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The EU as a Geopolitical and Development Actor: Views from East Africa

L'UE en tant qu'acteur géopolitique et de développement : vues de l'Afrique de l'Est
Veit Bachmann


L'UE s'est souvent targuée d'être le plus grand donateur d'aide publique au développement (APD) dans le monde et revendique donc un rôle de premier plan dans ce domaine. Cet article examine la façon dont ce rôle de l'UE est exercé et perçu par les partenaires de l'UE en Afrique à travers une approche qualitative centrée sur des entrevues semi-structurées et l'observation participante. L'objectif de cet article n'est pas d'évaluer les perceptions afin de mesurer leur réalité, il vise à souligner l'existence de perceptions différentes et leurs variations en fonction de l'œil de l'observateur. La conception d'un rôle international cohérent de l'UE est réductrice, l'UE apparaît simultanément comme un modèle attrayant géopolitique et géoéconomique et une puissance économique dominante voire dominatrice. En outre, l'auteur suggère que la conception et la mise en œuvre de la politique de développement européenne devrait être plus consultative et perspicace afin de dissiper les perceptions de l'UE en tant que puissance néo-impériale.

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The EU can best learn about its own flaws and potentials and become a meaningful utopia for its own citizens by ‘bringing the outside world back in’. (Nicolaïdis and Howse, 2002: 769)

1Development is a key policy field for collective European external relations. As indicated in the opening quote by Carbone, it also is a hybrid policy field that is conducted bilaterally, through the European Commission’s development policy, and multilaterally, through the (sometime more, sometimes less) concerted efforts of the various development agencies of individual EU member states. The broad parameters for collective European development cooperation with the countries of the ACP-group (Africa, Caribbean, Pacific) are set within the framework of the Cotonou agreement (EC, 2000; EC, 2006) and the European Development Fund (EDF). In general terms, Holden (2009: 133) describes its previous round, the 9th EDF, as “standard development aid tweaked toward European interests and influence. [...] Its purpose is to promote poverty reduction and economic growth, which should enable regional integration and the EPAs. The subsequent analysis of European-African interaction will, however, not deal with the Cotonou agreement or the specificities of EDF allocations in great detail (for more information on this, see Carbone, 2007; Carbone, 2012; Gänzle et al., 2012). Instead it will focus on how Europe, the EU and European development cooperation is perceived by its development partners in East Africa.

2In so doing, this paper is a largely empirical paper, based on qualitative research, and presents dominant perceptions of some of the key individuals involved in East African – European interaction; it does not seek to evaluate these perceptions or judge their reality value. The point here is to emphasise the existence of various perceptions and how they vary depending on the eye of the beholder and the policy field under consideration.

  • 1 Dominique Moïsi is a founder and senior advisor at the Ilfri (the French Institute for Internationa (...)

3This is based on the assumption that geopolitical constellations and agency are influenced by dominant perceptions, by cultural, social and political developments and practices – an argument implicit in classics such as Edward Said’s Orientalism (2003 [1978]) and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1963). In the former, for instance, it is argued that ‘the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence’ (Said, 2003 [1978]). More recently, in his book The Geopolitics of Emotion, Dominique Moïsi1 (2009) describes how ‘cultures of fear, humiliation, and hope are reshaping the world’. Moïsi’s account is a popular one. With limited conceptual grounding, his book is an approachable illustration of how dominant perceptions and feelings in given societies impact on the way how these societies situate themselves in global context and thus ‘shape the world’. Similarly, the school of thought of critical geopolitics rejects the international system as a fixed or rigid construct and instead argues how it is ‘produced’ through historical processes and ongoing social, cultural and political processes (Dalby, 1991; Ó Tuathail, 1996; Ó Tuathail and Dalby, 1998; Mamadouh, 2010; Dodds et al., 2012). Those are, naturally, fundamentally influenced by emotions and dominant perceptions. With respect to the EU, Bretherton and Vogler (2006) introduce the term ‘actorness’ to examine how, and in which contexts, the EU possesses the capability to exercise global influence (actorness as the capability to act influentially). Bretherton and Vogler (2006: 24-34) argue that actorness is constructed as an interplay of many factors, in particular opportunity, presence, and capability as well as based on (external) perception of such actorness (ibid: 13). More generally, however, the argument laid out in the following is predominantly qualitative and informed by political geographical and critical geopolitics approaches, It is thus not necessarily to be contextualized within development geography or development studies but rather to be seen as a political geography with an empirical focus on, and critical attention to the sensitivities of, global North-South relations.

4Referring to the second opening quote by Nicolaïdis and Howse, it is therefore important to “bring the outside world back in” – to develop an understanding of external views and perceptions. This is precisely what this paper seeks to do. It will proceed with a brief note on methodology before it will address perceptions on the nature of collective EU development policy. The subsequent sections discuss perceptions of the EU as a (neo-)imperial actor in development and provide an overview of aspects of the EU perceived as particularly positive as well as particularly negative. The paper then proceeds with highlighting different expectations on the EU’s role as a geopolitical and development actor voiced by the informants and finishes with a short conclusion summarizing the key arguments.

