Africa is taking an important position in European politics again. Coincidentally or not, both Prime Minister Theresa May and Chancellor Angela Merkel recently visited several African nations with intentions of trade expansion amongst others.
The visits from both leaders have come at a crucial time for each as both governments are battling with their own distinct woes. Brexit being the main concern for May, and business and migration taking centre stage for Merkel. Merkel’s agenda included strengthening Africa’s economic development and revitalising the pledge of ‘a new initiative for cooperation’ made at last year’s Berlin G20 Africa Conference; of which has so far been met with inaction. May’s visits to South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya on the other hand, were focused on readying Britain’s position in the post-Brexit world. These efforts come at an epoch in which other nations, including China, Israel, India, Russia and Turkey are also competing for access within Africa. Most of these countries have been more proactive in extending their influence in Africa in the past decade, however, thus British investment is being perceived as ‘overdue’. Lord Boateng, the former British high commissioner to South Africa, suggested this as Britain being “late to the party”.
The UK Government’s hails its shift away from spending on poverty reduction towards African businesses instead as strengthening its hand in Africa. This is an action currently being administered by the CDC through a commitment of up to £3.5 billion in investment over the next four years (2018-2021). The government’s proclamation of this as a way of elevating Britain’s position in Africa is neither accurate nor ground-breaking however as such investments have been part and parcel of DFID, the CDC and many other NGO ventures and agencies over the past years. Furthermore, though Chinese investment and its ‘debt trap’ diplomacy within Africa can be perceived with reservation, Africa’s trade with Britain is worth only $36bn, a fifth of the value of its trade with China and a mere tenth of its trade with the EU. European nations who want to develop improved investment relations within Africa need to offer more than they currently do if they are to combat the woeful trend which has seen numerous African nations pining for Chinese ‘no political strings attached’ loans.
For Britain, imperial nostalgia, outlined as “shared history and cultural ties” by May does not suffice as a basis upon which common prosperity can be gained. It is the forming of functional relationships emerging from an investment that will guarantee the longevity and legitimacy of any cooperation. For these to form, one emphasis should be placed on opening more markets in Europe for Africa as presently the trade balance remains in favour of European nations. Many EU nations export more produce to Africa than they import from it. Senegal, for example, imported around €117 million worth of goods from Germany whilst only exporting €17 million worth of goods to Germany in 2017.
Furthermore, in order to make bigger impressions to more African nations, both Theresa May and Angela Merkel need to grapple with the matter of issuing sufficient visas to those Africans seeking employment and study opportunities. Whilst in South Africa, Theresa May expressed the need for “…partnerships and ideas that will bring benefits for generations to come.” Yet, Britain accepted only 13,990 overseas students from Africa in 2016-17 compared with 17,815 between 2012-13. This is a marked difference and is illustrative of the ‘cherry-picking’ that Britain undertakes in pursuing supposed interdependence with Africa. In Germany, things don’t fare any better. Africa tops the list of rejections with at least one in five of all processed applications turned down. In comparison, only one in eight applications from Europe got turned down, and from Asia only one in ten. In parity, China provides countless scholarships, work and study visas, vocational training and trade promotion opportunities.
Having offered its support last year at the G20 Africa Conference, German trade with Africa has grown only marginally in the past year. The high expectations that ensued from African countries were thus met in practice with rather slow developments. The half-hearted nature and cherry picking that are characteristic of the previous and existing British and German initiatives for improved cooperation with Africa do not bode well for any future undertakings. Africa is set to be a significant continent in the long term and Europe is aware of this. Thereby, if it’s a true cooperation that these two European nations and others may try to forge with African nations, a more holistic approach is required. Fundamentally, Britain and Germany need to also answer to what African nations want if they don’t want to witness themselves sidelined by countries willing to bring more to the table.