The travel restrictions imposed by the European Union on people traveling from southern Africa after the discovery of the Omicron variant, will potentially have a long-term impact on the EU-AU relations.
Shortly after the Omicron variant of Covid-19 was sequenced by a team of scientists in Botswana and South Africa last November, South Africa reported the discovery to the World Health Organisation (WHO). States around the world reacted immediately. Soon after the UK and Israel set in place travel restrictions for people entering from southern Africa, the EU Commission also recommended travel bans, while certain European states responded with a temporary suspension of all air traffic from South Africa and its neighbours.
Although the travel restrictions were removed in mid-January, the events of November have the potential to sour relations between the EU and the AU for a long time. There is still enormous disappointment across the entire continent of Africa at the knee-jerk decisions made unilaterally by the European Union. Concrete cooperation – including preparations for the imminent EU-AU summit – has suffered. The strong reaction of African states points to deeper fundamental problems in the European-African relationship.
Estrangement since the pandemic
At the end of 2020, the EU set out to rebuild its partnership with the African continent on a new footing. The newly elected Commission set out to be a “geopolitical Commission” with a stronger foreign-policy footprint. In March 2020, the European Commission presented its draft new EU-Africa Strategy, placing a different emphasis in the cooperation between the continents. The Commission’s first visits to Ethiopia would make it clear that the EU was taking the new partnership very seriously. The new strategy was to be discussed between the partners at the EU-AU summit scheduled to be held in Brussels in autumn 2020. Because of the pandemic, not only was the summit repeatedly postponed, only taking place in February of this year, but the priorities changed. When the first case of coronavirus to hit Africa was reported – in South Africa on 5 March 2020 – the European nations were already in the midst of their own pandemic response. Support came little, at least to begin with, and late. The restrictions placed by the Commission on exports of medical equipment sent a very strong message to other regions of the world, not least its European partners: “Europe first”.
In April 2020, the Commission and its member states, working with the European investment bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, created the initiative “Team Europe“ to coordinate European support in tackling the pandemic. Since then, “Team Europe” has launched a series of measures to support the African continent. These include a partnership with the Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC), humanitarian and socio-economic support, financial support for the acquisition of vaccines and for the global Covax distribution mechanism as well as support for vaccination campaigns in African states. In May 2021, moreover, the initiative pledged funding to develop regional production centres, to support local vaccine production.
None of the arrangements put into place under the initiative thus far, however, have involved any technological transfer. For instance, the Biovac Institute in Cape Town, South Africa, began collaboration with BioNTech and Pfizer to manufacture vaccines in South Africa. Under the arrangement, Biovac obtained substances from BioNtech’s factories in Germany. However, the deal does not involve sharing production techniques. It is nonetheless an important step towards bolstering the production of vaccines on the African continent. The lack of support from the European Commission to the proposal made by India and South Africa for a temporary waiver of patents for vaccines in the framework of the WTO has led to tensions ahead of the EU-AU summit. In June 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in support of the move, but several powerful EU member states – including Germany – have failed to come on board. The fact that the US announced in May 2021 that it supported the Indian/South African proposal at least in certain aspects may have stepped up the pressure on the EU, but negotiations on the matter have since then foundered.
A one-sided partnership
The EU’s travel restrictions concerned only some African states, even though it was not clear at the time where Omicron had originated. Just days after the decision was announced, it emerged that the virus was already present in other countries of the world even before it was identified in southern Africa. This fuelled the frustration at the unbalanced collaboration between Europe and Africa on the African continent. The impression that the EU is principally concerned with itself intensified. The weekly newspaper “The Continent”, which has been an important mouthpiece for African voices since it first appeared in April 2020, summed up the mood: “Omicron variant: The West finds yet another reason to keep Africans out”.
What can be taken away from this is that the restrictive European migration policy of recent years has left its mark and soured relations between the continents for many years to come. It is true that certain African governments have benefited financially and politically from bilateral migration partnerships. On the continent of Africa, the turning back of migrants on Europe’s external borders has, however, sent out a clear signal that Africans are not wanted in the EU. Additionally, many people have no legal migration channels open to them and negotiations between the AU and the EU have made little headway in this matter. The Omicron travel restrictions are therefore just one more element in a wave of decisions the African partners have taken as an affront.
All of this supports the impression that the EU’s much vaunted partnership of equals is just empty words and that this collaboration is possible only in a framework that continues to be shaped by the EU, with very little input from the African side. It is precisely this attitude that was criticised by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa when South Africa was hit by travel restrictions: he described the decision to institute them as one-sided and said that it had been made without any real exchange with the South African government. It was presented to South Africa as a fait accompli, without any right to reply or possibility to work with the EU to seek solutions and put forward its side of the story.