On Methodology

  • 2 As part of a PhD-project based in, and completely funded by, the School of Geography at the Univers (...)
  • 3 See also Bachmann

5Methodologically, this qualitative study goes beyond quantitative textual analysis of legal and policy frameworks and employs ethnographic research methods to examine institutions and individuals (and their perceptions) involved in EU cooperation with the Global South. With a disciplinary background in political geography and informed by sociological and anthropological research approaches the empirical part of this paper is based on fieldwork in East Africa2, mostly in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, a key hub for the global development industry (Taylor, 2004), and Brussels between May 2007 and April 2012 (interviews were mostly conducted in a first fieldwork period between May 2007 and December 2008). More specifically, this paper examines the EU’s geopolitical role, and perceptions thereof, in the context of the international development industry through participant observation and interviews with key figures involved in the EU’s interaction with the African Union (AU), the East African Community (EAC) and the Republic of Kenya. In addition to an affiliation as ‘research associate’ with a European development agency in Nairobi3, the author conducted a total of 55 interviews with 60 informants. 23 of these 60 informants were from European agencies, including both European Commission and Member States agencies. Because of the interest of this study in perceptions of the EU’s cooperation partners in the field of development, informants also included individuals affiliated with the EU’s development partner organisations. On the one hand these are, of course, the local development partners, i.e. senior officials from the African Union, the East African Community and the Kenyan government, but also directors and coordinators of Kenyan NGOs (21 informants in this category). On the other hand it includes informants from other bilateral (US, Canadian, Japanese, etc) and multilateral (Worldbank, UNEP, etc.) donor organisations (16 informants in this category).

6In the tables presented in this paper, the names of the informants are kept anonymous for reasons of confidentiality. However, the date and the location of the interview are indicated as well as the total number of responses along with the number of responses in each category of informant affiliation, i.e. how many responses came from representatives of European institutions (EU agency), other donors, or from African organisations and NGOs (Local/NGO). The total number of responses to each question can thereby vary as informants could give multiple responses.

7Moreover, this paper includes three figures (two cartoons and one advertisement) taken from the Daily Nation, Kenyan largest newspaper. These figures have not been included in the text with the ambition to conduct a comparative analysis between popular and practical geopolitics (O'Loughlin et al., 2005; Dittmer and Dodds, 2008), rather they are intended to visualise broader sentiments that frequently appeared in the interviews and that, more generally, continuously resurfaced during the conduct of more than five years of ethnographic fieldwork in the region. They are thus to be seen as illustrative and indicative examples of wide-spread perceptions of various aspects of the EU’s role in the region.

The Collective part of European development policy

8In his comprehensive study of European development policies, Carbone argues that, during the 2000s, European development policy underwent fundamental changes. According to Carbone (2007: 54), the international framework for development cooperation changed significantly in the three years between the United National International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD) in Monterrey, Mexico in 2002 and the High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Paris in 2005, mainly due to the leadership role played by the European Commission seeking to shape international development cooperation according to its agenda. The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (OECD, 2005) and the European Consensus on Development (EPCC, 2006) were results of this process and, according to Carbone, an attempt on part of the European Commission to “produce a statement on EU development policy, a sort of Brussels consensus to counter the Washington consensus“ (Carbone, 2007: 54-55).

9Such attempts to create a European approach, a “Brussels consensus“, to more harmonised development policies of European donors have, of course, existed before those processes and been widely discussed (Grilli, 1993; Lister, 1997; Lister, 1998; Reisen, 1999; Holland, 2002; Carbone, 2007). The ultimate option of harmonizing and aligning European development policy, “the greatest challenge“, as Holland (2002: 244) put it, “remains defining development policy as an exclusive EU competence and in making that policy a future success“. Such an arrangement of development policy as an exclusively collective policy field in EU external relations, however, would be highly contested as the responses presented below indicate. Table 1 shows how the informants perceived the possibility of defining development cooperation as exclusive EU competence (whereby the informants were specifically asked about their opinion on the desirability of this option, not the probability of its realisation).

Table 1: Development cooperation as exclusive EU competence

Table 1: Development cooperation as exclusive EU competence
  • 4 Delegation Official” refers to someone working for the Delegation of the European Commission to th (...)

10There are no significant patterns in the distribution of preferences, neither with respect to informants favouring or opposing such an arrangement nor with respect to the informants’ affiliation. The most common arguments for defining development cooperation as exclusive EU competence were anticipated increases in aid effectiveness, avoided overlaps, and facilitated cooperation when dealing with one institution as opposed to several (Bachmann, 2009: 221). In this context, an African Union official in Addis Ababa asserted that “development cooperation as an exclusive competence of the Commission would be very good. For the AU it is very good to be able to interact with the supranational institution of the Commission as it speaks for all of Europe. It would be great to have that also on issues of development cooperation (Author interview, Addis Ababa, 22/02/2008). Most of the affirmative informants also emphasised that they viewed it as desirable, but not realistic. An official from an EU member state in Nairobi, for instance, argued that “politically it would be desirable but practically there might be significant problems. The question is if the Commission is capable of doing so (Author interview, Nairobi, 18/11/2008). A Canadian development official estimated that an exclusive EU competence in development policy would be good for aid effectiveness, but it is not going to happen, because of domestic policy interests and preference for individual decision making (Author interview, Nairobi, 18/11/2008) and a Delegation Official4 articulated that theoretically it would make a lot of sense; it is the ultimate goal. But it is not happening any time soon, as each country has its underlying agenda (Author interview, Nairobi, 03/03/2008).

11As regards informants opposed to development as exclusive EU competence, the most common argument referred to diminished flexibility in approaches and diminished national sovereignty on development issues. Moreover, in particular European informants were doubtful about the European Commission’s capabilities to handle the entirety of European development engagement. In this context and the relation to collective European trade policy, a UNEP official argued that in trade policy

the Commission’s exclusive competence is different because it is a clear external representation of internal interests. It is good for European countries if these interests are pooled and collectively represented by a powerful actor. But in development and environmental policy it is more important to be innovative for developing new and improved solutions to global problems.

