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EU-AU Summit: A New Approach in Africa-Europe Relations?

EU-AU Summit: A New Approach in Africa-Europe Relations?
 Mahaut de Fougières
Head of the International Politics Program
 Cecilia Vidotto Labastie
Former Project Manager - European Union

This note is part of Institut Montaigne's ongoing work on the “The French Presidency of the European Union” which analyses the role and priorities of the presidency in advancing European decisions and debates, such as economic recovery after Covid-19, the EU’s external action, the EU’s green and digital transitions as well as the defense of common values in Europe.

On February 17-18, Brussels will host the heads of both European and African states for the 6th summit between the European Union and the African Union. Initially scheduled for October 2020 but postponed due to Covid-19, the highly anticipated event will take place at a time when both sides of the Mediterranean are facing turmoil, to say the least. Top of the agenda at the meeting between African leaders in Addis Ababa last February 5-6 was the recent resurgence of (at least attempted) military coups, particularly in West Africa. Europe, for its part, is facing a security crisis on the border between Ukraine and Russia. Against this backdrop, what should we expect from the EU-AU summit? What are the main stakes? Despite high expectations, it is unlikely that the summit will lead to an immediate change of course in EU-AU relations. However, the EU’s revisited approach towards Africa has the potential to change the partnership between the two continents over the years to come.

The relationship with Africa: an EU priority

Faced with the Ukraine-Russia crisis and the series of coups in West Africa, both Europe and Africa are currently preoccupied with domestic matters. Nevertheless, the relationship with its continental neighbor is a priority for the European Union. The numbers speak for themselves: the EU and its 27 Member States collectively provide €65 billion in official development assistance to Africa and trade between the two continents amounts to €225 billion a year. The renewed focus on Africa was initiated by the previous President of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, notably through the Africa-Europe Alliance that he announced in his 2018 State of the Union address. But it also occupies a prominent place in Ursula von der Leyen’s aspirations of leading a "geopolitical Commission". This was proven by her visit to Addis Ababa, where the African Union is headquartered, for her first trip outside of Europe, just one week after taking office. Ursula von der Leyen returned to Addis Ababa barely two months later, this time accompanied by 20 of the 27 Commissioners and the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell. Africa is the only partner mentioned in the mission letter of the Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen. 

Over the past two years, the EU has developed a range of tools to improve its relationship with Africa. On March 9, 2020, the Commission laid the foundations for a new approach in a so-called communication titled "Towards a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa". Twenty months later, President von der Leyen launched the Global Gateway, a strategy to boost EU ties with the world. Notably, the Global Gateway organizes the financing of infrastructure projects in Africa, thus giving substance to Europe’s stated ambitions. The EU’s new trade policy and the Strategic Compass, a white paper that aims to define the Union’s security and defense outlook for 2025-2030, also serve to assert Europe’s position in the world, particularly with regard to Africa. Beyond these strategies, the wide range of European financial instruments is now grouped into a single Neighborhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI), which was adopted on June 9, 2021. Lastly, the creation of "Team Europe" - which unites the European Commission, the European Investment Bank (EIB), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), as well as the Member States along with their development agencies and financial institutions for development - is a major asset. The aim of this new approach is to render the EU’s ambitions and initiatives more visible and comprehensible.

Africa is a natural EU partner for several reasons, foremost of which is the "common destiny" that unites the two neighbors. Peace and security, migration, climate change, the digital transition and the crisis of multilateralism are all common challenges facing the two continents. Africa is also an essential opportunity for European growth.

Beyond the European institutions, there has been growing interest in Africa among EU Member States in recent years.

Geostrategically, the African continent is of particular importance to Europe, given that the latter’s ambition to develop a "ring of friends" from the Caucasus to the Sahara through its Neighborhood Policy (launched in 2003) ultimately ended in failure. In 2015, Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt described the unsuccessful attempts to stabilize and democratize the EU’s neighbors as having resulted in a "ring of fire" instead.

