Africa is an important partner
In recent years, African countries have increased their visibility in the eyes of the international community. This trend can be seen also in the priorities of the European Commission’s external relations and Finland’s foreign policy. In the fifth part of the “Sustainable Foreign Policy” series, Maria Kurikkala who leads the Africa Policy Team sheds light on the reasons underlying the current interest.
“When the world changes, the priorities of the EU and Finland must change, too. The importance of the African continent has grown over the past years. It is commercially more interesting and the first steps towards an internal market covering the whole of Africa have been taken through the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). The agreement has already entered into force, but the actual liberalisation of trade is still some way off as negotiations on tariff reductions still continue. When becoming reality, the internal market would be the largest in the world,” says Maria Kurikkala, leader of the Africa Policy Team in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
The international community's interest in Africa has grown at an increasing pace in recent years. In addition to focusing on political relations, China has for a long time invested in large infrastructure projects and in promoting its trade policy in Africa. Many other countries also seek to strengthen their relations with African countries. This is illustrated, for example, by the first Russia-Africa Summit that took place in October. It was organised in Sochi on the Black Sea coast where over forty African leaders took part in the Summit.
Emerging economies, i.e. Brazil, India and South Africa (BRICS), are growing their trade in Africa, and Turkey and the Gulf countries are also very active in Africa. Of course, many European Union countries and the United States are also interested in increasing economic relations with Africa.
“Over one billion people already live in 54 African countries, half of them under the age of 20. The size of the consumer middle class continues to grow. As to population growth estimates, forty per cent of the world's population will live in the African region by 2050. This will increase the importance of Africa, both in world politics and the world economy,” says Kurikkala.
The growing importance of Africa policy has been reflected in Finland's external relations, too. Finland has a total of 12 missions on the continent, most of which are located in North and East Africa. In addition to foreign policy and development cooperation, the missions work to promote exports and trade relations.
“There are 54 very different countries in Africa, so it is challenging to say anything general about Finland's relations with Africa. Development cooperation has traditionally been a priority in sub-Saharan Africa. The aim now is to expand in particular political and economic relations. For example, we are working actively to increase the trade of Finnish companies on the continent,” says Kurikkala.
The new Commission under recently elected President Ursula von der Leyen has outlined Africa as one of the key themes of the EU's partnership policy and external relations.
“Africa has been one of the key foreign policy priorities during Finland's EU Presidency. The aim has been to promote the diversification, deepening and equalisation of EU-Africa relations. Commissioner-designate Jutta Urpilainen will play an important role in this. I hope that the new Commission will have the will to bring about changes in EU-Africa relations,” Kurikkala summarises.
The African continent faces many challenges. Many countries are affected by conflicts and instability as well as poverty and underdevelopment. As a result of the climate change, long periods of drought and other extreme weather phenomena have increased significantly. Rapid population growth is another major challenge for the continent, as poverty will not decrease if population growth is faster than economic growth. All these problems are causing migration. While the majority of migration is within African countries there is also a large number of migrants wishing to reach Europe.
“Africa is a neighbour of Europe, so the development of the continent, whether positive or negative, is directly reflected in Europe. It is important that the EU is able to act in a comprehensive and united manner in its policy towards Africa. We should build closer cooperation with African countries to benefit from shared opportunities and to solve challenges,” Kurikkala points out.
Over the past few years, Maria Kurikkala has held the post of the Team Leader of the Africa Policy Team. Prior to that, she was posted to Finland’s Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels where she represented Finland in the EU Council Working Group on Africa. She has also worked as diplomatic adviser to the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development. According to Kurikkala, the importance of African expertise for Finland's foreign and security policy has been recognised in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs over the past few years.
“The Ministry for Foreign Affairs has accumulated strong expertise in matters related to Africa, whether they concern individual countries and regions or more horizontal issues. As a result, there is a good and strong foundation for advancing the current Government Programme’s Africa policy and for preparing Finland's new Africa strategy,” Kurikkala says.
“Finns are known in Africa, especially as pioneers in gender equality issues. In many countries, the Nordic social model also awakes interest. From an export perspective, Finland has expertise that is interesting to African countries, for example in education and the fight against climate change. We have the expertise to provide the growing market with circular economy solutions, waste management, clean water and forest-related technology,” Kurikkala sums up.
See Maria Kurikkala's video interview:
The “Sustainable Foreign Policy” video series discuss the priorities of Finland's foreign and security policy and the key themes of Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the EU. The parts that have been published can be viewed below:
In the first episode of this series of interviews, Satu Mattila-Budich explains her work as Ambassador for Hybrid Affairs and tells what Finland has done in its capacity of President of the Council of the European Union to bring hybrid threats to the agenda of EU meetings.
In the second part of the series, Ambassador Hanna Lehtinen, Finland's representative to the EU Political and Security Committee in Brussels, tells about the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy.
How is mediation reflected in the handling of Finland's external relations? We asked Minister for Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto for his thoughts in the third part of the series.
What does the near future hold for trade policy? We asked Pasi-Heikki Vaaranmaa, Director of the Trade Policy Unit at the Department for External Economic Relations at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, for his thoughts in this fourth part of the series.