If European development cooperation was administered centrally by Brussels, it would be one huge bureaucracy which would eliminate diversity and the innovative potential deriving from diversity and pluralism. It is precisely such pluralism that is extremely important for innovations to solve developmental and environmental problems. It would be one mega-bureaucracy dealing with a minimal consensus of all member states; that is not a good approach for global problems and innovative solutions. It works well for external representation of joint internal interests, such as trade, but it kills innovation. (Author interview, Nairobi, 02/12/2008)

12More generally, however, even though it is commonly understood that the European Union is a distinctive actor in the international system, it does not necessarily act differently with respect to its donor practices. Table 2 summarises the responses to the question if the EC (European Commission), handling collective EU development policy, is seen as a development actor that is structurally different to others (in a sense that it differs from both multilaterals and bilaterals) or if it is one more actor amongst a variety of others. From a total of 41 responses to that question, 23 informants viewed the EC as a development actor that is structurally different from its member states, other bilateral actors and also from multilateral institutions. The informants who viewed the EC as a structurally different actor were then asked in what respect they thought the EC differs from other development organisations. The responses are summarised in Table 3 (multiple reasons allowed).

Table 2: Is the EC a structurally different actor in development?

Table 2: Is the EC a structurally different actor in development?

Table 3: Differences between EC delegations and other development actors

Table 3: Differences between EC delegations and other development actors

13The first aspect indicated in Table 3, the larger scope of EC engagement, can be attributed to the EC’s large infrastructure projects in Kenya, mainly its involvement in the construction of the Mombasa-Kampala highway – the key road connection for the East African region. Moreover, the role of the Delegation is regarded as less ‘politicised’, i.e. less influenced by political changes, as they might occur through a change of governments for example (Author interviews, Nairobi, 27/11/2008 and 17/12/2007). As a result, in the words of a World Bank official, cooperation with the EC “can be more stable and objective than that with its member states because it is not so much affected by political fluctuation. The EC’s approach is more long-term oriented and issue-based. For us it is easier to work with the EU as it is apolitical, just like the Bank” (Author interview, Nairobi, 13/02/2008). A UNEP official pointed out that as a development actor the European Commission “can make more objective decisions. Similarly, a Canadian development official observed that the EC is “not so susceptible to political issues and possible bilateral problems. It is more consistent, the EC can ride stormier seas” (Author interview, Nairobi, 18/11/2008).

14In general, there is a clear preference in collective European development cooperation for long-term agreements as opposed to short, ad-hoc cooperation depending on a politically favourable climate. This is in line with the EU’s preference for institutionalised and regulated interaction mechanisms both internal as well as external. As regards development, an official from an EU member state pointed to the “long-term commitment and cooperation frameworks determined for 5 year periods. But it is also less flexible than bilateral” (Author interview, Nairobi, 13/02/2008). A EAC official described how the “EU takes more times to make a decision, but once the decision is made, the EU is more sound in terms of implementation” (Author interview, Arusha, 18/03/2008) and a UNEP official argued that “it takes a long time to find common ground, but once it is found it is represented strongly” (Author interview, Nairobi, 02/12/2008).

15In Kenya, an important part of EU development cooperation is budget support. The general approach of EC development policy is to promote a trend away from technical cooperation on certain projects, to sector wide approaches, to sector budget support, and finally to general budget support (Author interviews, Nairobi, 04/12/2007 and 17/12/2007). Budget support, on the most general level, refers to the support of the partner government’s annual budget through the direct injection of funds by a donor. A key problem often associated with budget support, however, is the misappropriation of funds. In order to minimize this risk, the European Commission’s required financial audit procedures for fund disbursement are very stringent and any partner receiving EC funds has to undergo a very lengthy and complex appropriation process. These processes are highly institutionalised and usually commitments are made for up to five years. Such institutionalisation of the cooperation processes with the development partner is exemplary for the general preference in collective external relations to work through long-term and heavily regulated frameworks of interaction with its partners.

16In general, the abovementioned apolitical role of collective European development cooperation is changing with the establishment of the European External Action Service (EEAS) through the Treaty of Lisbon. With the launch of the EEAS in December 2010, all external relations of the European Union, including development cooperation, are supposed to become integrated and the Delegations were upgraded from Delegations of the European Commission to Delegations of the European Union – meaning they now also have a mandate from the European Council, including a mandate for a political role. Even before the official launch of the EEAS, Commission officials were preparing for this new role. For instance already in 2008, an official from the Directorate-General for Development in Brussels asserted that the Delegations’

political role is becoming more and more important. Also amongst the member states there is a desire to move closer to real Common Foreign and Security Policy, the EC is taking a coordinating position therein. This is important as all the member states have their individual interest, and the EC is needed to advocate the common interests and the European values […] the EC is set to move from a development agency to a political partner. (Author interview, Brussels, 04/07/2008)

17Thus, even though the EU’s approach to interaction with its partner countries is likely to remain based on long-term frameworks for interaction, the political dimension is expected to exercise an increasing influence in future.

18In the following, I will outline two key streams of perceptions of the EU. First, I show how the EU is (still) often seen as a (neo)-imperial geoeconomic power. Second, I illustrate how the EU is often simultaneously seen as an alternative geopolitical model and expected to promote civilian values and regional integration.

(Neo-)Imperial perceptions of the EU

19Popular and academic debates on imperial practices tend to focus either on past European colonialism or more recent American neo-imperialism, during the 2000s most evidently displayed by the presidency of George W Bush. Yet as Hooper and Kramsch (2007) point out, a critical engagement with aspects of contemporary European imperial practices is rare, albeit for varying reasons. Neoconservative writers such as Robert Kagan (2003) tend to argue that Europe lacks the power, above all mechanisms for the projection of military power, to be playing an imperial role. His famous quote about Americans being from Mars and Europeans from Venus, summarises the views of Europeans living within their constructed perpetual peace within Europe, reluctant to and incapable of playing a more significant global role. Others argue that Europe continues to play a significant role in the world, but renounces ‘traditional’ imperial practices (Manners, 2002; Zielonka, 2006; Bretherton and Vogler, 2006). On the other hand, Hooper and Kramsch (2007: 526-527) emphasise that:

constituting European goodness against American badness (not a Herculean task), Europeans have internalised the model of a Europe which has renounced armed warfare and violence and established a social democracy and ethical governance in their place: blood for roses. While there is certainly a reality to this analysis, there is also another Europe, one no less real but existing outside Europe’s geopolitical consciousness: namely, a Europe oddly unreflexive about its own imperialism, past and present, as well as its contemporary less than enlightening attitude towards ‘strangers’.

