We have to talk with Africa
Overwhelmingly, the information circulating in Europe about Africa has negative connotations, emphasising issues of social instability and organised violence, especially from the perspective of the threats posed to Europeans by migratory flows stemming from these problems.
While this bias is understandable, focusing on these otherwise undeniably real problems has the effect of conditioning the state of opinion of European leaders, ostensibly limiting the scope of policies towards Africa.
If before the 21st century the eternal unfinished business was to rethink the frameworks for collaboration with Africa, the penetration of Chinese interests in the African continent obliges us to reformulate old policies in order to address the challenges with real ambition and strategic vision.
The longer we delay this task, the more irrevocably the pernicious Chinese influence will have taken root, as the Chinese way of doing business is not constrained by the rule of law or accountability at the ballot box. As a result, China's international investment policy is not conditional on changes in political openness and liberalisation of key sectors of the economy; nor are the operations of its financial institutions subject to the regulations and levels of transparency of their Western equivalents, making Chinese direct investment more attractive in practice to leaders who want to maintain the status quo, as they have the material means to consolidate their power without having to make commitments to reform.
Liberal democracies, especially those of the Old Continent, cannot be mere bystanders to these dynamics, which contravene the fundamental democratic premise that individual freedom advances in direct proportion to the erosion of sources of arbitrary power. It is therefore imperative that European democracies articulate a new thesis for Africa, framed coherently within the 4Ds of Demography, Development, Rights and Defence; critical elements from which it is possible to re-imagine our inevitable common future in a holistic and realistic prism.
But we do not have the luxury of being able to waste any more time. China, which is growing every month by the equivalent of Morocco's annual GDP, is well aware of the importance of influence in Africa, and is projecting its economic power from the Mediterranean, where it already holds a dominant commercial position in the port of Piraeus, and is increasing its specific weight in Trieste and Marseilles, the place chosen by Beijing to implement the largest wholesale trade centre in the Mediterranean; a commercial platform for small and medium-sized companies from France, Italy, Eastern Europe, North Africa and China, part of China's strategy to make the new Silk Road determine the world economy. Thus, the implementation of regional integration structures, including the expansion of the new Suez Canal, the development of port infrastructure in Tunisia, the construction of a nuclear reactor in Sudan, and a myriad of other such initiatives across Africa, has created a system of economic corridors, both maritime and land-based, to provide an outlet for Chinese markets.
A key part of this strategy is also the opening of the centuries-old closed door between the Arab world and China to enable an 'Arab Corridor' that promises rapid growth without regime change, i.e. economic reform without, as mentioned above, political reform: change everything so that everything stays the same, the Lampedusian trap of 'modernising without developing'.
Changing these dynamics is far from a pipe dream, but it requires a new generation of leaders to take the reins to convey with conviction and confidence the principles of liberal democracy, understood as a universal value, not as Western privilege to be defended with a fortress mentality even if the price is to leave the rest of humanity in an illiberal extra-muros choreographed from Beijing.
On the contrary, a comprehensive development strategy for Africa, based on the 4Ds outlined above, requires that priority be given to investment in intangible capital assets, in the form of human, institutional and social capital. Thus, demographics can work in favour of the African continent if it has the complicity of Europe and institutional governance programmes and social transformation policies are put in place, but avoiding the trap of falling into "isomorphic mimicry", consisting of merely formally adopting organisations or policies from other countries, without tangible development of people and their civil rights.
So what can we do? The first step, of course, is to treat African society as a whole without paternalism, helping them to help themselves along the path towards strong regional economic institutions and public-private partnerships with good governance. Europeans can contribute from multiple angles, for example by establishing university-business links to ensure the transfer of European know-how and technology and integrated value chains in the European economy. In this respect, the experiences gained as a result of the process of implementing the Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area, born out of the multilateral dialogue launched 25 years ago by the Barcelona Declaration, show that change is possible, and thus represent a template that can be gradually applied on a continental scale.
Similarly, the European Union can facilitate the creation of a consortium of international organisations, including the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and G20 countries, to design a coordinated strategy for sustainable and sustained economic development and growth in Africa as a whole, and encourage strategic public-private partnerships established bilaterally between the EU and other international actors to attract investment in business projects and for social development programmes with housing, electricity grids, health and education systems, transport and communications infrastructure.
Finally, reality needs to be transformed from within, and from the bottom up, with African women playing an active role in transforming those frameworks that restrict the full development of people in Africa. African women are called to be agents of change, because the family is an ideal space for disseminating and making the values of personal freedom and civic rights their own. This will only be possible if we in Europe help African civil society to find its own way, just as we ourselves have done for hundreds of years. Europe did not arrive at liberal democracy by following a user's manual, written by a third party, but through a long and painful heuristic process, the lessons of which we can share with the African people, not so that they will do what we tell them in a monologue, but to establish an honest dialogue that allows them to learn from the mistakes we once made ourselves, and we can write together the script for a common future.