In 2020, Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, emphasized the importance of migration in Africa to Europe’s political, economic, and security interests.
Generally, migration has a positive economic impact on both the origin and destination countries. However, Europe’s aging populations and African countries’ demographic growth have led to political tensions within the EU due to irregular migration flows and their perception among a growing share of the electorate. Achieving a win-win outcome will be challenging, and in the short and medium term, the EU may reduce the incentives for irregular migration, enhance border protection measures, and establish partnerships with third countries. However, in the long run, the EU could assist in export-based growth across Africa to decrease migration’s “push” factors.
Demography and Income: Understanding the Challenges of Migration from Africa
Despite efforts to address migration push factors in Africa, they are likely to persist and even intensify in the coming decades due to the discrepancy between economic growth and population growth. The global working-age population is shifting from Asia to Africa, and by 2050, more than half of Africa’s population will be under 25 years old. Income disparities between African and European countries are expected to remain, and migration is often not feasible for the poorest. Consequently, under a scenario of economic growth in Africa, migration to Europe would likely increase due to the ongoing income gap between the regions.
There are various reasons for these disparities, but two factors stand out on the highly diverse African continent. First, the legacy of colonialism has had a profound impact on nation-building, state-formation processes, and governance patterns. For example, South Africa recently declared a national “state of disaster” due to persistent power shortages caused by poor governance and widespread corruption. Second, state fragility is one of the root causes of chronic violence in Sahelian countries.
A second factor contributing to the challenges of migration from Africa is that African economies were not able to benefit from the hyper-globalization period that helped lift millions out of poverty in Asia. This is due to the absence of economic transformation, such as through industrial and agricultural revolutions, which results in low productivity and unemployment. According to the Institute for Security Studies, Africa is expected to account for a quarter of the world’s population by 2047, but less than 6 percent of the global economy.
However, the paths toward accelerated growth and development vary by country. While some countries, like Rwanda, were able to move directly to a service- and knowledge-based economy, such a leapfrogging requires adequate digital infrastructure and technical innovation. Additionally, the services sector has less potential to increase productivity and create jobs, making it less viable for countries with vast territories and large and growing workforces, such as Nigeria.
The potential benefits of increasing intra-regional and inter-regional trade in Africa are being discussed in various circles. It is believed that such trade can lead to export-led growth and expand economic opportunities on the continent, especially with the recent implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). This agreement aims to create a single market for goods and services across the continent, which could help reduce trade barriers and promote trade among African countries.
It is widely acknowledged that many of the underlying issues behind Africa’s poor trade performance can only be addressed by African countries themselves. Some of the factors that hinder trade include inadequate infrastructure, inefficient trade policies, and limited access to finance. Hence, while Europe can play a role in promoting trade with Africa, it is ultimately up to African countries to address these challenges and create a more conducive environment for trade.
Europe can support Africa’s trade by serving as the largest market for African exports, which is particularly important as regional markets become more important for trade. However, it is worth noting that Europe’s approach to Africa’s economic challenges has historically focused more on aid than trade. Although aid can provide short-term relief, it may not be an effective long-term solution for promoting economic transformation. Therefore, many have recognized that trade may be a more effective approach to addressing Africa’s economic challenges.
It is important to note that there are disparities in trade partnerships between Africa and the EU. One of the obstacles is political in nature. Despite the idea of a “partnership of equals,” the EU continues to impose a political agenda that goes beyond trade issues. This includes grand strategies such as the European Green Deal. While these efforts may be driven by good intentions, they could do more harm than good. In the long term, free trade could have a more significant and sustainable impact on African governance than external impositions, while still respecting the sovereignty and agency of African countries.
In addition, the EU may need to address its protectionist tendencies and reduce regulatory hurdles that prevent African products from accessing the European market. Agricultural subsidies, for instance, distort trade. The EU’s rules-of-origin regime also remains complex and overly demanding. European efforts to promote commerce with and within Africa must be grounded in reality. For example, bans on agrochemicals may have unintended consequences and compromise agricultural productivity in countries that are already vulnerable to food insecurity. Similarly, the EU’s push for organic farming in Africa should not ignore the fact that only a small fraction of the continent’s farmland is currently certified for this type of production.
The EU’s approach to African economies is closely tied to concerns over migration, which has increasingly shaped its approach to the continent. This is particularly evident in the Sahel, which became a top priority in the EU’s foreign agenda after the disintegration of Libya. It has been driven by fears of large-scale irregular migration, which intensified after the 2014-15 migration crisis. However, it is worth noting that Sahelian countries are not the primary countries of origin for African migrants attempting to reach Europe. Instead, the main countries of origin are Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Guinea, and the Gambia.
Despite migration being out of reach for most of the very poor Sahel region, state fragility, terrorism, organized crime, communal violence, and food insecurity have contributed to an increase in the number of internally displaced people and refugees within the region. The Sahel region provides a cautionary tale about excessive interference, the limited impact of aid, and the unintended consequences of far-reaching agendas designed and imposed by external actors. Despite initial successes, efforts to stabilize the region since 2012 – led by France, the EU, and the United Nations – have largely failed. These failures, combined with perceptions of illegitimate foreign interference, have led to rising anti-France and anti-Western sentiments and violent anti-UN protests. These sentiments have been exploited by other foreign actors, such as Russia’s Wagner Group, further exacerbating anxiety among European decision-makers.
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