Africa presents Europe with economic opportunities and the EU needs to focus more attention on Africa.  That was the key message of Frederik Willem De Klerk, former South African president, during the 12th Europe Lecture on the 25th of October.

I attended this lecture at the Cloister Church in The Hague, the Netherlands. Together with about 400 invitees – including students, former and serving Dutch diplomats and business people. I, eager for a new perspective, paid close attention to De Klerk’s vision on the relationship between Africa and Europe.

Europeans sometimes forget their enormous impact on the rest of the world over the past five centuries, colonizing and conquering many areas, stressed De Klerk. Most assuredly, European imperialism deeply affected and changed Southern Africa. The British drew the boundaries of South Africa as arbitrarily as other European imperialists drew those for the rest of Africa in the 19th century. After about 75 years, the Europeans left and Africans developed a love-hate relationship with them. However, Europeans still provided much of Africa’s trade, investment and sometimes military intervention to shore up embattled regimes.

During this lecture, De Klerk made the strong statement that Europe should become more involved and economically competitive in Africa, as a balancing power between the USA and China. Many Africans feel they are on the periphery of Europe’s worldview. Despite Barroso’s plea for proactive and constructive trade engagements with strategic partners, trade negotiations between the two continents have slowed.  De Klerk believes it is a mistake that Africa does not have a significant place in Europe’s strategic planning.

Over  the next two years, according to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa will be one of the fastest growing economic regions in the world. The region is the largest area of under-developed real estate in the world, with enormous mineral resources and virtually untapped agricultural potential. Yet, De Klerk pointed out there is another important reason why Africa should be included in Europe’s strategic plan. Europe needs a prosperous Africa, because political and economic issues in Africa could result in an unstoppable torrent of African refugees. However, for Europe to become strong enough to play its proper role in the world, it needs to resolve its current challenges first. De Klerk warned that the single market is not functioning effectively, as it remains fragmented in terms of trade and financial integration. “Although you are concerned about us in Africa, these days we sometimes are also concerned about you” said de Klerk.

He compared the EU to a giant tanker ship with 28 captains on the bridge, “each of whom must agree to make changes in the tanker’s course to avoid the icebergs they can all see ahead of them.” One of these icebergs is Europe’s looming demographic crisis. This could be solved through mass immigration. However, that would create problems of its own and change Europe’s character. The world needs a Europe strengthened by the ideals that established the EU in the first place, emphasized De Klerk. European leaders have to restore confidence in the EU and convince Euro-sceptics to rejoin the project.

The EU lacks a clear and coherent strategy in its foreign policy, warned De Klerk. As a result the EU fails to take advantage of opportunities presented on the global stage, which is a loss for the EU and the wider world. The more political the issue becomes, the less cohesive the EU acts. Today Europe is one of the biggest investors in the Africa. With the right strategy, the opportunities are there for the taking. This would benefit Africa as well since investment would alleviate poverty. De Klerk acknowledged that corruption in Africa is a big obstacle for European companies, which need to comply with EU anti-corruption regulations.

De Klerk spoke with energy and had a clear, strong message. For the European entrepreneurs who heard De Klerk’s message, I do wonder; will they decide to invest in risky opportunities, or will they play it safe and stick to comparable opportunities in stable regions?

Whatever happens, he concluded, events in Europe will continue to influence the future of Africa. And what happens in Africa will significantly impact Europe. Africa needs Europe and Europe needs Africa.