In this interview conducted on the eve of the European Union-African Union summit, economist Carlos Lopes discusses the crucial issues of a relationship that needs to be rebuilt on new foundations.
What is the state of Europe-Africa economic relations on the eve of the summit described by the most optimistic as the summit of refoundation?
As is the case for several regions, the pandemic has caused a halt to commercial relations as well as investments. The current trade balance is not favorable to Africa. The trade deficit in 2020 is estimated at 23 billion euros. But it must be remembered that this yo-yo in terms of trade deficit that Africa has been facing for almost ten years is only the symptom of a trade relationship that depends on natural resources and is therefore vulnerable to any shock. The rebuilding of trade relations should go through a structural transformation of economies, and therefore through the industrialization of Africa.
How do you comment on the pandemic management on both sides and the related travel restrictions?
The pandemic is a missed opportunity. The hoarding of vaccines at the start of the pandemic called into question the EU’s commitment to preserving the principle of the primacy of multilateralism. The EU’s hoarding of vaccines has even undermined COVAX’s effectiveness; a mechanism, ironically, that the EU had helped create. By opposing the temporary lifting of patents, as demanded by South Africa and India on behalf of a large group of countries in the South, Europe has blocked an initiative emanating from it. Note that even the United States has consented to such a possibility. The EU insists it has shared millions of doses with Africa. But, it will be necessary to remember, Africa needs more than a billion doses. We regret the fact that we often end up with a behavior towards Africa that infantilizes it. The solution is not charity, rather Africa needs to change its relationship. When we saw the decision to close the borders to the countries which, thanks to their scientific community and their attachment to the principle of transparency, enabled the world to identify a new variant and, consequently, to improve the policy of the fight against virus, it was amazement. For Europe-Africa relations, the crisis could have enabled the two continents to rebound. It is a missed opportunity.
At one time, you were the leader of the African Union negotiations with Europe. What prompted you to withdraw?
The negotiation process, including for the preparation of the summit, is a process led by AU Member States. My role has always been to support and advise our countries through the decision-making structures of the AU. This is the usefulness of my contribution. But it is clear that what I say does not please many people.
In your opinion, what is the position of Europe vis-à-vis the ZLECA. Wouldn’t a possible rule of African origin go against previous agreements such as the ACP?
We have made good progress with the ZLECAf. 87.7% of tariff lines of harmonized rules of origin in the midst of a pandemic! It’s not nothing. However, now is the time to move on to implementation. And it is on this aspect that countries are currently focused. The Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA), which have been under negotiation since 2000, propose a division of the continent other than the ZLECAf and put forward proposals that are not compatible with the ZLECAf. I am not of the opinion that the EPAs and other various arrangements between Europe and countries or blocks of countries are contributions to a common edifice. It’s quite the opposite.
To what extent do the subsidy policies practiced by Europe to support its agriculture constitute unfair competition for agricultural products?
Much has been said about the impact of EU agricultural policy on agricultural exports from Africa. This is likely to get worse with some policies of the Green Deal announced by the EU. As part of this, the EU is committed to increasing subsidies for organic farming while exerting pressure through a plethora of standards. The principles of “farm to fork” point in the same direction.
If African raw materials have free access to markets around the world, semi-processed or processed African products often come up against the barrier of phytosanitary or industrial standards for export. Is this a way of confining Africa to its old role of supplier of commodities?
Here too, Africa will be penalized because of the carbon border adjustment mechanism which will mainly be applied to industrial exports. Several African countries that export products derived from raw materials, such as aluminum or steel, will be affected. All regions of Africa are concerned; from Mozambique to South Africa to Guinea via the countries of North Africa. Knowing that Africa will have to play a central role in the energy transition through its wealth of critical minerals for the transition, a challenge then arises for African countries: should this carbon tax limit us to low value-added exports? , and therefore send us back if there is no serious compensation in the form of access to financing? We cannot miss the opportunity to accelerate job-creating economic transformation and position Africa to enter strategically chosen value chains.
Precisely, to what extent can the ZLECA space be an accelerator for the industrialization of Africa? Isn’t the delays of certain States in depositing their instruments of ratification a sign of a certain mistrust?
Indeed, the AfCFTA is an important framework to facilitate this transformation. To date, 40 countries have deposited their instruments of ratification. This is not negligible, but it would be important to make progress on the negotiations of the remaining protocols and above all to promote trade within the framework of the ZLECAf.
Finally, is European policy on Africa not weighed down by a monopolistic reflex vis-à-vis Russian and Asian partners on the military and commercial level?
What is important to understand is that African countries are sovereign countries and for many, Europe is a partner like any other. These countries are not a geopolitical battlefield where Africans, of a new generation, are only spectators. It is time to recognize that African economies are full of opportunities that are open to all who want to contribute to African development.