Members' Research Service By / April 4, 2016

European Union relations with Africa

Written by Marc Hall with Clare Ferguson, EU-Africa relations, based on the Cotonou Agreement and the 2007 Joint Africa-EU Strategy,…

© michal812 / Fotolia

Written by Marc Hall with Clare Ferguson,

EU-Africa relations, based on the Cotonou Agreement and the 2007 Joint Africa-EU Strategy, are centred on the promotion of peace and security on the continent. Activities include dialogue on policies including human rights issues such as women’s empowerment, decent work and social protection, the position of LGBT people, youth and activism; as well as democratic values in local governance, observation and elections, conflict prevention and resolution, conflict minerals and sustainable development.

Conflict minerals

One of the headline political concerns in EU relations with African countries is the issue of conflict minerals. Africa’s rich mineral deposits have often been described in terms of a ‘resource curse’, with competition over their extraction fuelling a cycle of conflict; however mining, for elements such as tungsten, tin and coltan, could potentially contribute to the economic and social development of local communities. The European Parliament, Commission and Council are currently in the process of discussing the final legislative text on the exploitation of these resources (by European companies), after the Parliament recently issued its amendments, including a mandatory certification scheme for minerals that goes beyond the original proposal of a voluntary system.

Decent work and social protection

EU Commissioners meet their African counterparts
© michal812 / Fotolia

Decent work and social protection in Africa is viewed as integral to balanced economic development, as reiterated in recent international fora such as the UN Sustainable Development Summit and the Addis Ababa conference on financing for development. Despite many African countries’ wealth of resources, the social situation for many remains difficult, such as in Nigeria where the exploitation of oil has delivered only limited social benefits. South Africa, another of the continent’s largest economies, has also failed to see progress distributed evenly amongst all social groupings, despite policies introduced post-Apartheid aimed at establishing social justice. One EU strategy to improve the working and social situation in third countries is the inclusion of social standards in economic partnership agreements, notably the Cotonou Agreement.

Women’s empowerment

Achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is the 5th UN Sustainable Development Goal. Women are viewed as having a crucial role in addressing the key challenges of this century, such as poverty, inequality, and violence against women, as outlined in the European Year for Development. Women comprise the majority of small-scale farm labour in Africa and are therefore vital to achieving food security, as discussed at last year’s Universal Exhibition, Expo Milano, and at the International Day of Rural Women. Recognition of the role women can play in ensuring sustainable development, has also led to the mainstreaming of gender issues into other policy areas, such as EU trade policy. Furthermore, women’s rights, including active participation in public life, can serve as a useful litmus test for countries undergoing democratic transitions.

Sustainability and local governance

Sustainable development is development that balances economic, social and environmental objectives, without one coming at the expense of another. In this regard, governance on the local level is viewed as paramount, as it brings decision-making closer to where it is implemented and allows local actors to devise solutions that are pertinent to their area. The Social Economy, already a concept widely recognised in the EU, is gaining increasing attention amongst policymakers as a way to achieve equitable local development in other parts of the world.

The natural environment is very important to many local communities, who rely on its biological diversity. Wildlife trafficking and poaching, however, threaten a large number of species with extinction. A number of African countries are state parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which has a number of governance arrangements aimed at curbing wildlife trafficking. The European Union, a major destination and transit point for trafficked wildlife, is also party to the Convention.

EU/EP Election Observation in Africa: Experiences and Challenges

The European Parliament is highly active in election observation, as part of its commitment, enshrined in Articles 2 and 21 TEU and Article 205 TFEU, to promote democracy worldwide. Supporting democracy in Africa includes, for example, observation of elections in individual countries, such as in Niger, or monitoring the fulfilment of political pledges by leaders once they have been elected, such as Senegal President Macky Sall‘s decision not to apply a reduction of the presidential term, part of a number of constitutional changes, to his current mandate, despite an earlier electoral promise.

Conflict prevention and resolution

The past few years have unfortunately seen a number of conflicts break out on the African continent, such as in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. African countries have also had to deal with the threat of Islamic extremist groups, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabab in Somalia, groups affiliated with Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and Mali.

Political integration remains an important avenue for dealing with conflicts, in particular in the form of the African Union. The regional integration organisation has developed, for example, a sophisticated framework for dealing with coups d’états. The African continent has witnessed more than 200 military coups, successful or aborted, since 1960. However, the AU’s relations in recent years with the International Criminal Court, which plays a key role in prosecuting individuals accused of crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, is cause for concern.


After the Rwandan genocide, many African countries joined the International Criminal Court. Of the 54 African states, 34 are state parties to the ICC’s Rome Statute. This allows the ICC to “investigate, prosecute and try individuals accused of […] the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes” and, more recently, “the crime of aggression”. However, since then African relations with the Court have become strained. Of the 10 cases the Court is investigating, nine involve African countries or individuals, leading the African Union to accuse the body of political bias. The AU also asserts that trials against heads of state or government would put those countries at risk of instability. In January 2016, the AU voted at a summit in favour of withdrawal from the ICC, the culmination of years of tense exchanges between the AU, African countries and the Court; however, so far no country has withdrawn from the international treaty. The European Parliament, for its part, called for the African States to fulfill their obligations towards the ICC.

LGBTI rights

The rights of LGBTI people in Africa are a prominent issue. According to Human Dignity Trust, an NGO supporting people wishing to challenge anti-gay laws, just under half of the world’s laws that criminalise homosexuality are in Africa. More than four of five African countries have laws criminalising homosexuality or punishing LGBTI rights advocacy, as of 2014. The encouragement and non-punishment of discrimination can lead to violence against an LGBTI person in African countries, including rape and murder. Attitudes to the LGBTI community appear to be changing, however, with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopting a resolution in 2014 calling for the protection of all people’s rights regardless of actual or imputed sexual orientation or gender identity. Recent African court decisions have also reaffirmed these rights.

Read some EPRS publications on Africa here:

Briefing on ‘Democracy in Africa: Power alternation and presidential term limits
At a Glance on ‘The African Union: Defending peace, democracy and human rights
At a Glance on ‘Actions of the African Union against coups d’état
Briefing on ‘Les minéraux originaires de zones de conflit ou à haut risque‘ (in French)
Keysource on ‘Being a LGBTI person in African countries
Keysource on ‘The African Union and the International Criminal Court: what is at stake?
Keysource on ‘Wildlife trafficking in Africa: Endangered security

Further EPRS publications about Africa.

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