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Outgoing EU Ambassador to AU Markussen: ‘Africa needs improved economy’

By Fred Harter

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Posted on July 7, 2023 07:30

 © Outgoing EU Ambassador to Ethiopia Birgitte Markussen speaks to The Africa Report from her residence in Addis Ababa. (Photo: European Union, 2023)
Outgoing EU Ambassador to Ethiopia Birgitte Markussen speaks to The Africa Report from her residence in Addis Ababa. (Photo: European Union, 2023)

Birgitte Markussen arrived in Addis Ababa at an eventful time.

When the Danish diplomat started her three-year stint as the European Union’s ambassador to the African Union in September 2020, the Ethiopian capital was grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Soon afterwards the Tigray war broke out, and in November 2021 she had to oversee the evacuation of her staff as fighting came within 200km of the city. That meant Markussen had to spearhead the EU-Africa summit in February 2022 with a skeleton crew. Then came the economic shocks of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Markussen is reflecting on these challenges near the end of her time as the woman leading Europe’s engagement with Africa. We meet in the spacious garden of her residence in the upmarket Addis Ababa neighbourhood of Mekanisa, a stone’s throw from the AU headquarters, as removal men shuttle to and fro in the background.

The EU is the biggest funder of peace and security efforts in Africa, announcing €600m for the African Union last year through its new European Peace Facility, so comes as no surprise that Markussen is keen to focus on the subject.

It is late afternoon and there is no coffee on offer. Instead, we drink sparkling water as Markussen highlights the rising number of conflicts and coups as two “mega-trends” shaping the continent, alongside climate change and the economic downturn, fuelled by the global spike in commodity prices.

Economy and armed groups

These are all “interlinked” and “reinforce each other”, Markussen says, citing Somalia, Mozambique, the Sahel and, most recently, Sudan, as causes of concern. A big step in addressing these conflicts is “building up the African peace architecture and Africa Union’s capacity to respond,” she says.

I don’t think the African Union is as present in African public opinion as it could be.

Markussen references the EU’s funding of the AU’s force in Somalia and its military training mission in Mozambique as examples of this. In the next breath, she calls for reforms to the international system such as the reallocation of IMF special drawing rights and changes to how global credit rating agencies grade African economies.

These arcane aspects of international finance might not immediately seem relevant to the ambitions of jihadists in Somalia and northern Mozambique. But Markussen neatly knits the subjects together while making the point that economic uncertainties are fuelling disillusionment in government institutions across the continent, making it easier for armed groups to operate.

“Increases in sustainable economic growth create stability,” she says. “These things happen in parallel.”

Her argument echoes the grand themes of February’s AU Summit, where UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an overhaul of the Bretton Woods institutions and the new AU chairperson, Comoros President Azali Assoumani, demanded debt cancellations. 

African representation

Another hot issue at this year’s AU Summit was permanent representation for Africa at the UN Security Council and the G20. Calls for an African seat at the G20 were formally backed by the European Council on Friday, but Markussen points out that the form this representation would take still needs to be worked out.

“This is a major opportunity for Africa,” she says. “What I think is important is how [African governments] prepare for being part of a format that has a global mandate. They need to think about how to prepare positions on global issues.”

I ask if there are any lessons to be learned from the EU’s experience as the AU takes its first steps towards becoming a multilateral actor on the global stage.

Markussen says the “big difference” between the two institutions is the EU began life as an economic bloc, whereas the AU is based on a looser vision of political unity. Beefing up ties between African states by implementing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) will be crucial if Africa is to find a common voice and would also boost the bloc’s relevance to the daily lives of Africans, she says.

“African populations really need to feel an improvement in the economy, and implementation would really change perceptions towards the African Union, they would see the benefit of it,” she says. 

“I don’t think the African Union is as present in African public opinion as it could be.”

We move on to how the Ukraine war has reignited competition for influence on the continent, as both sides scramble for African votes at the United Nations.

EU relevance

In recent months, Addis Ababa has played host to foreign ministers from the US, Russia, China, Ukraine, UK, Germany and France, at a time when Turkey, the Gulf states and others are also emerging as key economic players in the continent. Can the EU remain relevant in this increasingly messy and fractious geopolitical environment?

Markussen responds with a question. “What I always say in these discussions is, ‘What kind of world do you want? Don’t you want international law to play a role? Don’t you want, if you’re a country that gets into crisis, protection of civilians?’”

These are the norms the EU is offering, according to Markussen. She goes on to say that the EU “can play a major transformational role” on the continent through targeted investments and policy support.

As an example, she highlights the EU’s Global Gateway scheme, a new €150bn infrastructure investment package to support Africa’s economic growth and integration, widely seen as Europe’s answer to China’s Belt and Road policy.

Africa is a huge continent,” she says. “And it needs good investments [and] transparent investments. If they are not transparent, if they are putting countries into economic problems, then it’s not a good offer.”

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