Devex | 30 August 2021
What’s going on between African nations and the EU?
By Andrew Green
Ursula von der Leyen’s first trip abroad after being installed as president of the European Commission in December 2019 was to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital and headquarters of the African Union.
The goal, she said at the time, was to send a political message that the two continents share a “true partnership of equals.” More than a 1 ½ year after her trip and despite the commission’s release of a comprehensive strategy for Africa early last year, that partnership has yet to flourish. A high-level AU-EU summit scheduled for October 2020 has repeatedly been stalled, even as African leaders have strengthened ties with other global powers, particularly China.
The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to derailing the European Commission’s efforts, but experts said there may also be a disconnect between the priorities of the two continents, with Europe focused on climate change and migration and Africa determined to end the COVID-19 pandemic and jump-start its economies.
There is also a discomfort with Europe’s attempts to dominate the relationship, especially at a moment when other investors are lining up.
“A lot of the decisions have been taken without much regard for what Africans, themselves, are seeking,” said Mohammad Diatta, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.
African leaders still have incentives to maintain the partnership between the two continents, not least because of the trade links and development assistance Europe offers. But they also have a strong interest in revising that relationship.
Von der Leyen’s visit came at a moment of inflection for European and African relations. The Cotonou Agreement, which had defined key aspects of Europe’s ties to Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific countries — including aid, trade, and political cooperation, was set to expire last year, though it was ultimately extended until the end of November 2021 as a new treaty awaits ratification by the various parties. A joint Africa-EU strategy reached in 2017 also expired last year.
“Many African countries feel that they would rather be unencumbered with some of the requirements that are typically attached to the collaborations with the European Union.” — Mohammad Diatta, researcher, Institute for Security Studies
The commission offered its comprehensive strategy with Africa as a next stage in the partnership, prioritizing a green transition and a digital transformation, and addressing some of the root causes of migration, including conflict and economic insecurity. Many of those same priorities were reflected in the Post-Cotonou Agreement, reached in April, which included environmental stability and migration among its six priority areas.
Except that African leaders may not share these priorities.
“In Africa, [leaders] have local initiatives for which they need support,” said Denica Yotova, the Africa Programme Coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Those include improved access to resources, economic recovery, and debt relief, as well as peace and security. “They don’t need someone to tell them what to do and how to do it.”
The emphasis in the commission strategy on respecting human rights without discrimination may have been a cause for concern in some settings, like Ghana, where lawmakers have tabled a bill that would make it illegal to even identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
Even though it may be problematic, Diatta acknowledged that “many African countries feel that they would rather be unencumbered with some of the requirements that are typically attached to the collaborations with the European Union,” particularly when they see European nations not living up to the same principles.
More fundamentally, the approach Europe took rankled in some corners of the African continent, echoing a colonial legacy and the imbalanced relationship that has persisted between the two continents.
“This new comprehensive EU strategy was done on the initiative of Europe and then presented to Africa,” Yotova said. “If it was supposed to be a partnership, they could agree on a way forward.” Instead, “in the Africans’ perception, they were presented with a document they can comment on.”
At the same time, Diatta cautioned, the AU and other African policymakers have been slow to present their own lists of priorities within the specific context of its relationship with Europe.
That combination of factors may explain Africa’s lack of urgency in getting the relationship back on track.
The global response to COVID-19 has only exacerbated any divisions. As Europe has charged ahead of much of the rest of the world in securing and administering vaccines, its leaders are at the forefront of blocking the effort spearheaded by South Africa and India within the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines and other tools.
“How the EU and Africa cooperate on health, on the vaccine rollout in Africa have become really, really key political questions,” said Chloe Teevan, a policy officer in the European External Affairs program at the European Centre for Development Policy Management.
Despite the obstructions, there are plenty of parties in Africa who recognize a need to solidify relations with Europe, including those same policymakers who may be frustrated with the EU’s current approach.
Though a variety of countries and regions are interested in investing in Africa, Yotova said those relationships are largely transactional — and easily abandoned. Europe, alternatively, is motivated both by values, but also an interest in curbing migration, which may point to more sustained investment in and involvement on the African continent.
At the same time, the AU is also looking to establish a pan-African approach to international engagement. Europe has historically engaged with North Africa and the rest of the continent separately. AU-EU negotiations would help further that reorientation, while establishing the primacy of the AU within that framework.
While the high-level engagement that might help AU and EU officials reach some of their broader goals remains stalled, not every aspect of cooperation between the two continents is at a standstill.
AU and EU agricultural ministers held a conference in June on sustainable food systems. The EU is also providing technical assistance to help implement the African Continental Free Trade Area, which came into effect at the start of the year and introduced a single market for goods and services from the continent. And the Post-Cotonou Agreement appears to be moving forward.
Ultimately, Teevan said, a high-level meeting may not be as important as these incremental engagements.
“I’m skeptical about what the summit can actually achieve anyway,” she said. “The real work goes on on an ongoing basis.”
Still, she acknowledges the failure to hold the summit — or even set a date — does send a signal, particularly when China was able to convene an extraordinary summit with 13 African leaders on COVID-19 in June 2020.
“In terms of political messaging, it is a failure for the EU,” she said.