The following report is based on a more detailed version written by Dominic Ellwardt and Martina Neuwirth (VIDC).

Photo of all panelists
S. Straubinger, M. Ncube, K. Küblböck, S. Hargreaves, S. Vessel, © K. Pernegger

The panel:

  • Welcome: Sybille Straubinger, Director of the Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Cooperation (VIDC)
  • Mkhululi Nkosilamandla Ncube: Program Management Officer, African Minerals Development Centre of the African Union, Addis Abeba
  • Samantha Hargreaves: Founder and director of WoMin, Johannesburg
  • Karin Küblböck: Economist and senior researcher, Austrian Foundation for Development Research (ÖFSE), Vienna
  • Moderation: Sophie Vessel, Policy Officer, Global Responsibility

The panel discussion addressed the renewed interest of the European Union (EU) in the African continent as a supplier of so-called “critical raw materials” such as lithium or cobalt. They are used in technologies that are needed for a green economic transition, like solar panels, wind turbines or electric cars. CO2-emitting cars will no longer be permitted in the EU starting from 2035.

The Africa Mining Vision: Minerals in exchange for development

Mkhululi Ncube, © K. Pernegger

Asked about the role of critical raw materials for the economic development of African countries and the possibilities of European development actors to play a supportive role, Mkhululi Ncube referred to the Africa Mining Vision, a non-binding roadmap for mineral extraction for the states of the African Union. This Vision could be understood as an “Industrialization Framework”, proposing to integrate mining better into infrastructure and industrial development. Mr. Ncube reminded the audience of the historical context and stated that the EU’s current policies on critical raw materials show the intent of renewing colonial cycles of exploitation of Africa’s mineral resources. He stressed that African countries and communities want to build up their own battery processing and recycling capabilities, which shows for example a current Zambian-DR Congo initiative. These complex industries do not yet exist, and their build-up should be supported with concrete EU policies, instead of waiting for the green minerals to be exported unprocessed to Europe.

African perspectives on economic cooperation with the EU

Samantha Hargreaves, © Karo Pernegger

Samantha Hargreaves stressed that long after colonialism had formally ended, economic inequality prevails due to unequal terms of trade with Europe. Real sovereignty remains a distant dream for African states. Administrations of postcolonial African countries were and are pressured into unfavourable political and economic cooperation with the West. In cases such as Zimbabwe, debt was incurred for infrastructure projects that by and large mainly benefitted European interests. The debts were used to coerce the country into opening up its markets as well as privatizing its public assets and limiting cooperation with other African countries. Ms. Hargreaves called to overcome this, as otherwise true independence is not possible. She pleaded for Pan-African solutions to withstand external pressures, to be built bottom-up, between people and movements.

According to Ms. Hargreaves, local structures and practices, like customary tenure systems, should be considered. Land titles are often lacking, involuntary displacement of people caused by extractive projects happen regularly – without compensation. Ms. Hargreaves advocated for dialogues on the basis of free, prior and informed consent and for ensuring that promises made are fulfilled.

The European Critical Raw Materials Act: A continuation of extractivist approaches?

M. Ncube, K. Küblböck, © Karo Pernegger

Karin Küblböck explained thatafter China’s demand for raw materials grew in the 2000s, the EU began to formulate its own strategy in 2008 to gain “undistorted access” to these resources. Since then, raw materials have become crucial for the green transition as well as for digitalisation and military purposes. The European Critical Raw Materials Act (currently under negotiation) shall ensure access to 34 so called critical raw materials which are important for EU industries and are challenging to obtain. With this Act, the EU wants to become more independent, for example by diversifying imports and by bringing back industrial production to the EU. Ms. Küblböck feared that the EU’s path may lead to minerals extracted and shipped to Europe, without adding value to local (African) economies. This would ignore the urgent necessity to decrease European energy consumption as well as the fact that 600 million Africans do not have access to energy. She criticized that the EU does not enter into a dialogue on equal terms with those affected, the African Union, its member states and local communities.

Just as her co-panelists, Ms. Küblböck recognized a continuation of colonialism and a lack of policy space of African countries. Due to bilateral trade and investments treaties, multinational companies are able to sue countries for different policy measures, even climate policies. These companies often have far more financial resources than countries. She stressed that European and North American countries now introduce more protective measures to build up their industries again, African countries are prohibited to do so, and as a result they remain in perpetual dependency.

Sophie Vessel, © K. Pernegger

In the following discussion such contradictions were taken up by the audience, when a guest asked why there is no common mineral platform, like there is OPEC for oil. Mr. Ncube conceived this to be unrealistic for Africa at the moment but pointed at an initiative of “the willing” to develop an African Green Minerals Strategy. In relation to China, Mr. Ncube stated frankly, that the relation between Africa and Europe is seen as being the one “of a horse and a rider” while Africa and China are seen as “comrades” in a joint fight. Ms. Hargreaves underlined that reaching African unity is difficult as long as African countries have to compete against each other for foreign investments. Finally, she called out for a critical alignment of diverse civil society movements in Europe and Africa, to work on and call for solutions which benefit people in Europe as well as in Africa and other parts of the world.

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Video of the event