20Indeed, in the context of African-European relations, notions of European neo-imperialism and neo-colonialism are omnipresent. Europeans, Liam Kennedy (2006: 135) points out, tend to repress spectres of European empires. Clearly, the prime imperial suspect is the United States, but in developing countries the perception of external actors pursuing imperial practices of exerting influence on the political and economic system looms large. The coordinator for the African branch of an international NGO for tax justice argued that:

Development Aid is not an action of good will, it is a political tool to influence policies; it has been that and it will always be that. Countries that are giving aid also have political and economic interest. Those economic interests sometimes stand in conflict with each other between the donor countries.

There is a competition amongst powerful countries (EU, US, China) to dominate African countries. They are competing to exploit countries that are not able to protect themselves. The EU is yet another power in this game. (Author interview, Nairobi, 27/11/2007)

21The Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) were thereby in the centre of criticism. The programme coordinator of another NGO in Nairobi condemned the exploitation of power relations in EU-ACP relations in the context of the negotiations on the new EPAs:

The ACP –group has almost 80 countries, how would one solution fit all? There are huge varieties amongst those countries. The EU is threatening to cut aid or impose sanctions on countries that don't want to comply. The EU is trying to break solidarity of ACP countries to make them weaker negotiations partners. It is economic imperialism. The historical background of LOME was to maintain access for European countries to raw-materials from their former colonies. Now it is to maintain market access for European companies. (Author interview, Nairobi, 20/11/2007)

  • 5 The Kenya Human Rights Commission is a private NGO based in Nairobi

22The EPAs cause(d) widespread popular resentment. A Delegation official observed that The EU has a fairly negative picture in the Kenyan media, mainly because of the EPAs (Author interview, Nairobi, 04/12/2007); one example of such media representations of the EPAs is illustrated in Figure 1. It shows an advertisement by the Kenya Human Rights Commission5 that appeared in Kenya’s most widely circulating daily paper, the Daily Nation, on 05 December 2008. It is entitled EPA = Recolonisation of Kenya and describes the EPAs as modern day slavery showing a picture of Africans in chains. With such images resembling slave deportations, citizens are supposed to mobilise their MP to oppose Kenya’s agreement to the EPAs with the European Commission. However, the advertisement neither explains what the Economic Partnership Agreements are nor does it mention the European Commission, the European Union, the EAC, or the ACP-group of countries.

Figure 1: Representing the Economic Partnership Agreement

Figure 1: Representing the Economic Partnership Agreement

Source: Daily Nation, 05 December 2008

23During the EPA negotiations between the European Commission and East African countries, an EAC official recounted that the Europeans had been pushing their interests quite heavily (government procurement amongst other things) and were arm-twisting the ACP countries. There was also a strong push on part of the EU to comply with WTO regulations (Author interview, Arusha, 18/03/2008). In fact the entire language of the Cotonou Agreement, Hurt (2003: 163) argues, “cleverly blends the ideas of consent and coercion” whereby consent is achieved through “notions of ‘dialogue’, ‘partnership’ and of ACP-states owning their own development strategies”. At the same time coercion “is present in the EUs presentation of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) as the only viable alternative and also through the implementation of frequent reviews of aid provision that have conditionalities attached”.

24In reference to Chang’s (2002) work on the relation of protectionism and industrialisation, a NGO coordinator in Nairobi noted that:

Western institutions and countries are kicking away the ladder; they used a certain ladder to develop and ‘get up’ and now that they are on top they are kicking away the ladder for African countries. They were shutting themselves of the global market during their own development, but are now forcing African countries to open up. Totally opening up nascent industries is not a solution; industries need to be home-grown and develop domestically first. (Author interview, Nairobi, 27/11/2007)

25In this manner, Europe’s colonial past looms large over its contemporary relations with Africa. Even though the colonial history is predominantly associated with individual European countries, such perceptions of Europe as an imperial actor have profound ramifications on Europe’s future role. Holland (2002: 139) argues that because of the lack of “a long history of international action to bolster its reputation [the EU] is judged, and can only be judged, on how it deals with the present”. From a different viewpoint, an official of the EU Delegation to the African Union claimed for the EU a “credibility bonus because of the mutual history of European and African countries, but the EU as an institution does not have the colonial stigma. The African side also asks for more cooperation with the EU than with the member states“ (Author interview, Addis Ababa, 22/02/2008). Similarly, an AU official argued that the

EU as an integrated community has more credibility than its member states (colonial history) and also more than US and China. This is undermined by European countries that sometimes still pursue their individual interest. The AU would prefer to act with the EU. Europe is a preferable partner because of geographical closeness and the long-term relations, the EU should build on this advantage as it does not have the colonial stigma of its member states. Still Europe has not played its role since independence to treat Africa as equal and contribute significantly to Africa’s development.

