‘In Africa, Russia uses lies as a weapon of war’ – European Council’s Charles Michel

By Manon Laplace, Romain Gras
Posted on Tuesday, 19 July 2022 12:20

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, on 31 May 2022 in Brussels (Belgium). © Zheng Huansong/XINHUA-REA.

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, speaks about how the war in Ukraine is impacting relations between the two continents.

On 18 February, the African Union (AU) and European Union (EU) concluded the sixth edition of their joint summit in Brussels. The main topics discussed included establishing a free trade zone, fighting against Covid-19, insecurity and the Global Gateway initiative.

But a week later, more than 2,000km from the Belgian capital, the launch of a Russian offensive in Ukraine upset the diplomatic context. Charles Michel, president of the European Council, opened the next AU summit meeting, which started on 17 July in Lusaka (Zambia).

The EU, which has been shaken by the rise of Russian influence on the continent, is now facing the consequences of the war in Ukraine on the African continent. The 46-year-old diplomat and former Belgian prime minister spoke to us about this new diplomatic situation and its repercussions.

You gave a speech on 17 July at the opening of the African Union summit in Lusaka. What are the stakes of this summit and of the cooperation with the European Union?

Charles Michel: The summit held in Brussels in February marked a turning point in the relationship between Europe and Africa. We have put in place a new paradigm with a relationship based on listening to each other. It is a curious coincidence that a few days later a war broke out on European soil. It not only had a brutal impact on international law, but also on food security, inflation and energy. We will use this summit to figure out how we can work together to reduce the negative effects of this war.

What concrete projects can you highlight within the context of the Global Gateway initiative?

€150bn has been mobilised for Africa. We now need to turn all this into real projects. We launched a partnership to produce Covid-19 vaccines. A few months later, the first projects started in Rwanda, South Africa, Senegal and Ghana.

We are now working to ensure that the big platforms, like Gavi and Covax, will come and buy vaccines made in Africa. In my discussions with [Senegal’s President] Macky Sall and [South Africa’s President] Cyril Ramaphosa at the G7 in Germany, we agreed to build on what we had done with vaccines to address food insecurity. It seems vital.

This desire to reshape the Europe-Africa relationship is nevertheless taking place in a context where African countries are increasingly turning to other partners, such as Turkey, China and Russia…

African leaders are sovereign and free to choose their partners. It is up to the Europeans to show that the project they are proposing is attractive. A relationship based on mutual respect has been established. Does this mean that everything has been resolved? Of course not.

Do you understand this desire to choose partners that are considered less “constraining”, particularly when it comes to democracy and human rights?

My aim is not to judge the quality of the partnerships that Africa concludes with other actors, but rather to show that of the European Union and its added value. I observe that African countries that have entered into partnerships with other actors seem to be expressing regrets today, because they are suffering from a financial stranglehold and are realising that the infrastructure is not of the quality they had hoped for when the contract was signed.

Which countries are you thinking of? 

I think they know who they are.

In the current context, does Russia’s growing influence on the continent threaten the European Union and Africa’s relationship? 

The way Russia and Europe see their presence in Africa is based on totally antagonistic assumptions. Moscow’s business model consists of capturing natural resources in exchange for some meagre security services, which are proving to be extremely ineffective and even violent for the African populations.

Russia has a strategic interest in maintaining corruption, instability and insecurity in southern Europe. Conversely, when Africa is doing well, it is a good thing for Europe. And when it is in difficulty, this often results in conflicts being exported and irregular immigration, which leads to complicated debates at home.

Yet certain African populations have a real desire to strengthen their cooperation with Russia…

Russia makes massive use of propaganda, disinformation, in a word lies, as a weapon of war. It spreads false and unworthy narratives that turn African youths against European countries. Our challenge is to restore truth and transparency.

How is the EU fighting back against disinformation?

Supporting a free and independent press is one way to produce the antidote to disinformation. Especially since lies are fabricated to make serious accusations against states – we saw this in Mali, for example, with the Wagner group. European intelligence services have been able to set the record straight, sometimes even before these operations could be carried out.

Is this a challenge? Yes. Will it be difficult to meet? Yes, because Russians also try to instrumentalise the history between Europe and Africa, especially colonialism, to try to stir up trouble.

Beyond information warfare, how can the EU fight back? 

Our best antidote is to show that our partnership is beneficial and useful for Africa. This is the case, for example, when we succeed in Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa in ensuring that Africans are masters of their own pharmaceutical destiny. On the contrary, experience has shown that where Russian influence is deployed, there is an impact. In the CAR and Mali, this is reflected in increased insecurity, instability and poverty.

Do you think, however, that beyond the Russian influence, there may have been errors on the part of European countries that explain this rejection?

I don’t want to talk about mistakes. Historians will write history, it is up to politicians to draw the necessary lessons. I fundamentally believe that there has long been a legitimate expectation on the part of African peoples and leaders for mutual respect and understanding. This is the foundation of the paradigm that we defined at the EU-AU summit.

How is the war in Ukraine impacting the relationship between the EU and AU?

In Africa, this war is not viewed in the same light, and so the continent is probably less concerned about any possible consequences resulting from it. So the best way to act is to have a political dialogue to allow us Europeans to understand each other’s arguments, and for our African counterparts to appreciate why we think this war is very serious.

It is not because it is taking place on European soil, but rather because a permanent member of the Security Council, which has nuclear weapons, is challenging the sovereignty of a country of more than 40 million inhabitants on Europe’s borders and because this war is triggering a serious food crisis. Because it is Russian ships that are preventing exports on the Black Sea and Russian tanks that are destroying fields in Ukraine. Because it is Russia that has chosen to make this sea a total war zone and decided to stop grain exports, even though there is not a single European or G7 sanction imposed against Russian grain or fertiliser. Lies are being spread about all these issues.

The grain blockage due to the Ukrainian conflict has serious consequences for Africa’s food security. How do the EU and AU intend to address this issue?

The first priority is to ensure that the grain blocked in Ukraine can be exported. I was in Odessa a few weeks ago and it was amazing to see ships containing millions of tonnes of grain that cannot leave Ukraine. So we immediately set up alternative routes. Several million tonnes have already been exported via Poland, Romania… But this takes more time, too much time. That is why we support the UN’s efforts to find an agreement and open a humanitarian corridor in the Black Sea. I also welcome Turkey’s support in these negotiations.

And on the African continent?

We must structurally facilitate production capacities in Africa. This requires expediting access to inputs and war, and promoting road construction. Work on this started in February with the AU and must be accelerated with this new summit.

Do you understand why many African countries abstained from voting on the UN resolution on Ukraine in May? 

I understand that a number of African countries did not want to appear to be in one camp or another. Even though the reasons for abstaining were different, I can say, after having spoken openly with many African leaders, that there was a fear of retaliation. But it is also worth noting that several African countries have stood up unambiguously on the issue and some may be under pressure. I am not blaming anyone. I try to understand the motives of those who abstained and will not give up trying to convince them.

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