Unpacking ‘Partnerships of Equals’: Africa-EU Minerals Cooperation in Times of Transitions

Climate & Natural resources18 Dec 2023Janne Luise Piper

Equitable and mutually beneficial international partnerships between the European Union (EU) and resource-rich African countries are crucial to accelerate a just energy transition, promote sustainable development, and fight the climate crisis. Yet, a real ‘win-win’ of the newly emerging partnerships, particularly in the realm of mineral trade, remains an empty promise. EU strategic priorities tend to cast a shadow over African needs, interests, and historical experiences.

Drawing from her MSc thesis research at the University of Amsterdam into the Africa-EU mineral cooperation project AfricaMaVal, Janne Luise Piper assesses what a mutually beneficial, equitable partnership must entail.

Strategic partnerships in the EU’s race for raw materials

The EU’s pursuit of a green transition and its renewable energy targets relies on large quantities of minerals, to be employed in the production of batteries, permanent magnets, solar panels, and other clean technologies. Increasing concerns are, however, being raised in EU circles due to the mineral’s geographical concentration. These are exacerbated by geopolitical issues such as Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s quasi-monopoly in mineral refining. In March 2023, the EU hence introduced the Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA), aiming to secure access to minerals for strategic sectors like renewable energy but also space and defence.

The CRMA focuses on domestic extraction, recycling, and partnerships with resource-rich third countries. Particularly in Africa, the EU has approached several countries in order to diversify European mineral supplies and form supposedly mutually beneficial mineral value chain partnerships, like in the case of Namibia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. Further partnerships are expected to follow. 

Beyond EU collective actions: a spotlight on national mineral policies
Besides joint European efforts, various individual member states have stepped up their strategic mineral policy to secure raw materials. For example, the Dutch government published a national raw materials strategy in late 2022 and, in a non-paper earlier this year, reemphasized the need for a particular focus on building international partnerships and fostering sustainable value chains and a just transition. 

But what exactly is the state of play in practice? Delving into this, the AfricaMaVal project, a €9 million initiative initiated by the EU in 2022 with 18 partners from 11 countries in Africa, offers valuable insights. The project has been launched around three main objectives: co-developing ‘win-win’ Africa-EU partnerships in the mineral sector, contributing to responsible sourcing of minerals for the European industry, and fostering investments along the mineral value chain. AfricaMaVal is expected to set the stage for future partnerships and is thus pivotal for understanding Africa-EU relations around minerals and in times of transitions.

Lessons from the AfricaMaVal project

To address structural injustices at the intersection of sustainability transitions and global cooperation, Janne Luise Piper has examined the AfricaMaVal project using mixed methods and drawing from energy justice frameworks and decolonial perspectives in International Relations scholarship. By integrating these approaches, the intention was to avoid falling into Eurocentric perspectives, to reflect on the role of history in today’s partnerships, and to spotlight often marginalized African voices.   

Why language matters: A decolonial perspective on ‘critical raw materials’ 
To exemplify why a focus on decolonial approaches is important, a close look at the term ‘critical raw material’ (CRM) is helpful. Even though the EU seems to use the CRM term as a universal category, there is no global consensus on which materials should be classified as critical, given that each country or region defines criticality differently according to its own reserves and economic needs. In many African countries, the respective materials are not seen as critical but rather as strategic. Attention to language use when applying a decolonial lens is key and it is recommended to refrain from the term ‘critical raw materials’ to not assume a specific geographic standpoint. One could instead rely on more neutral notions like (energy transition) minerals.

Building on this theoretical lens, the AfricaMaVal project structure indeed appears to be relatively inclusive as some of its work packages are led by African civil society organizations. Whether the EU will implement a similar governance structure in future partnerships remains, however, questionable. AfricaMaVal stakeholders also emphasize the EU’s strong dedication to integrating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards into the project. This is important considering the enormous environmental and social impact of mineral resource production, often including soil degradation, water pollution and the displacement of local communities. The fact that AfricaMaVal’s ESG work package is spearheaded by an African women-led NGO is a crucial step towards equitable partnerships that give a voice to local needs and knowledge.

