As diplomats put the final touches on preparations for a joint summit between the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU) this week, early indications suggest the headline outcomes will disappoint. But what is happening behind the scenes is much more significant.
Why? Because dry intergovernmental negotiations are giving way to a dialogue whereby African stakeholders are increasingly bullish about what they have to offer Europe, and farsighted Europeans are realizing that postcolonial views of Africa as a continent needing charity are outdated. Europe needs Africa as much as Africa needs Europe.
The sixth EU-AU Summit will happen against a backdrop that places Africa in the center of geopolitics perhaps more than ever before. It’s no secret that China has spent the past decade building influence on the continent through diplomacy and major infrastructure investments. India, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey also are taking an increasing interest in the region. The EU’s recent Global Gateway announcement promising up to 300 billion euros in investment is an attempt to counter this growing influence, as is U.S. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better World initiative.
In addition, these leaders are beginning to recognize that their ambitions on climate and technology can’t be achieved without Africa, and the risk that instability in parts of the continent could create large volumes of irregular migration are top of mind for European leaders. This follows the so-called migration crisis of 2015, when 1.3 million people came to Europe to request asylum—the most in a single year since World War II. Recent coups in Mali, Guinea, and Sudan are only heightening this fear.
European rhetoric of an EU-AU “partnership of equals” is not new, but European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen took it to a new level when her first external visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2019 signaled that Africa was a priority for her “geopolitical commission.” A subsequent European Council communication laid out the EU’s agenda with an aim to kick off the negotiations. But the coronavirus pandemic derailed progress—contributing to a cancellation of the planned summit in 2020 and a souring of diplomatic relations.
On the African side, the backdrop is one of growing anger. The EU’s actions in monopolizing vaccine access during the pandemic and locking out African countries that were ready to pay for doses deepened mistrust and sowed doubt that the EU is a serious partner. The EU’s opposition to a temporary intellectual property waiver for COVID-19 treatments, a travel ban following South Africa’s sequencing of the Omicron variant, and the failure to reach the promised $100 billion in annual funding at the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference rubbed further salt in the wound.
European countries offered fiscal stimulus of 26.4 percent of GDP to bolster their own economies, while offering a tepid response to support African countries with aid and debt relief. The lack of support from the international community meant African countries could only muster 3.7 percent of GDP in fiscal stimulus, highlighting how African countries are largely rule takers in a global economic architecture in which the EU is a preeminent rule maker (see Figure 1). And the fact that countries were punished with credit rating downgrades for taking advantage of the G20’s meager Debt Service Suspension Initiative, which didn’t cancel but simply rescheduled debt service payments, further emphasized the double standard.
The past two years have further bolstered the narrative that Africa should no longer rely on the West and must pursue its own strategic autonomy. This builds on renewed self-confidence among African leaders in implementing the new African Continental Free Trade Area, an open skies agreement, plans for investment in a pan-African university accreditation scheme, and high-speed rail infrastructure—all part of Agenda 2063, Africa’s master plan for transforming the continent into a global powerhouse of the future.
All of this makes for an interesting time to reset relations between the two continents, separated at their closest point by just 14 kilometers between Morocco and Spain.
Intensive negotiations between EU and AU representatives on the official outcome followed the conclusion of the AU summit earlier this month. But insider discussions suggest AU representatives will be disappointed by what’s on offer from the EU.
In his inauguration speech as AU chair, Senegalese President Macky Sall proposed fundamental structural shifts, such as the creation of an African stability fund and an alternative approach to that of the credit rating agencies, which are perceived to unfairly punish Africa and increase the cost of borrowing on capital markets. He called for $100 billion in special drawing rights (SDR)—a reserve asset from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that is used to bolster economies at times of crisis—to be “recycled” to African countries.
Some in African civil society argued that—if Africa were considered as a region, as the EU often is—its economics, if not its demographics, should warrant the AU a permanent seat in the G20. The upcoming IMF governance review should address the fact that just two of the organization’s twenty-four executive directors represent forty-six African countries.
Others want to expose the hypocrisy of European efforts to limit investment in natural gas in Africa as a transition fuel, while Germany continues to invest in the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and the EU included liquified petroleum gas in its taxonomy of sustainable energy sources. Africa comprises just 2 to 3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and the number of Africans living in energy poverty is larger than the entire population of the EU.
