Will Africa and Europe finally be on an equal footing?

By Olivier Caslin
Posted on Monday, 31 January 2022 15:43

France’s President Emmanuel Macron (l), Ursula von der Leyen (c), President of the European Commission, and Moussa Faki Mahamat (r), Chairperson of the AU Commission, at the opening of the summit on financing African economies, in May 2021, in Paris. © LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP

Initially scheduled for 2020, the 6th Africa-Europe summit will be held in February. This is an opportunity for the two partners to put an end to the unequal relationship that they both claim they want to leave behind.

Europe and Africa, through their respective institutions – the European Union (EU) and the African Union (AU) – will meet again nearly two years later than initially planned. The EU will receive the AU on 17 and 18 February in Brussels for a sixth summit, the previous edition of which took place in Abidjan in November 2017.

In the meantime, the international context has changed considerably, particularly since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, which not only disrupted the European-African partnership’s diplomatic agenda, but also significantly changed its priorities.

Stalled momentum

The Brussels meeting is therefore highly anticipated on both sides of the Mediterranean. It will be the first time that the 27 European heads of state and government will have the opportunity to discuss – in person, with their 55 African counterparts, the broad outlines of the strategy that the EU intends to put in place for its southern neighbour.

Both sides agree that the continent needs to be industrialised, but Europe is afraid to see some of its industries leave Africa.

The European Commission, which has been headed by Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen since 1 December 2019, had unveiled its new action plan in March 2020, just a few days before the global outbreak of the virus.

The 19-page document listed the five priorities defined at the 2017 summit: green transition, digital transition, trade agreements, peace and good governance, the migration challenge and human mobility. A few weeks earlier, the AU Commission in Addis Ababa had favourably received the first version of this action plan.

Der Leyen then said her objective was “to move the European partnership with Africa up a gear”. The proposals were meant to serve as a basis for discussion at the next summit, then scheduled for October 2020. However, Covid-19 came along and put a spanner in the works. Since then, “a certain momentum has been lost”, says Geert Laporte, director of the Brussels-based European Think Tank Group (ETTG).

The need for results

Over the past two years, it became impossible for everyone to meet physically at the same place and time. Europeans and Africans held small committee meetings with a tighter focus, “to the detriment of the traditional institutional mechanisms for consultation”, says Carlos Lopes, adviser to the AU Commission’s chair.

“The result is that block-by-block discussions have disappeared, and the few announcements that are bound to be made at the end of the summit will not have been the subject of any formal negotiations,” says the economist. It is only the Covax or Global Gateway initiatives that have been announced in the recent past. According to Laporte, this development is in response to the need for results.

“The more people there are around the table, the more likely it is that interests will diverge. Therefore, a different approach has been put in place so that we can move forward without necessarily seeking consensus.” Until now, Africa has sometimes accused the EU of unilateralism. As such, the latter now seems to rely on the bilateral relations that its member countries have formed in Africa, to the detriment of a true multilateral approach.

Although the discussions have evolved, some substantial differences of opinion still exist. They concern issues as fundamental as the future trade framework due to be put in place between the two continents and its consequences on Africa’s future industrialisation.

Regarding this first part, “the AU wants to discuss on a continental scale, in the wake of the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), while the EU continues to think region by region, in order to remain faithful to the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), which have been under negotiation with Africa since the 2000s”, says Lopes.

According to several observers on both sides of the argument, this European approach would cause “a fracture” on the African side, as this strategy contradicts the AU’s resolution to give priority to its continental ambitions. “Brussels supports AfCFTA financially, but believes that it will take at least 10 years for it to see the light of day,” says Laporte. This scepticism has so far led the EU to focus on its EPAs.

However, the content of future trade agreements will have repercussions on Africa’s industrial development. This is a point on which the two partners do not seem to be in total agreement. “Both sides agree that the continent needs to be industrialised, but Europe is afraid to see some of its industries leave Africa,” says this specialist in EU external relations.

Convincing other EU members

Therefore, these two partners, whose financial and organisational capacities are at odds with each other, continue to have an unequal relationship. In terms of peace and security, “the African architecture does not exist, so the EU imposes its views”, says Lopes. The same applies to the climate issue “and the arrival of new competitors on the continent in recent years has made Brussels more nervous”, says a connoisseur of EU policy.

It is now the time for this “paradigm shift” that both sides are keen to talk about. Its aim is to “establish a partnership of equals”, which has not yet been achieved. However, despite Emmanuel Macron’s stated intention, the French presidency of the Union may not be able to shake things up. “He will have to convince the other member countries, some of which are still sceptical about the importance of having links with Africa,” says our European expert.

Given that France’s image among the continent’s youth has deteriorated considerably in recent times, “it is unlikely that it will be able to restore Africa’s confidence”, says Laporte, especially since the relationship between the two partners has been further damaged due to Europe’s position regarding the allocation of special drawing rights and lifting patents on certain Covid-19 vaccines.

However, this sixth summit will only prove successful, which the European Commission hopes it will, if the two sides agree to truly listen to one another. This is certainly one of the main reasons why the final declaration should not exceed three pages. “It is easier to obtain a consensus on a short text,” says a Brussels expert, and thus, once again, to save face.

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