African Union and European Union Politics: The Veiled Account of Longstanding Interregional Relations
- Christopher Changwe NshimbiChristopher Changwe NshimbiCentre for the Study of Governance Innovation, University of Pretoria
Africa turned the corner of marginalization in international affairs at the beginning of the 21st century. The end of the Cold War and global shifts in power toward the end of the previous century were closely followed by “Africa rising.” This contrasted previous decades-long narratives of a hopeless, war-ravaged, and plague-ridden continent. The Africa rising mantra followed reforms implemented in the late 1980s and early 1990s that improved institutional capacities and established African countries on firm business, economic, and political trajectories. This promised improved business environment, economic vitality, and positive democratic outlook.
Africa has thus become important to major powers. They court it for its support to govern challenges that necessitate international cooperation and to enhance the major powers’ influence in global institutions and on the world. Rising Asian economies such as China and India compete for Africa’s natural resources against traditional global powers like the European Union (EU).
The EU has long been economically and politically involved with Africa and has generally dominated these relations. Leading theories, discussions, and research that examine the historic, economic, and geopolitical factors at play in the evolution of African Union (AU)-EU relations suggest that elements of dependency are a calculated creation of colonialism and encounters that occurred between Africa and Europe before the advent of colonialism. Dependency continues to characterize these relations, as shown by formal AU-EU pacts. Decolonial scholars argue that the dependency is real, as Africa did not demolish colonial structures at independence. Some critical scholars further argue that the history of colonialism is also pertinent to the history of the EU in that the history of European integration was partly influenced by the history of colonialism. That is, the history of colonialism contributed to the political creation of the EU, and attempts by Western European countries to form a pan-European organization coincided with early 20th-century efforts to stabilize colonialism in Africa. The European countries could only efficiently exploit Africa by combining their political and economic capacities.
AU-EU relations face many challenges in the 21st century. Influence in the relations is predominately unidirectional, with the EU determining the terms of engagement even on issues peculiar to Africa or the AU and where the latter appears to have the upper hand. The challenges show that the AU and EU are interdependent, but the onus is on the AU to set priorities right and enhance capabilities for engaging the EU. This would be easier if the EU were not continuously devising ways to maintain its dominance in the “partnership.” An overarching challenge in the partnership, therefore, is finding common ground and leveling the playing field.