Africa, which imports 99 percent of the vaccines it uses, is prioritizing investment in manufacturing capacity. The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention launched the Partnerships for African Vaccine Manufacturing in April 2021, with the goal of ensuring that 60 percent of all vaccines used on the continent are produced within African nations by 2040. Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa have signed agreements or memorandums of understanding for COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing; some have begun production. Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria have also expressed interest. Sharing of technology and intellectual property will be essential to making progress, but a proposed waiver on medicines for COVID-19 remains unlikely, despite the support of more than 100 countries, as Germany is strongly opposed. As the current AU chair, Senegal is supportive of the waiver, but intelligence indicates that negotiators may not prioritize it because of the country’s own eagerness to court pharmaceutical investment. Not only could this slow down progress on generic manufacturing, but it could further exacerbate distrust in the EU-AU relationship going into the summit.
So while there are big ideas on the table, African ambassadors, frustrated by the glacial speed of progress, aren’t expecting much from the Brussels meetings. The AU’s Permanent Representatives Committee deleted the word “alliance” in earlier versions of the summit text. Some African states are taking the summit less seriously because they perceive the process—chaired by France and Senegal—to be a Franco-Afrique summit. Africa’s Anglophone and Lusophone states were not invited to preparatory talks, fueling the impression that their interests will not be represented. Key among these concerns is the perception that France is using the summit to pursue its own diplomatic interests in the Sahel region and is seeking to loosen normative commitments to working within the AU on peace and security cooperation.
European summit announcements reportedly include construction of a fiber-optic cable connecting Europe and Africa along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean; a network of fiber-optic cables across sub-Saharan Africa; the launch of green data centers in Africa to foster data storage and processing capacity on the continent; the generation of and access to sustainable energy, such as clean hydrogen and solar; and progress on the reallocation of SDRs to low- and middle-income countries. No European country has signaled any indication of new SDR commitments to be announced at the summit, and only six of the twenty-seven EU members had made any commitments at all.
These various initiatives will be financed by a set of investment packages for a “Prosperous and Sustainable Partnership.” Yet there is significant skepticism over what’s new in these packages, which include vaccine development, migration, education, and security provisions. While welcomed and necessary, these investment packages are highly aligned with European interests and appear to have been developed in Brussels rather than co-created with shared priorities for both the EU and AU.
One such worrying development is a proposal for developing a cooperation agreement between African countries and Frontex, the European border and coast guard, which has been criticized for a lack of transparency and accountability and for turning a blind eye to human rights violations. The proposal risks being interpreted as a bolstering of “fortress Europe,” focused on keeping Africans out, rather than a partnership that maximizes the benefits of human mobility. In the long term, Europe needs more young people and more migration. A partnership with Africa to harness the energy, ambition, and talent of Africa’s young people would be a visionary investment.
The Likely Outcome
This summit will not herald a new partnership of equals or even significant policy and financial commitments. The damage done to trust and diplomatic relations during the pandemic, and likely confusion over what is actually being added to existing commitments, won’t afford that. Neither will the complexity of securing agreements among many member states with often competing interests—something widely reported in the EU, but even more complex in the AU with more countries and less capacity to help build consensus.
However, in an era of fragmentation, this is a highly ambitious effort toward a multilateral agreement between two regions totalling 82 countries with a population of 1.75 billion. That’s no small feat, and if it isn’t a resounding success, there are good reasons.
But behind the scenes, a level of maturity is growing—one where officials are developing relationships strong enough to have difficult discussions about diverging as well as converging views, and where cultural and commercial cooperation outside of stale negotiating rooms can be built. Perhaps the most significant outcome will be a realization that Africa is demanding to be treated as a serious partner, not an aid recipient. It might be too late for this summit, but that message has been heard loud and clear in Brussels.
Correction: This commentary originally stated that European countries' fiscal stimulus was 13.7 percent of GDP. It was 26.4 percent. In addition, Figure 1 has been updated to include additional data on equity, loans, and guarantees. It has also been updated to fix a mislabeling of Europe and Asia in the additional spending category.