Moreover, it is hard for the Europeans to ignore the pressure put on them with regard to Africa’s current political and security crises in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. In a meeting with the foreign ministers of Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad, High Representative Josep Borrell said the EU wanted to remain engaged in the region, though "not at any cost". 

Beyond the European institutions, there has been growing interest in Africa among EU Member States in recent years. This is naturally the case with historical partners such as Italy and Spain, but not exclusively. Germany, for example, has made a clear pivot to Africa under Angela Merkel, as attested by the launch of the "Marshall Plan with Africa" and "Compact with Africa" initiatives in 2017. Other EU countries, driven mainly by the migration issue, are showing an interest in Africa as well: about 10 of the 27 Member States now have their own Africa strategy and several others are in the making. France has played a non-negligible role in these developments: over the past ten years, it has actively been educating its European partners about the importance of the African continent for the EU. It is worth noting that all Member States will be present at the summit.

Africa at the heart of geopolitical competition

Many other nations are also turning their gaze to Africa, which has made the continent all the more compelling to the EU. Europe, and the former colonial powers in particular, used to enjoy a certain privileged access to Africa, but this is no longer the case. Over the past 15 years, African states have increasingly had more choice in the partnerships they wish to form with foreign powers. Prominent among these is China, which organized the 8th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Dakar in November 2021, while greatly ramping up its investments on the continent ($2.96 billion in 2020, up by 9.5% compared to 2019).

Russia has also returned to the continent after 30 years of disengagement following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It held its first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in 2019; a second one is planned for 2022. The Russian presence is mostly military and organized through private security company Wagner, which is headed by a close associate of Vladimir Putin. Its engagement started in Sudan in 2017, then extended to the neighboring Central African Republic in 2018, to Libya in 2019, to Mozambique the same year (before withdrawing a few months later) and, most recently, to Mali. Since 2021, over 600 armed Russians are stationed in Mali.

Over the past 15 years, African states have increasingly had more choice in the partnerships they wish to form with foreign powers.

Economically, the record is more modest: trade came to around $20 billion in 2021 and Russian investment represents less than 1% of foreign investment in Africa.

Other countries are also demonstrating a growing interest in Africa. These include Turkey, whose president has made 15 tours of the continent as Prime minister and then as head of state, and which organized the 3rd Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit in December 2021; Israel, under the impetus of Benjamin Netanyahu; and the Gulf states, especially the United Arab Emirates.

The AU-EU partnership: a priority for France

France, which currently holds the presidency of the EU Council, can use its knowledge of the African continent to the benefit of both the Union and Member States. In October 2021, the 28th Africa-France summit since 1973 was held in Montpellier.

The EU-AU summit aligns with the French ambition to develop the European relationship with Africa, alongside its bilateral ties with the continent. 

The EU-AU summit aligns with the French ambition to develop the European relationship with Africa, alongside its bilateral ties with the continent. In his Ouagadougou speech in November 2017 already, President Macron insisted that "it is not simply French-African dialogue that we must rebuild together, but a project between our two continents, a truly new relationship, redesigned at the appropriate scale where the European Union could speak and build with the African Union and with Africa as a whole".

This ambition underpinned the creation of the Takuba Task Force, which, though in a pinch today, assembles European forces under the command of the French-led Operation Barkhane in the Sahel. The EU Strategic Compass, which is expected to be ratified in March, presents an opportunity to formally declare the Sahel region a priority for European security, so that France does not find itself "alone in the desert" once again.

France wants to make the EU-AU summit a highlight of its EU Council presidency. It is the only summit with non-EU countries scheduled during its mandate. In a fortunate coincidence, the President of Senegal, Macky Sall, who is close to Emmanuel Macron (and EU Council President Charles Michel), currently holds the African Union’s rotating presidency. As such, the historical proximity between France and Senegal, and between the countries’ sitting presidents, is an asset that can be put to good use. The same applies to the ties that President Macron has established with Paul Kagame, his Rwandan counterpart and essential pan-African leader. Last December, after a preparation meeting in Brussels, Emmanuel Macron continued the discussion privately with Macky Sall and Paul Kagame.