It is an unequal partnership and has always been one. (Author interview, Addis Ababa, 22/02/2008)

26An alternative to this “unequal partnership” has gained increasing prominence over the past ten years. With its intensified engagement in Africa, China offers an alternative cooperation model; free from the ‘West’ telling Africans what to do and what not to do and without (paternalising) practices such as conditionalities (Six, 2009; Tan-Mullins et al., 2010; Power et al., 2012). An economist in the Kenyan Ministry of East African Community, for instance, critiqued that through conditionalities the entire spirit of long-term partnership with the EU is being undermined (Author interview, Nairobi, 09/04/2008). “The Chinese policy of non-interference” he further observed, “is well liked. If Europe is not careful China might be playing a much more important role in Africa” (Author interview, Nairobi, 09/04/2008). Similarly, an AU official in Addis Ababa pointed out that

China is different, it has a new approach of how to deal with African countries. There are no conditionalities attached. The idea is to bring economic development first, then solve political problems and care about ‘luxury’ aspects of good governance, etc.. As a result many African countries prefer China as a partner, as there are no conditionalities and they don’t care what’s happening inside the country. The Chinese understand Africans better and now Europe becomes afraid that it might be losing its influence in Africa. As a result Europe had to change its position and relations in fact did change. The EU now disburses funds easier. The EU understood Chinese philosophy when it comes to Africa and has copied some of it, because if Europe does not adapt, China will rule Africa! (Author interview, Addis Ababa, 22/02/2008)

27The quote and the cartoon shown in Figure 2 are illustrative of wider sentiments expressed during the interviews and in the perception of Western and Chinese involvement in Africa (Carmody, 2011). However, they also both imply that Africa will be ‘ruled’ by an external actor. In particular in the cartoon, taken from Kenya’s largest daily newspaper, it is implicit that for Africa nothing will change; Africans will continue to carry the throne of an external ‘ruler’. Nevertheless, in many ways the Chinese involvement is perceived as less neo-imperial than the European (and American) (Chunju, 2009; Mohan and Power, 2008; Power and Mohan, 2010; Zeleza, 2008)

Figure 2: China replacing the ‘West’

Figure 2: China replacing the ‘West’

Source: Daily Nation, 26 February 2008

28I want to emphasise here that these are reported perceptions and I do not intend to judge upon their reality value. Instead I want to emphasise that these perceptions persist and that they have an influence on African-European relations. It is therefore important to be aware of such perceptions, to develop a respective sensitivity in interaction and to critically engage with the question how such perceptions can be dispelled.

Europe’s fame and shame

29At the end of the interviews I asked the informants what they regarded as the most positive and the most negative aspects of an integrated Europe. The questions were kept open and were not intended to exclusively refer to the EU’s role in Africa or as a development actor, rather they sought to inquire in very general terms about the most positive and most negative aspects that come to mind when thinking of the European Union. As most of the interviews took place in the context of the EU as a development actor, many responses reflected opinions about the EU in this respect. The results are shown in Tables 4 and 5.

30On the negative side, African informants mostly criticised the EU’s neo-imperial practices and European interference in African affairs. As pointed out above, Europe’s “flourishing neo-colonialist political economy“ (Hooper and Kramsch, 2007: 527) is not very evident in the perception of most Europeans, including those working in the development industry, but it is very much part of the perception of its African cooperation partners. A NGO coordinator in Nairobi, for instance, criticised that Europe is “pushing its agenda too forcefully, it has too much influence on our domestic affairs. There has been no change in the historical relationship“ (Author interview, Nairobi, 20/11/2007). Similarly, an EAC official argued that “the EU acts along geopolitical power structures which are not always to the benefit of African countries“ (Author interview, Arusha, 18/03/2008) and an AU official critiqued Europe’s “failure to understand African realities and positions. [The Europeans] are trying to impose their positions on us“ (Author interview, Addis Ababa, 22/02/2008).

31Other criticism focussed on the high level of bureaucracy and the European Commission’s tendency to overregulation. This refers to the disregard of the subsidiarity principle on part of the Commission and its attempts to regulate detailed aspects and procedures of day-to-day life. Not only African officials in Kenya, at the EAC and at the AU (Author interviews, Addis Ababa, 21/02/2008; Arusha, 18/03/2008; Nairobi, 08/04/2008) identified the Commission’s highly bureaucratised processes as cumbersome but also Delegation officials:

Indeed there is a lot of bureaucracy in European development cooperation, in particular when it comes to the disbursement of funds. The heavy bureaucracy is a result of the éclat of the Santer Commission, then the EU has been trying to plug all possible loopholes by ridiculous and exaggerated means. It really reaches an extent where I am sometimes surprised that we can even sign a contract. The rules are so strict that some of EU member states wouldn’t even qualify. (Author interview, Nairobi, 31/10/2008)

Table 4: Aspects of the EU perceived as negative

Table 4: Aspects of the EU perceived as negative

Table 5: Aspects of the EU perceived as positive

Table 5: Aspects of the EU perceived as positive

32On the positive side, the ‘freedom of movement’ within the EU was expressed most frequently, referring to the common market and the freedom of settlement and movement of people, capital and goods within Europe. Interestingly, this aspect and the ‘creation of peace and stability’ have been mentioned as important and positive aspects mostly by representatives of European or other donor organisations. African informants, on the other hand, tended to identify Europe’s collective role (mostly the Commission’s) in the development industry and the provision of development assistance as the most positive aspect.

33My intention here is not to assess the accuracy of these statements, but rather to show how both negative and positive perceptions of a collective Europe diverge and converge in certain situations. On the negative side, donors cooperating with European Commission agencies in Africa frequently lamented its high level of bureaucracy, Europeans complained about the democratic deficit of European institutions and Africans criticised imperial legacies in European policies and attitudes. On the positive side, it was almost exclusively Europeans and representatives of other donor organisations valuing factors such as ‘freedom of movement’ and ‘peace and stability’ in Europe whilst Africans were positively remarking on the EC’s role as a development actor. From these perceptions result certain expectations on the EU’s role in the world and as a development actor - those will be outlined in the next section.

Expectations on the EU’s role as a geopolitical and development actor

34For inquiring about the expectations on the EU’s role as a global actor, I asked the informants about what global role they envisioned for Europe in future, i.e. not how they perceived Europe’s current role in the world, but what role they thought Europe should collectively play in the world (Table 6). Also here, it is important to note that as the interviews were conducted in the general context of discussions about Europe’s collective role as an actor in the development industry, hence some of the responses expressed the informants’ viewpoint on Europe’s role more specifically with regard to developing countries as opposed to Europe’s general global role.

35The most common responses were a call for the EU to act as a normative, value-based actor and as a model for regional integration. These responses implied that the EU should promote this model of regulated and institutionalised system of political-economic organisation, to the wider international level. During an interview at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa an AU official described the EU as

a role model for interdependencies and multilateralism, that should show others how to deal with global issues on a multilateral basis and through interdependencies. It should export its peaceful foreign policy and its strong commitment to peace. There the EU has a different philosophy to the US. It should share with the world the values and achievements it has developed internally, such as human rights, democracy, technological achievements. The EU should export those values to the world. (Author interview, Addis Ababa, 22/02/2008)

Table 6: Geopolitical roles for the EU

Table 6: Geopolitical roles for the EU

36The notion of the EU as an exporter of internally developed values to the international system frequently appears in the literature and interviews. An NGO coordinator in Nairobi, for instance, viewed Europe’s global roles as an promotor of “democratic structures, good governance, institutional capacity and institution building“ (Author interview, Nairobi, 20/11/2007). An (American) economist for World Bank in Nairobi even described the “EU as role model for the whole world, with free movement of labour and capital“ and advocated for the EU to “transfer its interior structures to the world“ (Author interview, Nairobi, 27/02/2008). Similarly, an AU-official in Addis Ababa suggested that:

In a globalised world the EU should share the values it has developed and realised internally with the entire world. Share with the world the tools of regional integration and act as a model. Share with the world its infrastructure masterplan, and also its principles of democracy, anti-corruption, human rights, no torture, press freedom, and all the other freedoms. Share with the world the regulation mechanisms that allow it to impose the level of civilian structures it has developed internally onto all 27 member states. Share the common values and the way how it managed to have those common values respected throughout the entire union. (Author interview, Addis Ababa, 21/02/2008)

37The quote touches on a wide range of aspects outlined in EU geopolitical literatures over a long period of time (Duchêne, 1972; Duchêne, 1973; Bretherton and Vogler, 1999; Maull, 2005; Bachmann and Sidaway, 2009). Such expectations on the EU to function as a global role model for civilian power are widely shared between African and European informants. In addition, the EU was often expected to play a role as a counterweight to the US and an alternative source of influence in world politics. In this context, one of the aspect of distinct difference between the EU and the US Bretherton and Vogler (2006: 56-57) point to the

Union’s relative holistic approach to international security [...]. Whether in its approach to regional conflict or to international terrorism, the Union has focused upon prevention – emphasizing the need to address fundamental causes rather than deal only with symptoms; and hence to employ a wide range of primarily civilian instruments.

38Bretherton and Vogler’s argument appeared during the presidency of George W. Bush with its neo-conservative doctrine. Positioning a collective European role as a counterbalance in global politics to the American role has a long history (Bachmann and Sidaway, 2009) and has also been a common theme throughout the interviews conducted with a variety of informants. During an interview with an economist from the Kenyan Ministry of Planning and National Development and an official from the Ministry of Finance, the informants suggested that the EU

now play a role like the Russians during the Cold War - as a counterbalance to the US. The EU should play a stabilising role in the world and balance out the power structures. Partly it is doing so. But if the EU and the US join together on certain issues this alliance is so strong that they will for sure get their way. (Author interviews, Nairobi, 08/04/2008)

39A factor that was identified by many informants as preventing the EU from playing a more active global role was the lack of commitment to act collectively and make joint statements. This lack of commitment was also expressed in a political cartoon that appeared in Kenya’ largest daily, the Daily Nation, in February 2008. It captures popular sentiments of the EU’s role during the Kenyan crisis (see Figure 3) by showing different international actors attempting to solve the crisis. It is evident that neither the USA nor the former colonial power Britain, nor China are amongst those perceived as credible and legitimate to contribute towards a resolution of the crisis; only multilaterals such as the UN, the AU and the EU are shown. However, the EU, depicted as a major economic power by replacing the EU’s E with a € sign, is reluctant to take political action and engage with the mess caused by the crisis. Instead it stands in the back hesitant to act on the geopolitical credibility and legitimacy implied in positioning it there in the first place, waiting perhaps to contribute financially to a possible peace settlement at a later point whilst the AU representative is guiding others in first.

Figure 3: The EU’s role during the Kenyan crisis

Figure 3: The EU’s role during the Kenyan crisis

Source: Daily Nation, 02 February 2008

40More generally, as regards the EU’s relation with developing countries, a Delegation official in Nairobi called on the EU to be

a critical but honest partner and to develop a true partnership, not a paternalistic one. This is also where the EU can distinguish itself from the US which heavily instrumentalises development cooperation. There is a demand in the developing world for an alternative to the US, and the EU has an advantage in credibility and confidence in that respect. It is more critical than other donors, but honest and open. Other donors (also EU member states) don’t dare to mention certain things or communicate unpleasant messages as they are afraid of damaging bilateral relations. (Author interview, Nairobi, 05/12/2007)

41The historical relation between Europe and Africa was another aspect that has been frequently outlined during the interviews. A Kenyan economist from the Ministry of East African Community (MEAC) pointed out that “Europe has a long common history and special relationship with Africa, not like the US or China” (Author interview, Nairobi, 09/04/2008). In addition to, and in relation with, this ‘special relationship’, perceptions of the EU’s role as a model and reference point of regional integration in Africa are also widespread. A Kenyan development worker regarded the “EU is a great role model for regional integration in East Africa. We should look at the European model, adopt it, change it and apply here” (Author interview, Nairobi, 22/11/2007). An EAC official reflected that:

The EU is a model for regional integration and can build on the long relationship with the ACP countries. It is therefore much better positioned to understand the sensitivities of development countries and to appreciate efforts for regional integration as well as to understand the difficulties that come along with it.

Contrarily, an exclusion policy does not help anyone, because the stronger partner will have to deal with the weaker partner trying to rob him or getting a share of his wealth or coming to his area. The EU policy on refugees and migrants is an example of EU exclusion policy.

The EU should take a more leading global role, as it is better placed than the US to understand the problems of developing countries and appreciate their levels of regional integration. (Author interview, Arusha, 18/03/2008)

42Within such a ‘special relationship’ issues of globalization and the future nature of global trade, in particular of African countries in it features prominently. In this context a NGO coordinator in Nairobi argued that:

The question is not if we like globalization or not; it is a fact. The question is, how we manage it and how do we make it more humane? The EU plays a very important role in this process. Global problems require global decisions and global solutions (global warming, etc.). European countries grouped together under the roof of the EU can take on those global issues because then they constitute a powerful grouping of countries. (Author interview, Nairobi, 27/11/2007)

43As an EAC official pointed out, the inclusion of Eastern European countries into the EU is thereby often seen as a model for including developing countries into the world economy:

The EU has gone through a process of incorporating the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries. It therefore knows and understands the difficulties weaker countries encounter and it is a good position to assist them to be included in the world economy.

The EU’s goal in its assistance to the CEE countries has been their inclusion into Europe and into the world economy, the partnership was not one of dominance because it has been realised that a fair partnership is in the mutual interest. (Author interview, Arusha, 18/03/2008)

  • 6 For a background and discussions on the EU/ACP relations see Chapter III. For alternative views on (...)

44Adapting this to European relations with the ACP-countries, another EAC official argued that “the EU has been very supportive of the ACP-group in WTO negotiations. It is seen as a partner by ACP countries in that respect. The ACP can exercise some influence globally through the EU (Author interview, Arusha, 18/03/2008). These accounts are clearly debatable6. With respect to the EU-ACP relation, Hurt (2003: 161) contests that the EU has been very supportive of the ACP countries. The Cotonou agreement, he argues, “has significantly shifted the relationship further from one of co-operation to one of coercion”. Trade with ACP-countries is thus not determined by developmentally-oriented interests but “by the obligations of membership of the WTO” (Nixson, 2007: 323).

45Nevertheless, in light of the numerous regional integration efforts in sub-Saharan Africa, the EU’s role and model function is this respects needs to be emphasised. ‘The Europeans’ are widely regarded as the only reference point and the EU’s nature as an actor in the international system and the development community is clearly defined by its uniqueness as a supranational entity grouping together 27 countries. Not only internally, but also externally the inherently ‘European thing’, a Commission official in Brussels pointed out, is regional integration (Author interview, Brussels, 04/07/2008). The promotion of regional integration and the EU’s efforts to develop region-region level cooperation (Holden, 2009: 17-18) are thus major components of European external relations. An economist from the Kenyan Ministry for the East African Community, for instance, observed that “the EU as a regional grouping prefers to deal with other regional groupings“ (Author interview, Nairobi, 09/04/2008) and a Delegation official in Addis Ababa suggested that the EU should be preparing the international system for other regional actors, in particular African regional communities, that are likely to become actors on their own right in the international system (Author interview, Addis Ababa, 22/02/2008).

46Other senior officials the EAC and the AU largely echoed this assessment and pointed to the understanding of ‘the Europeans’ with respect to the problems and difficulties of a regional integration process as opposed to others actors, notably the US. An EAC official, for instance, pointed out that “the EU succeeded very well in its own regional integration and had to go through its own troubles in that respect. It therefore appreciates much more the efforts of regional integration the EAC is encountering. The US does not have that level of understanding“ (Author interview, Arusha, 18/03/2008). Similarly, one of his colleagues at the EAC asserted that especially on issues of regional integration

the EU is very different to the US because the EU understands the intricacies of sovereignty when dealing with regional integration, it understands the process and the difficulties when trying to reach a common consensus amongst the member states, it is like the EAC and has gone through the processes the EAC aims to go through. (Author interview, Arusha, 18/03/2008)

47For both the EAC and the AU, the EU is a key reference point and cooperation partner on issues of regional integration. An AU official in Addis Ababa emphasised that “the EU is the only actor which can serve as a model for regional integration. All of the AU aspirations are modelled on the EU“ (Author interview, Addis Ababa, 21/02/2008).

48Not all respondents, however, envisioned a specific role for the EU towards developing countries. During an interview in Nairobi a consultant in the development industry, for instance, made the point that:

The EU does not necessarily have to play a role in the developing enterprise. Its role should be restricted to coordinating and facilitating the activities of its member states, possibly with an advising function, but it should not play an implementing role. Also its global function should be to coordinate the member states so that they could act as a bloc in international institutions and negotiations. (Author interview, Nairobi, 04/12/2007)

49Perceptions about Europe’s collective role in the world vary considerably. However, my interviews indicate that the European model of regional integration, of cooperative and multilateral policy conduct, of overcoming internal warfare and restricting military force as a means for international politics has a substantial appeal. Yet as argued in the previous sections, Europe’s collective geopolitical role, in particular towards developing countries, is far from being wholeheartedly appreciated. Residuals of European imperialism, Europe’s trade policy and often ambivalent external representations as well as problems associated with the term ’Fortress Europe’ loom large in external perceptions of Europe and its role in the world.


