Finland and the European Union are defining their relationship with Africa this year. The official rhetoric emphasises a balanced partnership between the two continents but hopes for access to growing markets and worries about climate change and stability are at work in the background. Without democracy, the partnership cannot be sustainable and based on trust.

The EU’s Strategy with Africa, directed by European Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen, was published early March. Next the member states and European Parliament will discuss it. Finland’s own Africa Strategy is expected to be ready later this year.

In recent years, promises of promoting European values and interests have accompanied the big overhauls in the EU development policy – such as the European Consensus on Development and the future development financing instrument. Values here mean the fundamental EU values like human rights, democracy, rule of law, and equality. Interests meanwhile refer to opening up trade and investment opportunities and managing migration. It is important to note that the values and interests are not in a symmetrical relationship with each other. On one hand, supporting EU’s fundamental values creates conditions for more stable societies and sustainable economy. On the other hand, strengthening economic ties with authoritarian states does not promote human rights nor democracy. It is thus going to be interesting to see the hierarchy that values and interests take in Finland and EU’s relationships with Africa. In the best-case scenario, values and interests will be balanced. Regrettably often, however, values are sacrificed for interests.

EU’s new strategy with Africa is built on five partnerships: green transition and energy, digital transformation, sustainable growth and jobs, peace and governance, and finally migration and mobility. The strategy’s introduction states that values need to be given more prominence in EU-Africa relations, which is great! The strategy indeed makes the need for democracy in Africa clear. Especially noteworthy is the way it sees democracy as something bigger than just election observation, particularly since the most visible part of EU’s democracy support is election observation missions.

More concrete mentions in the strategy go to, among others, strengthening the accountability and transparency of public institutions, supporting independent and impartial justice system, and countering corruption, human trafficking and transnational crime. The partnership for digital transformation, in which EU commits to addressing disinformation and women’s and other marginalised groups’ participation in addition to strengthening transparency in governance, is another part in which the commitment for supporting democracy is well-shown.

Finland has also started work to create a strategy with Africa. Prime Minister Marin’s government programme has set a goal for Finland to draw up a comprehensive strategy with Africa based on Agenda 2030 and thus ensure policy coherence in Finland’s Africa policies. A telling sign of rising Finnish interest towards the continent is that a similar strategy has never before been drafted. Currently, Finland has 12 diplomatic missions to Africa, mostly in Northern and Eastern Africa. In addition to doing development cooperation, Finland wishes to strengthen its commercial and political ties with Africa.

Finland’s increased interest towards Africa is welcome. How the new strategy will affect Finland’s foreign, security, and development policies remains to be seen. Finland is currently also renewing its bilateral country programmes with the partner countries. Consultations with the stakeholders of country programmes have already been started and the programmes may well be ready before the Africa strategy. So, what role remains for the strategy with Africa if the concrete policy decisions are made before it is ready?

A more critical question is, of course, what does Finland want to promote with the strategy and what does Finland want its profile in Africa to be like. Do we want to put values or interests first, or do they go hand in hand? Traditionally, the EU has wanted to be identified as a value-based economic superpower. Its influence in this realm has been weakened by, firstly, China and other “new” actors increasing their influence in Africa and, secondly, the internal cracks within the Union eating away its credibility with Hungary and Poland openly challenging the principle of rule of law. Finland does not have this problem and it could indeed claim the role of a credible defender of democracy.

Constant efforts for strengthening democracy are needed in Africa, just like elsewhere. The efforts include everything mentioned above but also open and active civil society, representative decision-making and political parties that are committed to it. Finland and EU’s strategies need to acknowledge the important role political parties have in a society. When political parties strengthen their role as representatives of citizens and engage in multi-party cooperation for the common good, better governance and sustainable development are in good hands. Political parties are key actors in determining the way development takes in their country. Without well-functioning and responsible political parties there cannot be a functioning democracy.

Even if democracy in Africa is still lagging behind other continents and one fifth of the country can still be labelled undemocratic, encouraging steps towards democracy have been taken for example in Ethiopia and Gambia. China’s investments and model for society is not the only interesting option for Africans. Last year’s popular movements in Algeria and Sudan are further proof of the constant demand for democracy.

A democratic Africa would be the most natural partner for Europe, and it should be taken into consideration in Finland and EU’s new strategies. Democracy is also the way for Africans themselves to determine a direction and focus points for their continent’s development. Promoting values must clear the way for realisation of interests in the strategies of Finland and EU. Finland needs to take the role of a strong democracy supporter in Africa and act as a credible EU spokesperson for democracy.

EU and Finland’s Africa policies need to take into account that:

  • Democracies are found to have a higher life expectancy and a stronger correlation with sustainable economic growth than other forms of governance. Thus, democracy promotes Finland and EU’s other goals in Africa and must be among the main themes in the strategies.
  • Democracy support must be a precondition for wider cooperation between EU and African countries. Finland and EU should not support non-democratic governments without an active input for democracy building in the country. This means that values should be tied to interest promotion.
  • Comprehensive democracy needs to include support for public institutions, judicial systems, parliaments, political parties, and civil society.
  • Political commitment to promoting democracy must be visible in Finland and EU’s funding for democracy support. Both have long been committed to democracy promotion, but this has not yet been emphasized in the funding of development cooperation.

Jussi Kanner
The author works as Demo Finland’s Democracy Support and Dialogue Adviser.