The Africa-Europe relationship faces numerous challenges

While the EU and the AU are historical partners, their relationship is still subject to tensions and misunderstandings.

The primary challenge to cooperation lies in the very nature of the two actors. The AU, like the EU, is an international organization and not a country, as is repeatedly emphasized by African leaders. Not only is Africa plagued by ethnic, religious, geographic and cultural divisions, it is also a commercially fragmented territory. Despite encouraging attempts at integration, such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), these are still in their infancy and often fall victim to the "à la carte" approach of African leaders who move in and out of regional organizations at will. 

Like the EU, the AU’s internal divisions weaken it on the international stage and could derail the EU-AU summit. Indeed, it would appear that the AU’s priorities for the continent are increasingly distinct from those of its Member States. This tension was evident in the post-Cotonou negotiations, which highlighted the desire of AU officials to represent the continent in talks with Europe - an attempt that was quickly curbed by African heads of state.

Like the EU, the AU’s internal divisions weaken it on the international stage and could derail the EU-AU summit. 

Each African head of state has their own national agenda, making it difficult for the AU to speak unanimously. This situation is obviously reminiscent of the EU itself, which has at times provoked strong reactions from foreign countries. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s now-famous remark comes to mind: "If I want to call Europe, who do I call?"

The lack of a shared vision among AU members can be an impediment to the implementation of infrastructure projects in partnership with the EU, as these go beyond the national level. AU Member States are not yet thinking in terms of a coherent continental approach. Detailed planning by African authorities would render it possible to link major investments in port and rail infrastructure (notably through the Global Gateway) while integrating various industrial clusters into manufacturing value chains.

A second problematic aspect of the EU-AU relationship is that not all EU Member States consider Africa to be a priority. It is the countries with the closest geographical or historical ties to Africa that pay the most attention to the continent. This is the case, for instance, with countries that are directly affected by migration flows to the southern shore of the Mediterranean, but also with Member States that have a colonial past and maintain deep economic ties with certain African countries. On the other end of the spectrum, EU members like Finland and the Baltic states look to the east more than to the south because of their proximity to Russia. However, some of these countries, such as Poland, are gradually developing an interest in Africa as well, as a result of Russia’s growing influence in the region, particularly in a number of armed conflicts.

In addition, because of the current security context, it is not a given that European citizens will show particular interest in relations with Africa. The crisis between Ukraine and Russia is monopolizing public attention. More generally, the main concerns of European citizens and their representatives are related to public health and the post-pandemic recovery. The French government and population are no exception: in the run-up to the presidential election, Africa - except for the specific case of military presence in Mali - is absent from the candidates’ programs.

There are concerns that the EU’s stated desire to establish a new partnership "on equal footing" remains a mere declaration of intent.

As for the actual content of EU-AU discussions, there are still plenty of misunderstandings and disagreements. Some African leaders even speak of a "dialogue of the deaf". There are concerns that the EU’s stated desire to establish a new partnership "on equal footing" remains a mere declaration of intent. Indeed, that scenario cannot be ruled out when we look at previous summits, despite a clear European intent to take concrete action moving forward.

The divergence between European and African outlooks is particularly glaring in the joint definition of the summit’s priorities. The European focus on Africa’s digitalization is perceived by the continent’s leaders as proof that Europe does not properly understand the realities on the ground. Digitalization certainly is a big challenge for African SMEs, innovative start-ups and job creation. Importantly, digital technology can also have positive impacts in the field of public health. Many actors are calling for access to satellite technology and the installation of submarine cables. However, there is a major obstacle that needs to be addressed first: only one in five people in Sub-Saharan Africa have access to electricity. If current trends continue, less than 40% of African countries will achieve universal access to electricity by 2050. The figures vary greatly from one African country to another, but that does not change the bottom line that the digitalization of a continent where so many households lack access to electricity may simply be unrealistic.

