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Invited politicisation? Exploring the roles of Civil Society Organisations in politicising EU-Western Africa relations from the outside-in

Today’s political reality of populist movements, geopolitical competition and disinformation has inspired an emerging scholarship on politicisation in EU external policy. Yet most of these recent contributions on EU external policy focus on politicisation processes within the EU. Comparatively, little research has been done on how actors based in and/or representing third countries contribute to politicising EU policy processes from the outside-in.

An exclusive focus on EU actors in studies on politicisation of EU external policies may unintentionally misrepresent third country actors as passive recipients of the EU’s policy whims rather than active shapers of these processes. Outside-in politicisation is understood as the process whereby the politicization of EU external policies in third countries influences (de-)politicisation dynamics in the EU. The pertinence of researching outside-in politicisation is underlined in recent scholarship questioning Eurocentric perspectives in European Studies and in post-development critiques of EU development policy.

Our recent article explores the empirical relevance of researching outside-in politicisation processes in European studies. We set out to increase our understanding of when and how third countries actors engage in these processes. We specifically explore the assumption that Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), i.e. stakeholders beyond the group of official actors, can play a key role in promoting outside-in politicisation, and contribute to better understanding the conditions under which they can do so. Our article focuses on the EU’s relationship with Western Africa for being its earliest external relationship and for its prominence on the EU’s political agenda in recent years. The EU’s engagement today mainly stems from its migration policy, as well as in relation to perceived trans-regional challenges such as terrorism in the Sahel region. Moreover, Western African states such as Nigeria constitute important emerging markets for EU exports.

In the field of development policy, CSOs face the challenge of reconciling their roles in influencing and monitoring policy with effective project implementation. As regards the first role, recent research assesses European CSOs’ various approaches to engaging in Brussels-based development policy discussions. The engagement of CSOs based in Europe and Africa in relation to EU-Western Africa relations more specifically remains underexplored, as are the ways in which they influence EU policy processes.

Against this backdrop, we looked into the following research question: to what extent and how have CSOs contributed to the politicisation of EU policies towards Western Africa? We analysed the involvement of CSOs in two specific cases: the negotiations of a European Partnership Agreement (EPA) between Western African states and the EU, and the EU´s Sahel engagement. Through our analysis of these two cases, we seek to inform future research on the outside-in politicisation of EU development policy and its nexuses.

Because the initial deadline of an expiring WTO waiver by the end of December 2007, the EPA negotiations between the EU and West-Africa can be separated into two distinct phases. CSOs played key intermediary roles during the first phase of negotiations (2003-2007) and contributed to the increasing politicised nature of the trade negotiations. Both European and Western African CSOs made important contributions to reframing the negotiations as part and parcel of the broader and historically motivated relations between the EU and Western Africa, in contrast to the EU negotiators who considered the EPAs as self-standing trade agreements.

In the case of the Sahel as major region of the EU´s external focus in the last years, CSOs had a much more limited role in shaping patterns of politicisation. Sahelian CSOs played a minor role and were not successful in persuading policy makers to be associated to the initiative. European CSOs in turn focused their engagement on human rights violations and migration standards, while only to a limited degree opposing the overall initiative.

Both case studies confirm the importance of authority transfer as a factor influencing CSOs’ possibilities for engaging in outside-in politicisation: while the transfer of policy competencies within the European Commission promoted polarisation and in turn facilitated CSO engagement in the EPA case, the opposite was shown in the Sahel case were imposing a European top-down structure effectively closed the space for CSOs to engage. In a similar manner, both cases also suggest the relevance of the domestic country context in the Western African states concerned as a factor influencing CSO involvement. In the Sahel case, Western African CSOs were constrained by control and repression exerted by the G5 Sahel public authorities. In contrast, the Western African CSO campaign against the EPA benefitted from an inclusive approach towards CSO engagement among decision-makers and little control and repression exerted by (key) countries.

These findings suggest that CSO engagement in outside-in politicisation can particularly be effective in case of prior polarisation among the official actors. In more crude terms, if official actors disagree about directions and outcomes in a given policy process, they may officially or unofficially invite CSOs to disagree with them. The critical stance towards the trade liberalisation in both Europe and Western Africa enabled CSO engagement in the EPA case, since the CSO campaigns and publications contributed to legitimising the dissenting official voices. In contrast, when there is consensus among official actors concerning a course of action, such as external intervention in the Sahel, CSOs may have limited room to engage. CSOs themselves may also refrain from engaging in politicisation in cases where they are ‘part of the solution’, in terms of being involved in implementing projects providing services in line with the overall policy aims concerned.

Further research could study CSO engagement in other cases and contexts, and that way help us to better understand when and how they contribute to politicising EU policies. This would enable us to learn about the conditions under which CSO involvement results in a change of EU preferences and/or approach. This could allow us to better understand when CSOs and other actors contribute to politicisation with, or against the grain of the official actors leading on policy processes.


This blog post draws on the JCMS article “Outside-in Politicisation of EU-Western Africa relations: What Role for Civil Society Organisations?



Friedrich Plank is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany. His research focuses on EU external relations, Peace and Conflict Studies with a particular focus in Africa-EU relations and conflict resolution attempts.

Twitter: @FriedrichPlank


Niels Keijzer is a senior researcher in the research programme ‘Inter- and Transnational Cooperation’ at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE). His research and advisory work focuses on European development cooperation, EU-Africa relations and development effectiveness.

Twitter: @keijzer_niels



Arne Niemann is Professor of International Politics and Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration Studies at the Department of Political Science of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany. His research focuses on the European integration process and European Union politics and policies (particularly EU external policy).


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