News | Globalization - Europe - Africa “We Must Overcome the Old Colonial Ways of Thinking”

Helmut Scholz (MEP, Die Linke) discusses the EU–Africa Summit


On 17 and 18 February, the sixth EU–Africa Summit will take place in Brussels. Climate crisis, migration, Green New Deal, security policy — there is no shortage of big issues, but the summit is once again dominated by economics and trade.

Helmut Scholz has been a member of the European parliament for Die Linke since 2009 and is a member of the Committee on International Trade. He spoke with Andreas Bohne, Head of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Africa Unit in Berlin, in the run-up to the summit about asymmetrical relations, demands on a left-wing trade policy, and the need for support from civil society.

Mr. Scholz, when you look at current EU–Africa trade relations, what are your main criticisms?

My main criticism of the current constitution of bilateral trade and investment relations is that they still follow old colonial ways of thinking. Africa is seen on the one hand as a supplier of raw materials, and on the other hand as a market for goods produced in Europe — including agricultural products that threaten traditional agriculture on the African continent because their products cannot withstand competition.

Helmut Scholz is an MEP for Die Linke and a member of the Committee on International Trade.

“Our” economic relations do not promote, or do not sufficiently promote, the ability of African countries to build their own self-sustaining national economies in such a way that many jobs, diversification of the economy, and new value creation are created locally. For this, however, the EU–Africa Summit would have to deliver something substantial.

If we look at the agenda of the upcoming summit, we find topics such as the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the Green New Deal, migration, peace and security. Trade and investment are not a separate item, but they intervene in several other issues — for example, with investments in digital and green transformation as part of the European Green Deal. How do you assess the low attention paid to economic and trade policy?

I would weigh it somewhat differently: The strength of the European Union as a global player derives primarily from its economic strength with the world’s second-largest single market. On the African continent, as well, European companies with their interests and the supply relationships they have formed over decades have a decisive influence on the economic situation in Africa today. And this always has to do with trade and investment. Trade — whether in goods or services — always has to do with production and consumption and influences the way the national economy is organized.

In this respect, the topics mentioned conceal both complex aspects of macroeconomic organization and hard economic interests. These in turn significantly influence and determine the structuring of commodity flows and the orientation of investments. At the same time, however, this also opens up potential and opportunities for reshaping bilateral relations.

Often, the view of trade and economic cooperation from the outside is too narrowly focused on the mere exchange of goods. This is evident in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic — a topic that I believe should be one of the central issues at this summit. Because a pandemic requires global, joint responses, and cooperation based on solidarity. So far, the EU’s position is limited to a continuation of dependencies, which amounts to giving vaccine “gifts” to the states on the African continent instead of passing on know-how and enabling local production.

We, the Left in the European Parliament, see an urgent need for change here and therefore advocate the temporary TRIPS waiver, i.e. the temporary release of patents including the technologies for vaccine production. We have managed to get the Trade Committee and the European Parliament as a whole to speak out in favour of the TRIPS waiver within the World Trade Organization (WTO) several times in the past year.

This inevitably brings us to the whole complex of intellectual property rights: What are the regulations in patent protection and how should patent clearance be organized? How can the regulatory standards for economic cooperation be legally defined and what is the position of the political actors — including, quite specifically, the EU, in a situation like the pandemic that affects everyone? Not acting means that people die.

Similar connections open up in the energy sector, for example. Here, too, investments and technology exports should not be based primarily on local needs, but should always be organized in such a way that the needs of the people in Africa are met first.

These two examples illustrate that trade and investment strategies and implementation on the part of the EU are part of much more complex developmental, economic, and technological processes. Here, a critical questioning of the EU’s 2020 trade strategy is called for, because one must not forget: trade and economic policy are also used as leverage to address other policy objectives or emerging challenges, keyword: “migration defence”. For me, it is clear that the upcoming summit must not again fall into a logic of “money against migrants”, which, however, is to be feared.

What concrete expectations do you have of the summit? Can it be a success or will it be more business as usual?

I hope that the meeting will not result in “business as usual”, and I expect the EU representatives to be ready for a new approach that will be expressed in concrete results. Unfortunately, we have not yet received any information about what will be negotiated at the summit. What is certain is that a “New Deal”, as French President Emmanuel Macron announced a few days ago in Strasbourg in front of the European Parliament, is to be defined — as a global EU strategy and as an offer to the African side at the summit.

But it is to be expected that the New Deal will be defined primarily from the EU’s point of view — in line with its current doctrine of “open strategic autonomy” — without naming the effects and challenges for the Global South. And so the appearance of the High Representative and Vice-President of the EU Commission, Josep Borrell, before the plenary in Strasbourg on 15 February was sobering — nothing concrete and somehow, unfortunately, old wine in new bottles. The New Deal will include a very large investment package worth many billions of euro, made up of public and private investments within the framework of the “Global Gateway”. This would make the programme on the African continent as big or perhaps even bigger than the Chinese New Silk Road is to become there.

However, much of the concrete design remains unclear. And this is where the exciting dimension of this EU–Africa Summit comes in: what can both sides agree on politically on an equal footing? Also against the backdrop of the African Union’s (AU) Agenda 2063 and the EU’s “Fit for 55” programme, both of which are geared towards implementing the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Much will depend on the concrete approach of the African partners at the summit. Will they really act in the coming days according to the demand of the Senegalese thinker, economics professor and writer Felwine Sarr, that Africa “should no longer walk on those paths that are assigned to it, but should swiftly follow the path that it has chosen itself”?

