Expert Comment – A Growing (Re-)Engagement between Central and Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa​​

Expert Comment - A Growing (Re-)Engagement between Central and Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa​

The ACP-EU Inter-Parliamentary Assembly takes place in Bucharest this month. A rare occasion where a significant Africa-EU event takes place in a New EU Member State. CEE-Africa relations are one of the recent nuances of the EU and global politics that is likely become more relevant in the years to come.

Relations among the New European Union (EU) Members from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and Sub-Sharan Africa (SSA) are seeing the emergence of a new era. After decades of dis-engagement, renewed interest is visible as trade and political affairs are intensifying.

During the Cold War period, CEE countries were deeply engaged with African counterparts on political, economic, and technical assistance issues. Regular bilateral visits were on the agendas of heads of state and government from the two regions. A good percentage of CEE’s foreign trade involved African partners. And in terms of technical assistance, there were years when the combined budgets of the CEE countries competed with that of the USSR. 

The fall of the Iron Curtin, however, brought significant disengagement. CEE countries focused primarily on Euro-Atlantic integration processes, while their economies plummeted, leading to a loss of African markets, among other significant challenges. 

Recently, an increasing number of CEE presidential visits to SSA is confirming a re-engagement trend. Presidential visits to the region include the Slovak President’s visit to Kenya in 2017, the Polish president’s visit to Ethiopia in 2017 and the Ethiopian President’s visit to Poland in 2018, the Estonian President’s visits to Benin and Senegal in 2018 and to Ethiopia in February 2019.

Starting from early 2010s CEE countries are (re-)opening embassies and trade offices in SSA. Poland launched its “Go Africa!” policy and Hungary its “Opening to the South” policy, while most of the other countries in the region reconsider Africa’s position in the list of foreign policy priorities. Also, African countries emerge as priority countries for the new CEE donors.

Where is CEE interest in Africa coming from?

While the socialization of the new EU member states with the broader EU policies on development and trade in Africa sets a favorable background, it is likely that this hype in interest comes from experiencing the 2008 economic crisis and the subsequent migration crisis. The economic crisis has shown the negative effects of running economies heavily dependent on intra-EU trade, making a good case for the urgency of diversification. For some of the CEE countries at odds with the European project, political aspects also contribute to this pressure for re-engagement with other parts of the world. Not least, perceived security threats, such as illegal migration and terrorism, open a window of opportunity for getting the attention of the CEE political leadership that was rather blind towards Africa in the recent decades. 

While CEE’s commitment to Africa exposes some vigor, there are both challenges and opportunities ahead. Politically, the fact that we see presidential visits is a positive sign. It shows that some of the CEE countries understand that high level visits are key to re-establishing and deepening relations with their African counterparts. The strong focus on trade is an additional plus as the African countries are themselves keen on diversification and attracting foreign direct investments.

The development policies of the new EU member states are also bringing opportunities for engagement – while budgets are small, development assistance raise some interest among African partners. Aid may also bring challenges related to how CEE countries position themselves in relation to their African counterparts. While current trends show that CEE countries take a humbler approach compared to more established donors, they remain nevertheless in a mainstream development mindset that is little likely to bring significant innovation.

It is without doubt that there are several important challenges to be confronted. On the political level, the capacity of CEE missions in Africa is limited, making it difficult to maintain a constant and deeper engagement. The potential for trade and investments is greatly limited by negative perceptions the two regions hold about each other and by limited awareness of current developments in the two regions. Additionally, while indeed CEE is competitive on certain services and products, the ability of CEE companies to penetrate African markets is yet to be developed. Finally, while some of the older links are still alive – see the large number of African students who studied in CEE during the communist period – CEE countries prove little capacity in engaging this political capital. 

With CEE countries being part of the EU, their relations to the continent has implications for the broader EU policies towards Africa. CEE countries expose limited capacity in international development. They invest most of their development aid in the European Development Fund, while at the same time not accessing EDF resources because of limited capacity among NGOs and companies. A closer relation with Africa among the CEE new member states is needed to further secure and consolidate EU’s Africa policy. Nevertheless, even more Africa-minded new member states will, without doubt, be pushing strongly on getting more EU attention and resources towards the Eastern Partnership and the Balkans. Not an easy balance to strike, as the current post-Cotonou negotiations illustrate. 

CEE and SSA countries are likely to further strengthen their engagements. For that to happen, CEE countries need to maintain a constant engagement that includes:

  • political attention and involvement at the level of heads of state and government,
  • ability to demonstrate the relevance of recent experiences with transition, democratization, and increasing state capacity (depending on the partner),
  • readiness to support its business through political and financial capital to penetrate African markets, while also adding an investment component to their economic relations with SSA, and
  • re-starting a deeper process of engagement with SSA through visits, scholarships, and exchanges, that facilitates an up-to-date understanding of current realities, needs, and opportunities in the two regions.

For a more extensive analysis of the re-emerging relations between New EU Member States and Sub-Saharan Africa access Central and Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa: Prospects for Sustained Re-engagement (Chatham House Research Paper, 2017)

Topic: Foreign Policy

Region: Africa, Central and Eastern Europe

Department: International Center on Global Affairs and Postdevelopment