Climate change is another sensitive topic. As Africa is responsible for only 2% of the world’s energy-related CO2 emissions, Europe’s calls for an African energy transition are met with incomprehension. While Europeans see gas as a transitional energy source whose consumption should be drastically reduced in the decades ahead, Africans see gas as a reliable energy source that is integral to the continent’s economic development. The decision by 20 countries and 5 banks to end their public investments in oil, gas and coal internationally by the end of 2022 is a source of concern on the African side. Many African actors accuse Europeans of insensitivity to the need to combine renewables with gas - a more reliable and less polluting resource than coal and fuel oil - to meet the continent’s diverse needs. Moreover, Africa is the fastest-growing region for gas production, with an average annual growth rate of 5.6%.

Finally, the Covid-19 pandemic is not without ramifications for the EU-AU relationship. Although it is a recent factor, the pandemic has shifted the priorities of many actors - thus changing the scope of possibilities for the evolution of the partnership. The vaccine issue, which Senegalese President Macky Sall called "a trauma" for Africans, is an example of the "dialogue of the deaf". While the EU and China compete over the number of doses sent to the continent (140 million and 35 million, respectively), African leaders strive to produce vaccines on the continent itself and to effectively distribute these to the population. Europe has started tackling this challenge by joining an initiative aimed at creating vaccine production centers in South Africa, Rwanda and Senegal (through the Pasteur Institute in Dakar).

What can we expect from this summit?

These difficulties of the Europe-Africa relationship, which are both structural and cyclical, call for realism and tempered expectations when it comes to the summit. The fact that the AU only confirmed in December the February 17-18 dates which were proposed by Europe in October, shows a certain lack of enthusiasm. This caused a delay in the timetable: the drafting and negotiation of the summit’s conclusions were carried out in a race against the clock.

The ongoing Covid-19 crisis imposes another constraint: the summit is set to be held in person - Emmanuel Macron insisted that this be the case - but the public health measures that will need to be respected are not conducive to creating the human connections that are so important for this type of event. In addition, the summit risks being overshadowed by news related to the European presence in Mali (Task Force Takuba), especially after the junta there asked Denmark to withdraw its troops.

The summit risks being overshadowed by news related to the European presence in Mali (Task Force Takuba).

President Macron announced the withdrawal of French and European troops from Mali within four to six months, just a few hours before the beginning of the summit. On top of everything else, should there be a major development in the Ukrainian crisis, the summit would - at best - fade into the background.

In terms of organization, the various heads of state will come together in seven roundtables over the two days, including one on financing that will be co-chaired by Emmanuel Macron, Macky Sall and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. In terms of substance, the stated objective is to discuss Africa-Europe investment packages that target global challenges such as climate change and the current public health crisis. This is significant because it is precisely at this level that the summit can lead to a concrete step forward, even if it falls short of a profound and immediate renewal of the EU-AU partnership. The EU will be able to put forth the tools it has developed over the past two years: its new strategies, its new instrument and its new approach. The "Comprehensive Strategy with Africa" proposes guidelines for the partnership; the Global Gateway allows for the funding of infrastructure; and the NDICI clarifies and harmonizes the financial instruments available to African partners. These tools, combined with the new "Team Europe" approach, will allow the EU to make itself more visible and to communicate its ambitions and initiatives more clearly. It remains to be seen how the Europeans will be able to leverage these assets in their cooperation with Africa.

As for the launch of joint projects that can truly mark a turning point in the relationship, this should be led by committees tasked with following up on summit commitments and reporting back to the annual EU-AU ministerial meetings.


Copyright: Alain JOCARD / AFP

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