However, both African and EU actors lack cohesion and transparency when communicating their interests within AfricaMaVal. The one common interest that all involved African actors, from governments to civil society organizations, emphasize is the desire to extract minerals and not leave them underground. Moreover, it is widely agreed by African stakeholders that maximizing value addition on the continent through processing, refining, and purifying raw materials into minerals is crucial: it would allow for job creation, increased revenues, and local economic development. While AfricaMaVal and EU policies acknowledge this priority, specific plans for constructing mineral refining facilities remain extremely vague. When asked why, EU officials refer to the EU’s interest in refining materials ‘at home’ in Europe and note the wide absence of value-addition infrastructure and skilled labour in Africa. This divergence in interests and lack of clear communication becomes particularly problematic when assessing the overall structure of Africa-EU trade flows: statistics reveal that while most EU imports from Africa are raw materials, most African imports from Europe are manufactured goods. This reflects what Jason Hickel has called unequal exchange, where the EU gains more from value addition than African countries. 

Another significant obstacle on the way towards equitable partnerships appears to be the EU’s tendency to downplay or even ignore the colonial past of Africa-EU relations and mineral trade. This oversight fails to address enduring structural injustices like the historically grown, colonial exploitation of African resources by European powers without adequate compensation to benefit the African people. It also risks perpetuating them within projects like AfricaMaVal by neglecting the identity-shaping experiences and trauma of Africans. This lack of recognition further obstructs future paths to equitable partnerships.

Recommendations for equitable partnerships for just sustainability transitions 

Examining the AfricaMaVal project shows that despite EU officials’ optimistic portrayal of the partnerships between African and EU actors as a ‘partnership of equals’, structural injustices continue to shape their cooperation. The project structure’s formal equality and the EU commitment to ESG standards may suggest a path to mutually beneficial partnerships. However, these aspects conceal a myriad of underlying colonial legacies deeply embedded in mineral trade flows between Africa and Europe to this day. Such unjust partnerships, in turn, hamper pathways to just transitions globally. 

A public debate on equitable partnerships regarding energy transition minerals is thus needed, framed within a broader discussion on the downsides of sustainability and climate transitions. Policymakers need to recognize adverse impacts and promote ways to mitigate them, particularly for those who were least involved in triggering climate change and the urgently needed transitions. Drawing from the study of the AfricaMaVal project, here are some suggested ways forward for policymakers and other key actors in the field:

  • Define and communicate clear strategic priorities: While the EU must transparently communicate their actual strategic goals in Africa-EU mineral partnerships, African leaders must articulate joint and clear strategic priorities that align with the interests of their citizens, especially regarding local value addition.
  • Incentivize local value addition in Africa: All involved actors from governments, businesses, and civil society need to work towards formalizing local value addition conditions in mineral partnership agreements. The EU must further incentivize European companies to invest in local value addition infrastructure in Africa.      
  • Support democracy and good governance in Africa:  The EU must offer more support for democracy and good governance in African states so that democratically elected African leaders can take ownership of developing their mineral resources in a way that benefits local communities.
  • Acknowledge African agency and the colonial history of mineral trade: To (re)gain trustworthiness while keeping up with the geopolitical race for minerals and influence taking place on the African continent, the EU must shed its paternalistic.
  • Redefine relations: African and European actors need to understand the current sustainability transitions and emerging partnerships as a unique window of opportunity to alter long-exploitative colonial relations between Africa and the EU and the Global North and South more broadly.
  • Reduce consumption and mineral demand in Europe: The EU must adopt regulations and innovations to reduce the overall demand for and consumption of minerals within the EU as energy transition mineral demand will outstrip known potential supply after 2030.

All in all, AfricaMaVal and the emerging partnerships signify a preliminary step towards just transitions. Nevertheless, endeavours to enhance mutual benefits and recognition in Africa-EU relations are essential to achieve globally just transitions that go beyond a Eurocentric understanding and leave no one behind. Hence, policy action not only in the Netherlands and the EU but globally is needed now to harness contemporary sustainability transitions as a window of opportunity to alter long-lasting structural injustices, promote just transitions tailored to local contexts, and ultimately tackle the climate crisis.

Photo by Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash