Following the Berlin conference circa 1884-5, Europe has always felt obligated to care about matters African – be it during the colonial period or in the post colonial era. This historical accident resulted in an Afro-European relationship that has mostly been characterised by tension and mistrust.
But things are changing. These days the two peoples talk of a “constructive engagement” and a cessation of paternalistic lecturing by the (former) colonialists. Although some leaders of Europe still suffer from what a Zimbabwean daily calls “an apparently incurable colonial master hangover,” most of them have moved on and come to see African countries as sovereignties that deserve to be treated with respect.
It is under this new arrangement that the EU-AU summit is being held in Lisbon, Portugal. Although the summit has been marred by a lot of controversy – from Mugabe’s attendance to Brown being accused of sending a junior cabinet member to the summit simply because she is black – it still has potential to provide the framework for a more productive relationship between the two continents based on trade and exchange of ideas.
Brussels has realised that its aid to Africa – sometimes due to guilt, but mostly because of humanitarian concern – is not sustainable in the long run. It has dawned on the EU that investment in African economies and allowing freer trade is the only way that is going to alleviate poverty in Africa and make the EU competitive against the Chinese and the Americans who have significantly increased their respective trade involvements with Africa over the last few years.
My hope is that the summit will focus on trade (making it fairer and easier) and good governance. With regard to trade, the EU should commit to reducing all non-tariff barriers to trade with the continent – from the controversial agricultural subsidies to the rather tasteless “place of origin” labels insisted upon by some pesky pressure groups. On matters to do with government, Brussels (and especially Sarkozy’s men) should send a clear message that they will not prop up leaders who do nothing but steal from and oppress their people. They should do this openly and explicitly. Previously, Europe has shied away from direct criticism in fear of the African leaders playing the race and neo-colonialism cards. But these sorts of Africans are a tiny left over of the immediate post-colonial period. Majority of Africans would welcome such criticism and even offer support it if indeed it is good natured rectitude.
So on the whole, the success of the Lisbon Summit will depend on the attending leaders’ commitment to addressing the issues that are most relevant to the average farmer in the African countryside: fair trade and good governance.