50During an interview with an official from a Canadian development agency, the informant pointed out that Europe is sometimes blinded by its own success on how the EU developed. Despite this success, he continued, Europe has to recognise the limitations of the model, it does not necessarily work everywhere (Author interview, Nairobi, 18/11/2008).

51This ‘success’ has, of course, come under significant strain in light of the Eurocrisis. However, the informant’s statement is still worth reflecting in at least two respects. First, the informant mentions the ‘success’ of European integration. In particular in times of crisis and the highly problematic construction of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ binaries within the EU (see Bachmann and Belina, 2012), it is more important than ever to highlight the successful creation of peace on the European continent – a continent of centuries of warfare. The initial objective of European integration was precisely this creation of peace. Despite all the flaws in the European project, the process of European integration has been a guarantor of peace. Most Europeans nowadays take this peace for granted, however, for many people it still is a luxury to be admired. Second, it is equally important to recognise that ‘the model does not necessarily work everywhere’. The European integration process has been inherently contextual and embedded in European history. The circumstances that led/forced Europe to integration were/are very specific to the European context and thus directed the integration process in a way that is not necessarily replicable in other parts of the world. At a symposium on EU-Kenyan relation in Nairobi in March 2012, a Kenyan academic cautioned “not to try building a European Union in East Africa, but to build an East African Community”. The person advocated utilising the lesson from European integration, both positive and negative, without copying the process, but to develop a locally contextual process.

52Those two aspects mentioned by the Canadian informant roughly summarise the two strands of perceptions that emerged during the conduct of this research. The EU’s civilian orientation and its geopolitical role as a model for regional integration on the one hand and its role as dominant geoeconomic power with (perceived) neo-imperial practices in its relations with East Africa on the other. Fioramonti and Poletti (2008: 173) argue in this context that “in general, the ‘EU as opportunity’ is contrasted with the ‘EU as fortress’, a huge economic power characterised by a protectionist attitude. It is along this binary that the EU is often both criticised for (geo-economic) power projection and admired as a political idea .

53As regards Europe’s relations with developing countries, the problem of unidirectional and paternalising development policies has long been identified. Yet “EU aid policy”, as Patrick Holden (2009) terms it, often functions as a “global political instrument” in the exercise of EU structural power beyond the borders of the EU. As a result, perceptions of a neo-imperial Europe persist. The consultative and collaborative spirit that has become entrenched in the EU’s internal modi operandi needs to be extended to its relations with developing countries. A key starting point will be to engage critically and seriously with external perceptions and expectations. In this context, Hooper and Kramsch (2007: 527) criticise a Europe that ‘not only precludes recognition of the spatiotemporal complexities of empire, but masks Europe’s current complicity in the production of exploitative and oppressive relations within as well as beyond its newly minted frontiers’. Such perceptions of (neo-)imperial practices in Europe’s external relations, however, loom large amongst many of the EU’s cooperation partners in the Global South. The EU’s role as geoeconomic power is often regarded in a negative way and in the context of prior forms of European imperialism during the colonial period. For most contemporary Europeans, it is self-evident that Europe’s current role and ambitions in the world are different to those of the colonial period; for outsiders, in particular in the Global South, much less so.

54List of acronyms

  • ACP: Group of Africa, Caribbean and Pacific countries

  • AU: African Union

  • CIDA: Canadian International Development Agency

  • EAC: East African Community

  • EDF: European Development Fund

  • EEAS: European External Action Service

  • EPAs: Economic Partnership Agreements

  • EU: European Union

  • JICA: Japan International Cooperation Agency

  • UNEP: United Nations Development Programme

  • USAID United States Agency for International Development

  • WTO: World Trade Organisation

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1 Dominique Moïsi is a founder and senior advisor at the Ilfri (the French Institute for International Relations). He is currently a professor at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw and a frequent contributor to Project Syndicate and Foreign Affairs.

2 As part of a PhD-project based in, and completely funded by, the School of Geography at the University of Plymouth.

3 See also Bachmann

4 Delegation Official” refers to someone working for the Delegation of the European Commission to the Republic of Kenya, unless states otherwise.

5 The Kenya Human Rights Commission is a private NGO based in Nairobi

6 For a background and discussions on the EU/ACP relations see Chapter III. For alternative views on the EU’s East Enlargement see Baldwin et al. (1997), Henderson (1999), Agnew (2001), Moravcsik and Vachudova (2003), Grzymala-Busse and Innes (2003), Kuus (2004) and Schadler (2007).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1: Development cooperation as exclusive EU competence
Fichier image/png, 18k
Titre Table 2: Is the EC a structurally different actor in development?
Fichier image/png, 12k
Titre Table 3: Differences between EC delegations and other development actors
Fichier image/png, 50k
Titre Figure 1: Representing the Economic Partnership Agreement
Crédits Source: Daily Nation, 05 December 2008
Fichier image/png, 296k
Titre Figure 2: China replacing the ‘West’
Crédits Source: Daily Nation, 26 February 2008
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Titre Table 4: Aspects of the EU perceived as negative
Fichier image/png, 29k
Titre Table 5: Aspects of the EU perceived as positive
Fichier image/png, 36k
Titre Table 6: Geopolitical roles for the EU
Fichier image/png, 48k
Titre Figure 3: The EU’s role during the Kenyan crisis
Crédits Source: Daily Nation, 02 February 2008
Fichier image/png, 351k
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Veit Bachmann, « The EU as a Geopolitical and Development Actor: Views from East Africa »L’Espace Politique [En ligne], 19 | 2013-1, mis en ligne le 08 avril 2013, consulté le 01 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Veit Bachmann

Project Leader EuroGaps
Department of Human Geography
Goethe-University Frankfurt

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