Spain’s ‘focus Africa’ project is mainly about internal politics

Spain’s ‘focus Africa’ project is mainly about internal politics after Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez traveled to Angola and Senegal with hopes to do business there.


Spain’s ‘focus Africa’ project is mainly about internal politics

In early April, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez traveled to Angola and Senegal, accompanied by representatives of 12 Spanish companies he hopes will do business there. The visit followed the launch in late March of his ambitious Focus Africa 2023 project, which aims to increase Spain’s commercial presence and investment throughout the continent, as well as to improve economic opportunities and infrastructure in several sub-Saharan nations.

Closer to home, in terms of Sanchez’s political agenda, the project seeks to address the root causes of migration, with the hope that, in time, these improved circumstances will reduce the levels of undocumented arrivals in Spain from Africa, while making Madrid a “key strategic partner on the continent.” Sanchez has said that he wants the 2020s to be “Spain’s decade in Africa.”

The Socialist leader launched his initiative against the backdrop of a dramatic increase in migrant arrivals to Spain’s Canary Islands, which has made the paradisiacal archipelago situated 60 miles off the Moroccan coast the focal point of Europe’s migration crisis. In January, the Spanish Interior Ministry revealed that just over 23,000 migrants had arrived in the Canary Islands by boat in 2020, an eightfold increase compared to 2019. So far this year, another 4,300 have landed there, more than double the amount during the same period in 2020.

Traffickers have reactivated the lethal Atlantic crossing, known as the Canary route, in response to pandemic-related border closures as well as heightened interdiction efforts in the Strait of Gibraltar—the narrowest passage between Europe and Africa—and the sea route from Libya to Italy and Greece. Among the Canary route’s most recent victims were 17 migrants found dead on a boat floating 265 miles southeast of the island of El Hierro on April 26—a death toll that rose to 24 two days later, when the boat was towed into Tenerife—as well as a toddler rescued in late March from a vessel that had set sail from the Moroccan city of Dakhla, who died in the hospital several days later. Sanchez said on Twitter that the 2-year-old’s death should be a “wake-up call for everyone’s conscience.”

Until 2020, sub-Saharan Africa was home to several of the world’s fastest-growing economies, but it was hard-hit by the pandemic’s economic impact. The International Monetary Fund predicts that it will be the region of the world with the slowest-expanding economy in 2021, principally because it lacks the resources to repair last year’s pandemic-induced damage by itself. Throughout 2020, per capita income across the region dropped to 2013 levels, which contributed to 32 million more people living in extreme poverty, also according to the IMF.

If Sanchez is acting with urgency, however, it is also because time is in short supply for his minority coalition government. Now almost 18 months into a four-year term, his chances of winning the next general election in 2023 are far from certain. In addition to being dogged by infighting, his government is also 21 seats short of a parliamentary majority. That has made it virtually impossible to pass legislation since he took office in late 2019, including lockdown measures during the pandemic, which were enacted by royal decree.

The timing of Focus Africa, coming just before key local elections in Madrid, might be at least as important as its contents.

Yet the investments he envisions Spain will make to improving sub-Saharan infrastructure, as outlined in Focus Africa, will only start to yield returns in the medium term, and will perhaps take even longer to effect change. They will also require parliamentary support and the collaboration of Spain’s private sector, which has cited corruption and political instability in the region as barriers to investment. In other words, Sanchez must clear some formidable hurdles to have a couple of successful years in Africa, let alone a successful decade.

The 84-page document calls for increasing Spanish businesses’ presence and investment in sub-Saharan Africa, enhancing the region’s water and sanitation facilities, and promoting gender equality, while also promising to “improve the capacities of the countries of origin and destination for border control and migration management.” But the text remains vague on details, frequently repeating the terms “develop” and “promote” without explaining how the government intends to achieve either.

Sanchez’s political opponents, as well as local authorities on the front lines in the Canary Islands, say that he should first focus on improving Spain’s own capacities for border control and migration management. They point to the lack of sufficient resources to cope with the greater influx from African nations, including 7 percent more women and 4 percent more children arriving on the islands in the first three months of this year compared to the same period in 2020. There are now 2,658 unaccompanied minors under state care in the Canaries, compared to 2,006 last October.

The resort town of Arguineguin, on Gran Canaria island’s Morocco-facing southern coast, is the disembarkation point for many who survive the Atlantic crossing. Last November, a month in which more than 8,000 arrived on boats in the Canaries, Spain’s central government evicted 225 migrants from a makeshift camp on the town’s dock, leaving them out on the streets until local authorities arranged buses to take them to Las Palmas, the island’s capital. Furious at the central government’s mismanagement, the president of Gran Canaria’s parliament, Antonio Morales, accused the Interior Ministry of “continued contempt for migrants and this island.” By November, the number of migrants held in Arguineguin’s shelters had grown to just under 2,700, surpassing the town’s population by almost 400 people and prompting a judge to describe their living conditions as “deplorable.”

Focus Africa, for all its lofty ideals, has nothing concrete or constructive to say about this situation. It’s a plan concentrated on reforming sub-Saharan Africa in the medium- to long-term, notably deficient in proposals that would improve migrants’ opportunities and conditions once they have landed in Spain. Though perhaps ideologically appealing, its practical flaw is that the changes it proposes to tackle the root causes of migration would take years, if not decades, to materialize. In the meantime, it gives insufficient attention to addressing the ongoing influx of migrants to Spain as well as the challenges presented by those who have already arrived over the past 12 months.

This suggests that the timing of Focus Africa might be at least as important as its contents. Even if the plan fails due to lack of follow-through, it’s unveiling earlier this month defined the Socialists’ stance on migration ahead of Madrid’s key local elections this week. In addition to the conservative Popular Party, which is currently in charge of the Spanish capital, the Socialists will be facing off against Vox, the vehemently nationalist party whose ascent to the national parliament in the 2019 elections was mainly fueled by its supporters’ anger at migration levels—an anger that the party has not hesitated to inflame.

Referencing the far-reaching, if vague, commitments of Focus Africa, Sanchez can now claim that he’s tackling the root causes of migration, rather than resorting to incitement of hatred and mistrust. The manifesto, even if it proves to be nothing more than lofty but impractical ideas, distinguishes his party from the Spanish right on a key issue ahead of a crucial election. If it can also distract attention, even momentarily, from his government’s mishandling of the crisis in the Canaries, it might give the Socialists a shot at winning Madrid. And that, perhaps, was its short-term aim all along.

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