The South African government, which set an example in collaboration between nations to tackle the pandemic by alerting the global community to the existence of Omicron at the earliest opportunity, has suffered the socio-economic consequences of the travel restrictions. South Africa is one of the countries that has been the hardest hit by the pandemic of any in the world. After the first case of coronavirus was announced, the South African government decreed one of the world’s most stringent lockdowns. This external shock came as a major blow to an economy that was already struggling, having been in crisis even before the pandemic hit. An already high unemployment rate rose by almost 5% – from 29.1% in the fourth quarter of 2019 to 34.4% in the fourth quarter of 2021. People working in the informal sector and those working under precarious conditions were left reeling from the lockdowns, as they had no savings to fall back on to tide them through the temporary loss of income.
By October 2021, many people were vesting their hopes in the end of the country’s third wave. The imminent tourist season in the South African summer would boost the economy and bring money back to the country. But not long after the travel restrictions were set in place, many travellers cancelled their bookings: according to the South African economic review Business Insider, the South African tourism and hospitality sector lost around R1 billion – approximately 57 million euros – in the 48 hours following the travel restriction announcement. In December 2021, flight bookings were down 85% on the previous month, even though December is one of the peak months for the sector.
But other sectors – such as the film industry, which is extremely important to South Africa – have also had to deal with massive losses. Additionally, it should be borne in mind that there are other countries of southern Africa – such as Namibia, Mozambique and Botswana – that derive a considerable share of their gross domestic product from tourism and were therefore also hit hard by the economic fallout. This explains why South Africa felt that it had been penalised for the warning about the new variant and why its neighbours in southern Africa, as well as elsewhere on the continent, were so voluble in their opposition to the EU decision. As the travel restrictions were removed in January, economic recovery is now likely in the coming months, but growth forecasts are now looking worse than had been hoped for in October.
Lessons for the EU
The end of the travel restrictions in January opens up the opportunity for the tourism sector and other sectors of the economy in the affected countries to stabilise in the first quarter of 2022, helping to absorb the economic losses in the medium term. Given the very tough socio-economic conditions in South Africa and its neighbouring countries, however, it will not be enough simply to rely on the recovery of the markets. By offering the southern African states specific support, the EU could send out a very different signal in the coming weeks and months: that the early warning was greatly appreciated and will not go unrewarded. This would be a significant indicator not only of cooperation with the African countries as partners, but also of incentives to the global fight against the pandemic.
In general, however, the EU and its member states should learn other lessons – firstly with regard to the global efforts to tackle the pandemic, but also in terms of the simmering tensions between the continents. If other new variants emerge, which cannot be ruled out, there should be critical reflections on the usefulness of travel restrictions. Even the WHO has questioned the value of travel bans in a statement of January 2022, arguing that they are ineffective and result in serious economic and social consequences. According to a study by the London School of Economics (LSE), experts from many regions of the world share the view that if anything, travel restrictions may hamper the fight against the pandemic, as states may be disinclined to share their findings at an early stage.
The Covid pandemic has exacerbated social inequality throughout the world. It has compounded socio-economic differences between countries, but in particular, it has increased the differences between continents. The unequal access to vaccines brings with it the enormous risk that these developments will continue. As part of the world is unvaccinated, there is the danger that these regions will continue to be isolated, not just because the consequences to the health of the population and related costs for healthcare are considerable, but also because lockdowns, with all their economic and social implications, remain an option. The Nigerian doctor and health expert Ayaode Alakija, the WHO Special Envoy for the Access to Covid-19 tools accelerator, described the situation as follows in the newspaper Nature at the end of January 2022: "History will judge us harshly if we fail to stop this virus in its tracks. This is a pandemic of inequity and injustice, and of the rich versus the poor. This is a pandemic of man’s inhumanity to man. If we do not share the tools to end this pandemic, we will continue in this endless cycle”.
The latest developments may allow discussions on patent waivers to take off again at the forthcoming EU-AU summit. Up to now, one of the central arguments against a temporary lifting of the patent provisions is that African countries lack the capacity to organise vaccine development and production independently. In early February, the South African company Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines announced that it had succeeded in copying the Moderna vaccine in a project backed by the WHO – without any help from Moderna, but with support from researchers from all over the world. This process is seen as an important step in vaccine development on the African continent, even though timely production would be neither possible nor risky due to the current legal situation. If the EU could be more open to the proposal by India and South Africa, this could have positive ripples for the European-African relationship. It could usher in a new phase in relations between the continents if the EU and its member states – including Germany – could see their way to a serious consideration of a temporary patent waiver.