa appears to have been significantly less affected by the pandemic than other continents, contrary to what many feared. Among the 20 countries with the highest numbers of deaths worldwide, there are nine European countries but not a single African country. The worst affected among them, South Africa, is 26th in this ranking.
Not all the reasons for this state of affairs are known at this stage. The climate and the average age of the population, which is significantly lower in Africa than in Europe, probably have something to do with it. Clearly, another important factor is expertise in managing pandemics, particularly following the Ebola epidemic: Europe will probably have lessons to learn from Africa in this area.
That said, Africa has already been very badly affected by the economic and social fallout from the crisis. It has been hit by the disruptive effect on the local economy of sanitary measures, particularly in the agricultural sphere, combined with the decline in exports of raw materials, which play a major role in its economy, the collapse of international tourism and the downturn in remittances resulting from problems in developed countries. These remittances, which amounted to USD 47 billion in 2019, were the region’s main source of foreign capital last year.
The International Monetary Fund (link is external) anticipates a 3.2% recession in sub-Saharan Africa this year, the first in a quarter of a century. In the light of population growth, per capita income is expected to fall by 5.4% in 2020. While this recession is less severe than in Europe, where it is expected to approach 8%, it will have a major impact in countries that are still far less wealthy than our own. According to the OECD (link is external), South Africa in particular is expected to be the G20 country most affected by the crisis after India, with GDP at the end of 2021 forecast to be 11% lower than at the end of 2019.
This shock has exacerbated existing fragilities. According to David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), 270 million people are now at risk of famine as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic, mainly in Africa. The WFP has helped over 130 million people this year, mainly in Africa, to cope with the fallout from COVID-19 and 30 million of them are 100% dependent on its aid for their survival.
Locust outbreaks in eastern Africa and the pandemic have combined with conflicts and the effects of climate change to make 2020 the worst year in terms of the humanitarian situation since World War II. We cannot let the COVID-19 epidemic mutate into a hunger epidemic.
In the face of this crisis, the Union’s ability, notwithstanding its own problems, to provide Africa with support on a sufficient scale will be crucial to the future of our relations. With the ‘Team Europe’ package, the Union and its Member States have already reallocated almost EUR 8 billion to Africa, EUR 5.5 billion of which has gone to sub-Saharan Africa. In Togo, we have mobilised EUR 44 million to support agriculture. In Botswana, we have distributed large quantities of protective equipment and medical supplies. In Guinea-Bissau, EUR 1.5 million has been deployed to fund medical equipment and training of healthcare workers. In Ethiopia, we have mobilised almost EUR 500 million to support the healthcare system and quarantine stations.
I will go there next Thursday to hand over 900,000 test kits for COVID-19 to the Africa CDC attached to the African Union. These were funded by the German government within the Team Europe framework and were dispatched via the European Union Humanitarian Air Bridge set up by my colleague Janez Lenarčič, the Commissioner for Crisis Management. However, I am all too aware that this aid is merely a drop in the ocean: we will need to do much more.
In any event, the only long-term solution to COVID-19 is a vaccine. Many projects are currently in the process of being validated, but this race for a vaccine may also exacerbate inequalities between countries and geopolitical tensions. By taking part with the World Health Organisation in the COVAX project, we are working towards a multilateral solution to facilitate access to the vaccine for all, and particularly for the poorest countries, many of which are in Africa.
We are also pushing for the foreign debt of the most heavily indebted countries to be restructured or written off. African countries do not have the same capacity as Europe to withstand the socio-economic fallout from the crisis by running up a massive budget deficit or providing a substantial monetary policy stimulus. According to the IMF, African countries’ tax revenue is expected to fall by USD 70 billion this year, almost one third, while their borrowing capacity is limited: interest rate spreads for Africa have risen above 2008-09 crisis levels.
Even before the current crisis, several countries, such as Mozambique, Mauritania or Tunisia, suffered from a very high level of foreign debt. That is why the European Union and its Member States have actively supported the G20 and Paris Club’s debt service suspension initiative. The G7 has called for this suspension to be extended after 2020, when it is currently due to end. But that will not be enough: many countries are still spending more on servicing their debt than on healthcare for their citizens. Some of these countries will need to restructure their foreign debt: this restructuring cannot be unconditional, but it must be substantial.
These immediate measures are, of course, essential, but we are well aware of their limitations. The continent’s future essentially depends on the ability of Africans themselves to consolidate their institutions so the economy can grow, in part so the labour market can absorb 30 million young people each year.
To achieve that aim, we intend to propose that our African partners work with us to ensure that the economic recovery can be green, digital and fair in Africa and Europe alike. On the digital front, Africa has already taken a considerable leap forward in recent years. It was very quick to adopt mobile telephony and the widespread use of mobile payment systems has made it possible, in particular, to overcome major problems with access to banking services which hampered the continent’s development. Accelerating this momentum, in particular through the creation of African companies specialising in this sector, can significantly boost the continent’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery.
At the same time, it will be essential to develop a low-carbon and circular economy in order to meet the legitimate needs of Africans in the long term while also tackling the ecological crisis that currently threatens humanity. And here, Africa’s potential is considerable, be it in terms of sustainable farming, solar energy, biomass or hydropower, although care will also have to be taken to ensure they are exploited in a sustainable way.
Avoiding Europe’s mistakes
I know that many Africans, as well as a significant number of Europeans, worry that going down this path may hamper their economic development. For my part, I am convinced that the exact opposite is true: only if Africa can avoid the mistakes we have made in Europe over the last two centuries in terms of environmental damage will it be able to offer its inhabitants a sufficient number of jobs and a significant improvement in their living standards in future.