Africa and Europe need each other

Jutta Urpilainen from Finland has been serving as the European Commissioner for International Partnerships since December 2019. She wants to take relations with Africa to a new level and is close to finalising a new agreement with African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, called the Post-Cotonou Agreement.

Interview: Friederike Bauer

Over the last months the EU has shifted a lot of its attention from 'business as usual' to coping with the COVID-19 crisis. What does that mean for other areas of the Commission's development cooperation? Are there topics that will be de-prioritised?
The pandemic has taken up a lot of our energy during the past months. We had just launched a proposal for a new EU-Africa strategy at the beginning of March – and then COVID-19 hit. When we realised that the pandemic would have far-reaching consequences, resulting in major crises for our partner countries too, we put together a special package for them. It amounts to just over 36 billion euros and is a strong sign of solidarity. We are implementing that package right now. But that does not mean that we have neglected the other issues on the development agenda.

Jutta Urpilainen, European Commissioner for International Partnerships
Jutta Urpilainen, European Commissioner for International Partnerships

But the budget for external activities in the next Multiannual Financial Framework has turned out to be lower than originally planned, right?
The Commission’s proposal was indeed higher. The Heads of States and Government took that decision during the summit in July. At the moment, the budget is being negotiated in the European Parliament and I know there is a lot of support to increase our heading. So, we will see where we end up. Nevertheless, I would say that, even with the present plan of almost 100 billion euros for the next seven years, we still have a really substantial amount for development programmes.

Would you say you can still engage in meaningful cooperation on development?
Definitely. Although the challenges in our partner countries have increased: COVID-19 has made it even more difficult for them to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Their need for support and meaningful cooperation is increasing.

"We are facing the same global challenges such as climate change or digitalisation."

You already mentioned the EU-Africa Strategy. Apart from its geographic proximity, why is Africa so important for Europe?
Africa is our closest neighbour and our key partner because we are facing the same global challenges such as climate change or digitalisation, to name just two. We therefore want to change the donor-recipient relationship and build an equal partnership with Africa. This objective is also reflected in the fact that my portfolio has changed its name to International Partnerships. This is also the main purpose of our comprehensive new strategy with Africa. We have identified five key partnerships, where we want to work closer together: green transition and energy access, digital transformation, sustainable growth and jobs, peace and governance, migration and mobility.

Is the strategy also a response to other powers active in Africa?
Africa is indeed a geopolitical hotspot; many (super)powers have a presence there. But Africa and Europe share the same values and the perception that international cooperation and multilateralism are important. In light of that, I would say: Africa and Europe really need each other.

Nonetheless, the EU-AU Summit, where the strategy was scheduled to be adopted, has been postponed…
The plan was to hold this summit at the end of October. Due to COVID-19, a joint decision was taken to postpone it to next year. But our work continues; we want to keep the momentum going by continuing the consultation process and working on specific deliverables leading to the adoption of joint conclusions next year.

Has a date already been fixed?
Not yet, because of the uncertain situation due to the pandemic.

"The strategy is highly appreciated, especially because of this spirit of equal partnership."

You explained why Europe considers Africa to be a key partner. What about vice versa? What do African countries expect from Europe?
I have spoken with many African leaders, many civil society organisations and plenty of young people. And the feedback I have received is very positive. This new strategy is highly appreciated, especially because of its spirit of equal partnership and shared vision.

Africa also needs private investment above all. Wouldn’t you agree?
Yes, of course. Infrastructure, including energy production, connectivity and digitalisation are very important fields of further development for the African continent. And it’s clear that they need private investment to boost all this. However, COVID-19 has also demonstrated that health and education are two equally essential sectors. Therefore, my personal objective is to increase funding for education in our upcoming programming phase because human development is very close to my heart. But first we must get a decision by the Parliament on the budget before we can finalise the programming.

Another essential issue is the Post-Cotonou agreement. A new agreement has to be adopted since the present agreement is expiring…
Correct. The Cotonou Agreement is the overarching framework for EU relations with 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries – in terms of political, economic, development, environmental and social cooperation. It was adopted in 2000 and expired this year – which is why we had to prolong the current one for a little longer. But there is a need for a new agreement – not only for formal reasons, but also because the world has changed a lot in 20 years. The new agreement will further enhance its regional dimensions and also address today’s challenges.

Where are we now in the negotiating process?
I am extremely happy to tell you that we have endorsed 95 percent of the text, which means we have almost reached the end of the negotiations. At the same time, I must admit that the 5 percent still left contain the most sensitive issues. My goal is to conclude the talks as soon as possible. It is now a question of political will. We have all the necessary elements on the table to achieve a balanced compromise. I am also in very close contact with the ACP chief negotiator, Robert Dussey, who is likewise committed to reaching a conclusion as soon as possible.

It has been said that the key open issues involve migration, sexual and reproductive health and human rights. Can you confirm that?
At this point I do not want to go into content. I want to first close negotiations, get a new agreement, and then communicate it to the public.

"I would like to increasingly apply the 'Team Europe' approach."

Moving on to a different subject: How do you see the role of implementing partners like GIZ in future? 
As EU Commission we would like to work more closely with Member States’ organisations. They are critical actors for us in the field of development cooperation and enhancing implementation of international partnerships. From my perspective, GIZ is a key partner for the EU. We really need different development organisations and civil society in order to implement the important policy objectives we have on our European development agenda, including the strategy and partnership with Africa. And I would like to increasingly apply the ‘Team Europe’ approach, which involves joint programming and implementation together with Member States and their respective implementing organisations. We have used this approach in our response to COVID-19 and in my view, it is a good model for teamwork in the future. We can be more effective this way and increase the EU’s visibility, which is often not particularly high, even though we – the EU and Member States combined – are the biggest donor of official development assistance worldwide.

What do you like most about your position as Commissioner?
I became a politician because I wanted to change the world. And this is a position where one can really make a difference, generate an impact and produce tangible benefits for citizens, including young people. I am able to serve not only the people of Europe but also the citizens of the world. That is what I like most about my job.

Interview: Friederike Bauer

October 2020

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