Often, and especially in the run-up to the summit, there is talk of an “equal partnership”. However, under the given capitalist conditions and the repeatedly proclaimed competition with China and Russia in Africa, this appears to be a chimera. Where do you see starting points for a left-wing trade and economic policy at the European level?

In trade policy, we need a fundamental departure from thinking in terms of market access regulations based on “free trade agreements” — it must accompany the urgent socio-ecological restructuring processes in terms of structural policy.

A social Green Deal must be established as the cornerstone of international economic policy. This requires practical steps here and now towards fair, partnership-based and ethical cooperation — bilaterally, regionally and multilaterally on the basis of Fair Trade and Economic Cooperation Agreements. These must include jointly developed, binding and enforceable norms, standards, rules, and concrete objectives. The terms of a contractual relationship must be prepared in the negotiation and implementation process by the respective parties involved — also through the active involvement of civil society and parliamentary structures. This presupposes a different understanding of transparency and the broadest possible democratic mandate for the trade policy actions of the actors involved.

Some concrete examples of this in the context of EU–AU or African Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) relations: At the heart of the trade and investment partnerships is the need to regulate how good jobs can be created in Africa, as a jumping-off point for empowering national economies. This includes technology transfer and investments in infrastructure, education, and access to knowledge services in the North. This cannot be reciprocal, but rather asymmetrical in favour of the African states.

You mentioned free trade agreements. For many years, the renegotiation of the Cotonou Agreement, signed 20 years ago, dominated the talks between the EU and Africa. The agreement expired in September 2021. What is the current status?

The post-Cotonou negotiations have indeed been concluded with the signing of a new agreement; however, this new agreement has not yet been ratified and implemented because there is no agreement in the Council and consequently no parliamentary ratification. However, we already have a resolution which, according to my information, will be voted on in Parliament in September this year.

You are currently the rapporteur of the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade (INTA) on the EU’s trade relations with Africa. You have held several hearings under the title “Europe in Listening Mode”, in which you heard the opinions of African economists. What were the key messages of the African experts that you want to include in the upcoming report?

I developed the series with the aim of giving African experts an opportunity to present their views on our bilateral relationship and put forward their proposals for an EU report on bilateral cooperation in a very specific area, the trade and investment relationship between Africa and the EU, publicly understandable.

The report, which is to be published this spring, will of course not be able to outline the entire level of cooperation in the network of relations between the European Union, its member states, and Africa. This is because the Trade Committee cannot, will not, and must not intervene directly in the concerns of the Development or Agriculture Committees, nor does it have to rewrite the European Parliament’s opinion on the EU’s Africa Strategy of 2020–2021. Rather, it is a matter of building on this and very concretely assessing the impact of trade cooperation on the respective local, national, and regional circumstances and drawing conclusions for the long-term restructuring of trade relations between the two continents. As already mentioned, EU and AU trade policy and the concrete power of international trade cooperation extends into all areas of society.

Another important aspect that should not be underestimated is that the African regions present themselves very differently, and in my opinion the report must address these regional differences in a differentiated manner. That is why the rapporteurs on the respective economic agreements should also have their say: what are the lessons of the Economic Partnership Agreement with East Africa or the one with ECOWAS in West Africa? What are the experiences with the situation in North Africa, especially in Tunisia with the concluded free trade agreement? All the contributions in the webinars so far have made it very clear that a rethink is needed in the EU and that African actors must be perceived as independent. This concerns demands for their own value creation with the creation of good jobs, expectations of infrastructure development that is linked to criteria of their own development, and the development of alternative strategies.

The report will and must also take a stand on the African Free Trade Area. Its Secretary General, Wamkele Mene, emphasized in a hearing of the Trade Committee that this free trade area is above all an instrument with which intra-regional and intra-African cooperation is to be built up or strengthened — as a prerequisite for overcoming the still predominant vertical orientation of EU–Africa economic relations. He spoke about new possibilities for constructive cooperation, such as building new infrastructure links between regions in the East and West, North and South of the continent, as well as about tapping the potential of renewable energy production for mutual benefit — but not conceived from an EU perspective, but developed jointly.

In this context, however, the “technical parameters” of trade relations are not all that is important to me, but the question of elaboration and, above all, the actor level. Both in Europe and in Africa, the respective agreements must be accompanied much more intensively by parliamentary and civil society structures. We need a completely different perception of what effects — and especially what negative effects — such an agreement causes in the countries and regions concerned. It is all too often forgotten that development policy has so far been far too little oriented towards this empowerment.

Economic, trade, and investment policy is a broad field, but the EU is already failing with “smaller” approaches. For example, the EU Commission recently postponed the planned EU supply chain law several times, thus undermining the relevance of environmental and labour rights and their sanctioning in case of violations. What is the current status?

According to the latest information, the draft law should be available by the end of February, and then the political struggle will continue. But the constant delays already show: there is an intense struggle here about interests and profits, about corporate responsibility and job orientation. This also shows the complexity of today’s trade policy: it is subject to the member states’ own nationally determined economic interests, the European Business Round Table, small, medium-sized and large companies, banks and large capital groups and business associations, etc.

The core question of the Supply Chain Act remains: Are certain requirements formulated in a binding and legally enforceable way — including companies’ legal responsibility for due diligence for a socially responsible and ecological organization of production in their value and supply chains? That brings us back to the question of shaping investments and responsibility for the economic reorientation of the EU–AU relationship. The assumption of responsibility by European companies for the entire value and supply chain must be organized in such a way that it does not result in human rights violations, that environmental standards can be sustainably protected, preserved, and perhaps even expanded and, above all, that employment policy aspects must also be included in such a way that ILO norms and standards must be the yardstick for action. And this is how competitiveness should also be redefined and delineated.