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The European Parliament Elections: What Can We Expect for Africa-EU Relations?

Megatrends spotlight 32, 13.06.2024

The political landscape in Europe has shifted noticeably to the right as a result of the EU parliamentary elections. In this Megatrends Afrika Spotlight, Benedikt Erforth and Niels Keijzer (IDOS) shed light on the consequences this could have for EU-Africa relations. Despite a lack of innovations in the areas of migration and partnership, a continuation of previous policies seems more likely than significant changes.

Between 6 and 9 June, 373 million Europeans were called upon to cast a vote for the forthcoming European Parliament (EP) and its 720 Members of European Parliament. The electoral campaigns were dominated by the issues of territorial security and collective defence against the backdrop of Russia’s war against Ukraine. The issues of migration, asylum, and the management of the European Union’s (EU) external borders dominated debates in many European countries. Current crises and the short-term responses they require have largely eclipsed debates around comprehensive, long-term foreign policy thinking. The waning attention to Africa-EU relations is exemplary of this trend – this is despite the partnership’s significance across many policy areas, including climate change, energy security, migration, and importantly, Europe’s role and standing in the world.

In a way, the low salience of the partnership is also reflective of the many procedural and relational challenges that continue to weigh upon it. The recent cancellation of the ministerial meeting between the African Union (AU) and the EU, initially scheduled for November 2023, underscores the growing complexities in diplomatic engagements, which have become even more contentious due to their diverging positions on Ukraine and Gaza. With both about to install their leaderships, the AU and EU face challenges in coordinating a continent-to-continent partnership that was at one time a priority.

Often considered as insignificant on foreign policy issues, the EP does influence how the EU engages with Africa. Through its regulatory power, such as legislation under the European Green Deal, which has external effects, the EP co-shapes both the priorities, approaches and means for conducting the EU’s foreign policy. The EP also scrutinizes EU-Africa relations in various committees, notably the standing Committees on Development, Trade and Foreign Affairs but also its delegations for relations with the Pan-African Parliament and the Joint Parliamentary Assembly with the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States.

In the short term, the EP will play a key role in the appointment of the next President of the European Commission and in the confirmation hearings of the College of 26 European Commissioners. A key factor informing the next Commission President’s leadership pitch to the EP, the so-called political guidelines for the next Commission, are the election manifestos of the political groups that make up the new EP. These manifestos also envision the EU’s role in the world and present ideas for the EU’s partnership with Africa. Overall, the various texts and their engagement with Europe’s neighbouring continent show little innovation. The most notable differences between groups pertain to border management and the European asylum system. Given the overall shift to the right and the demands of European electorates, a more security-driven EU policy towards Africa is to be expected. Yet, what the partnership could really benefit more from is for Parliament to steer the new EU leadership towards striking the right balance between short-term interests and long-term objectives vis-à-vis Africa.

Election Results and Party Positions on Africa

Under the provisional results released on 12 June, The European People’s Party (EPP) retained its position as the strongest faction, gaining 189 of the 720 seats available. In addition, the right and extreme right groups were able to make significant strides and now represent 131 seats. The Socialists & Democrats (S&D) stagnated at 135 seats, while both Renew Europe and the Greens suffered significant losses. Although the right and extreme right groups strengthened their positions, much – including the extent to which they can influence the EU’s partnership with Africa – depends on how they will manifest their power as they (re)group themselves into the various political groups. The internal composition of these groups will in turn influence the willingness of the pro-European political groups to politically associate with them. As per these results, governing Europe will become more rather than less challenging with this new, more fragmented EP.

As the strongest faction post-election, the EPP has put forward a security-led narrative in their manifesto. Security, sovereignty, and improved border management set the tone. Africa is first mentioned with reference to Tunisia and closer cooperation with third countries on migration, followed by a call for a New Pact on Asylum and Migration. The second mention of the continent follows in the context of the debate on Europe’s energy transition and energy autonomy, as it is one of several regions where rare earth elements are to be found and should be covered by a common resource strategy. The continent should become part of the strategy of “de-risking”, which is supposed to shape the EU’s future engagement with China. Furthermore, a European investment plan for Africa – aimed at promoting economic prosperity and social development while preventing brain drain within African countries, but most importantly curbing the root causes of migration – is part of the programme. Additionally, the EPP seeks to establish a more intensive trade partnership with Africa that prioritizes skills development, well-being, self-sufficiency, and the promotion of democracy. The EPP emphasizes a forward-looking approach in its manifesto, highlighting interests and focusing on what should be rather than addressing the current state of affairs. The manifesto can be read as defending Europe’s standing in an ever more fragmented and competitive world order. 

Generally, S&D, as the second-largest faction, does not stand out with any discernible foreign policy agenda and offers no new ideas on how to advance relations between Africa and Europe in the years to come. The programme is a stance against the political right and advocates for a just and open world, but it remains mostly silent on how it wishes to achieve these goals. Remarkably, Africa is mentioned once in a 24-page manifesto when the group states that “we will build a new partnership of equals with the Global South through a strong Africa-EU Partnership on social progress, the economy, green energy, climate change, migration and democracy, a relaunched Euro-Mediterranean partnership and a new EU–Latin America Progressive Agenda.” Elsewhere, the manifesto states that S&D seeks to guarantee that “no EU funding [will reach] autocratic governments”. Whilst the statement arguably aims at intra-European issues, the question arises as to how this stance will affect relations with third countries, especially if they are beneficiaries under the EU development instrument. This is a question worth asking against the backdrop of the so-called democratic backsliding that is also being felt across the African continent.

