De avonturen van professor Soete  

April 2009: Obama in Europe, me in Africa

When Obama was elected last November, I made what appeared then a not too bold prediction. I stated here (November 11th, 2008 in one of my Dutch opinion pieces “Change” in Dagblad De Limburger) that the new US president would visit as first foreign country – just to make the point about change also in foreign policy – Africa. Not the usual set of friendly NATO allied countries but the continent with the most dramatic unfilled growth and development promises. The continent craving so to say for change: for jobs, for international recognition, for investment. If anything Obama’s slogan yes, we can seemed written for Africa...

But I was wrong. Obama came on his first foreign visit – I’m leaving out his one day trip to Canada which falls under the category of cross-border neigbour visits – to Europe, just like all other US presidents before him… Very quickly though during the couple of days Obama staid in the UK, France, Germany, Czeckia and Turkey – for me Turkey is indeed part of Europe – it became clear that lack of change is also and in particular a European predicament. That the vision of yes, we can hadn’t been put by any European politician in the clear, outspoken and consistent way Obama did, since the days of Delors. Nearly every single one of Obama’s speeches touched on topics which have since long been removed from the European policy agenda by fear of the national opposition of some EU member states or being in danger of undermining past political compromises. In the one short week of Obama’s visit, the European citizen became confronted in a particularly pregnant way with the political gap between the change a charismatic leader of the leading superpower could bring about and the inextricable slowness and complexities of the Europe project with at every stage some member state fighting over own powers and responsabilities. A European project which has moved over the last decade from progress along the lines of a “procession of Echternach” – the famous procession in the Luxembourg village of Echternach whereby processgoers move two steps foreward and one step backward – towards a reverse process of Echternach: one step forward and two steps backwards. No constitution, no ratified Treaty of Lisbon, no majority vote, no sizeable EU budget with its ridiculous 1% budget of national income, etc, etc. I can only presume about what Obama must have thought when he was briefed about the various different problems the European leaders he would meet during this trip migth be discussing with him – as my foreign friends after a pleasant dinner night would beg me, please no more discussion on Belgium’s institutional problesm.

Anyhow, if I had been Obama, I would have given some early European election advice… “Hi Nicolas, listen rather than your slogan yes, I can which I admit inspired me a hell of a lot, did you ever think of yes Europe, we can? But Sarkozy is of course the archetype of the European leader: he does not like to be thought communication lessons by non-Europeans. After all “le changement” in France, and in Europe for that matter after the French EU presidency, is and was Sarkozy! So, why Obama would become suddenly so popular in Europe with a simplistic appeal for change, will always remain something difficult to understand for the French president. And now after having met Michelle, and discovered that she is even taller than Carla, Sarkozy got, rumour has it, even more jealous of Obama…

Unfortunately change in Europe because of the strong political desire to maintain national influence and power, is likely to occur only under strong external pressure. In this sense, the Obama pressure with his strong plea for membership of the EU for Turkey was probably even too mild. Without Turkey it is actually difficult to see how Europe will survive its aging crisis, attract sufficient talent and achieve dynamism and productivity gains to address future challenges.

By chance, I was myself the week Obama visited Europe, in Africa. In Senegal to be precise. I met quite a number of youngsters walking around wearing not pictures of Nicolas or Carla’s but of Obama’s face and the change slogan on their t-shirt (see pictures below). Dakar just like many other African cities is awaiting with much excitement a visit of Obama. Students and teachers would love to hear him talk and compare his speech with the one Sarkozy gave here two years ago (July 26th, 2007) on the university campus at the start of his French presidency. A speech which provoked understandably a lot of controversion. As Achille Mbembe noticed in a long and detailed newspaper comment:

“In all his "candour" and his "sincerity", Nicolas Sarkozy openly revealed what, until now, went unspoken: that is that, both in terms of form and content, the intellectual framework underlying France's policy to Africa literally dates back to the end of the 19th century.... To address "the elite of African youth" Henri Guaino [Sarkozy’s speech writer LS] contented himself to lifting, almost word for word, passages from the chapter Hegel devotes to Africa in his work Reason in History... According to Hegel, Africa is a land of unchanging substance and dazzling disorder, the joyful and tragic country in Creation. Black people, as we see them today, are as they have always been. In the immense energy of the natural arbitrariness that dominates them, neither the moral moment, nor ideas of freedom, justice and progress have any place or particular status. Whoever wants to discover the most appalling manifestations of human nature can find them in Africa. Strictly speaking, this part of the world has no history. What we understand, in short, going by the name of Africa, is an ahistoric, undeveloped world, entirely prisoner of its natural spirit and whose place remains on the threshold of universal history. The new French elites do not believe anything different. They share this Hegelian prejudice. Unlike the generation of the "Papa-Commanders" (de Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard d'Estaing, Mitterrand, or Chirac), who tacitly espoused the same prejudice whilst avoiding openly offending their interlocutors, France's "new elites" now consider that one can only address societies so deeply plunged into the night of childhood by speaking unguardedly, with a sort of virgin energy. And that is indeed what they have in mind when they now openly defend the idea of a nation no longer "hung-up" about its colonial past. In their eyes, it is only possible to speak of Africa and to Africans by following the path of sense and reason in reverse. It doesn't matter if this is done so in a context in which each word spoken is so in a blanket of ignorance. It suffices to pile on the words, to employ a kind of verbal plethora, to advance in a suffocating wealth of images - all the things that give Nicolas Sarkozy's Dakar speech its abrupt, faltering, and blunt character.”  (http://www.africultures.com/index.asp?menu=revue_affiche_article&no=6816&lan)

If I could advise Obama, I would propose to give his speech on the small island of Gorée in the bay of Dakar, which was for some 350 years the most Western located slave trade island from where African slaves were being transported to North-America, the Carribean and Brazil. Today a UNESCO protected heritage island which was over the last Centuries in the possession of Portuguese, Dutch and French colonial powers. Africa is craving for change. Poverty is all pervasive, just like the pockets of extreme richness, but strangely enough, it seems as if change is likely to come about much more rapidly than in Europe. For one therae are of course the dramatic population pressures. The average age here in Senegal is 20, the population pressure on a city like Dakar with some 250,000 new inhabitants every year agglomerating towards the city are hugh; the pressures on housing, roads, transport systems, electricity provision, water access, sanitation enormous. Both public and private infrastructure impossible to maintain. The call for investment is all pervasive: the mirror picture of my home Limburg and Maastricht environment with its ageing population and declining population. With newly built housing suburbs desperate for inhabitants, universities in search of students and football teams in search of supporters.

After all, Obama was right... In Africa one is since long convinced about Obama’s change slogan, better first start to convey the message in Europe in danger of being coming a relic of the past, incapable of adjusting to the new global challenges and procrastinating in its internal, self-made institutional problems.

Luc Soete

April 12th, 2009

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