In an opinion piece ahead of the Africa-Europe Civil Society Conference on 16 October, the VENRO Chairman Bernd Bornhorst explains why it is high time to involve African and European civil society in an inclusive and open political process between the two continents.
The African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU) have long announced their intention to establish closer cooperation. But postponing the sixth AU-EU summit, originally planned for October 2020, is yet another example of the half-hearted political relations between our two continents. It is now high time to involve civil society in an inclusive and open process that must result in a partnership of equals.
African and European societies face an ever-increasing number of common issues and shared concerns: the coronavirus response, multilateralism and climate protection; functioning health care systems, human rights and social protection; rural development and food security; local value chains and fair trade relations; decent jobs and safe migration routes; corruption and illicit financial flows; intergenerational and gender justice; digitalisation and civic engagement; not to forget, confronting the colonial past.
There is an obvious need for closer and more equitable collaboration between Africa and Europe. But the postponement of the sixth AU-EU Summit to 2021, which actually could have been organised virtually like the EU-China Summit in September, or the contentious negotiations over the EU budget and the coronavirus recovery fund, which have largely neglected the Global South, speak a different language. Neither national governments nor the German EU Council Presidency nor AU and EU institutions have lived up to their promise to give the necessary impetus that would drive our relations forward. On the contrary, they seem to be trapped in past dependencies and repetitive rituals.
Civil society connects local and policy level
Political initiatives like the Africa-EU Partnership or the AU-EU Strategy should address all these pertinent issues and propose solutions. But although they have an impact on the lives of more than 1.6 billion people, these processes are almost unknown among the general public. Needless to say, citizens can only benefit from political decisions if they understand or, even better, have an opportunity to influence them.
The relations between Africa and Europe should therefore be much more than just a formal process between governments. And actually they are: It is time that AU, EU and national governments acknowledge the positive contribution of African and European civil societies in promoting democracy, human rights, peace, and the wellbeing of the people. The enormous response to the coronavirus pandemic is just the latest example of how civic engagement and international solidarity contribute to human development.
In its capacity as a bridge between the local and the policy level, civil society can render the African-European partnership more transparent and accessible. But this implies that civil society sits at the table, ideally in a way that reflects the cultural and social diversity of our two continents – including, among others, diaspora groups, grassroots organisations, indigenous people, or youth initiatives.
Regular consultations and new forms of digital cooperation
Over the last months and years, civil society has repeatedly asked for genuine consultation with citizens from both continents. Rescheduling the AU-EU Summit to 2021 at least offers an opportunity to organise such involvement. In the medium to long term it needs to be institutionalised in the form of regular consultations and participation in decision-making processes. Concrete mechanisms have to be established and financially supported to make this happen.
New forms of digital cooperation can help harness local knowledge and promote political participation even amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. Ahead of the German EU Presidency in July 2020, the Association of German Development and Humanitarian Aid NGOs (VENRO) invited around 70 NGOs from Africa and Europe to join the multi-week Digital Africa Forum which came up with a position paper on the Africa-EU partnership addressed to the German Government.
VENRO and its partners in the EU Presidency Project “Towards an open, fair and sustainable Europe in the world” – the European NGO Confederation for Relief and Development (CONCORD), the Plataforma Portuguesa das ONGD, and the Slovenian NGO Platform for Development, Global Education and Humanitarian Aid (SLOGA) – will continue along this line. On 16 October, the hybrid conference “Civil society driving change: Towards a new quality of the Africa-Europe partnership” will take place with broad participation from African and European civil-society actors and policymakers. More than 400 participants have registered and will come up with concrete ideas and recommendations on how to improve African-European relations.
These examples show that there exists a strong desire to jointly discuss our future. A new quality of the Africa-Europe Partnership can only be reached if African and European civil society are recognised as drivers of change and can contribute their expertise. The current German and following Portuguese EU Presidencies should use the remaining time until the AU-EU Summit 2021 to organise participation. We have pushed and will continue to push our governments in that direction to make politics work for all of us.
This article was first published on the EURACTIV website as a special opinion piece on 15 October 2020.