The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) came in third. Their most known member is the Fratelli d’Italia, Italy’s largest party following the 2022 elections that put Georgia Meloni into office. In their four-page manifesto, the ECR presents a vision rooted in preserving national sovereignty, promoting security, curtailing migration, and driving economic growth. There is no reference to Africa in the manifesto. Yet, the group’s plans for a comprehensive migration strategy and the proposed intensified collaboration with third countries on the externalization of migration management would have a direct effect on the relationship between the two regions. An even more pronounced focus on security and border management than the one advanced by the EPP is to be expected. As the Mattei plan in Italy showed, the ECR is equally likely to advance proposals for a more interest-driven, pragmatic partnership that follows a transactional logic and endorses a return to conditionality. The other eurosceptic, right-wing group in the Parliament – Identity and Democracy (ID) – did not present its own manifesto but effectively represents the national platforms of its constituting members, including the French Rassemblement National, the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), and the Italian Lega. Here, only the French nationalists explicitly mention the continent to highlight the perils of migration and identify its source, aligning with the broader group’s zero-tolerance stance on illegal immigration. Other proposals include measures such as aid conditionality linked to migration controls, as suggested by Lega, and outright remigration, as stated in the FPÖ’s programme.

Looking at the other political groups, the manifesto of the Greens surprisingly offers a single reference to forgotten conflicts (e.g. Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo), though they emphasize various thematic areas that are of key importance to the partnership with Africa. As advocates of a solidarity-based and open asylum system – including additional pathways for legal migration – the Greens oppose the so-called migration deals, explicitly naming the deal with Tunisia as a “dirty deal” with a dictator. This view is incompatible with those of the other two leading factions, promising further stalemates around the question of border and asylum management. The Greens put forward a “Green and Social Deal”, which puts additional weight on the justice dimension. The manifesto also establishes a link between fossil fuels and authoritarianism. The text reads, “instead of paying billions to autocracies for fossil fuels extracted and refined in third countries, we can invest this money in the production of renewables, keeping money and jobs in Europe, and investing in a better future.” While this statement is likely in reference to Europe’s energy dependence on Russian gas, it is also a commentary on how Europe interacts with the Global South. Since the establishment of the European Green Deal, the EU has been accused by developing nations – including in Africa – that export fossil fuels of advancing its green transformation at the expense of their right to development and industrialization. The Greens defend the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), pledging higher levels of spending on climate-related issues in low-income countries. The manifesto also highlights the role of Just Energy Transition Partnerships and the EU’s Global Gateway initiative in accelerating the global green transition, and it advocates for decolonizing the EU’s foreign relations by rendering it less interest-driven.  

Similarly to the EPP, the liberal group Renew Europe emphasizes the need to revitalize Europe’s trade and political relations with Africa by following a primarily economic rationale, in addition to reviewing trade and investment partnerships with selected partners. Moreover, they stress the need for an equal partnership and to directly position Europe in opposition to Chinese investment and influence in Africa, referring to Global Gateway in all but name. A global alliance for democracy shall also strengthen Europe’s role in the world. Through this proposal, Renew Europe proposes advanced engagement with like-minded partners. Emissions trading and CBAM remain core elements in the group’s climate policy. Whilst advocating an asylum system that is based on dignity, the group also seeks to reduce push-and-pull factors and establish EU-managed facilities outside the EU’s borders, necessitating cooperation agreements with African partners. The openness to such cooperation agreements and their overall stance on migration also brings the group closer to the EPP. The EU’s development cooperation should prioritize democracy promotion, job creation, and climate change mitigation. 

Finally, the group of The Left argues that Europe’s own actions are the primary cause for the number of refugees and migrants seeking to find their way to the EU’s borders.

Perspectives for Parliament’s Engagement with Africa

This quick overview of some of the political groups’ manifestos reveals a number of general ideas and ambitions in relation to the EU’s partnership with Africa. Overall, the various texts and their prescriptions for engagement with Europe’s neighbouring continent show little innovation. The most notable differences between the groups pertain to border management and the European asylum system. Given the shift to the right and the demands of European electorates, a more security-driven EU policy towards Africa is to be expected. The continent-to-continent relationship is neither emphasized nor promoted as a key element of the EU’s future engagement with Africa, while a more nuanced approach involving like-minded partners in the region is also largely absent from the manifestos. Although the EP will not be the main shaper of this still highly intergovernmental relationship, it has a key role in monitoring the relationship and critically engaging with the EU’s initiatives and ambitions. In a more competitive (or geopolitical) setting, the EP may play a galvanizing role in helping the EU find a balance between short-term interests and long-term objectives vis-à-vis Africa.

Dr Benedikt Erforth is project director of "Megatrends Afrika" at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS). Dr Niels Keijzer heads the project "Between Crisis Management and Global Sustainability Transformation: The Role of the European Union".