Reshaping Europe-Africa Relations: A Joint Vision for 2030

, by Massimo Spinelli

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Reshaping Europe-Africa Relations: A Joint Vision for 2030
President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, at the 6th EU-AU Summit in Brussels. Credit: GovernmentZA, Flickr.

Just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the 24th February, the leaders of EU institutions met with the 40 heads of state of the African Union on the 17th-18th of February. Although the escalation at the Eastern border of the EU has understandably topped the current list of priorities, the meeting that took place in Brussels had outstanding relevance to the relationship between the two continents.

Old and new relationships

Before this, the EU and the African Union (AU) had not met for over four years, a time during which relationships between the two have slowly deteriorated. African countries, typically pushing for new resources to be invested in the continent’s development, continue to look to China as their primary partner. In recent years, the flow of financial investments allocated through the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) has proven Beijing’s commitment to improving infrastructures and developing a number of African states. The EU funds targeted security concerns and democratisation of national institutions across the continent. Yet, the European action on the ground shows significant room for improvement, as the recent coup d’états in Mali, Chad, and Mozambique have demonstrated.

With a clear agenda going into the meeting, the key point Ursula Von der Leyen and Charles Michel wanted to get across was to state the EU’s intention to be the primary partner for the continent. Indeed, many regard the EU’s Global Gateway Strategy as an effort to compete with the Asian dragon, in this sense. Despite their pre-stated goals, the discussion quickly drifted away from the matter, and the initial expectations of the heads of EU’s institutions were unmet as several heads of states prioritised concerns over Covid-19 vaccination instead.

The Covid-19 crisis, and other questions

The will of African nations to focus on the topic of Covid-19 was highly foreseeable and it comes with no surprise considering that, as of today, the vaccination rate among Europeans sets around 80%, whereas barely 12% of African citizens have been administered a full vaccination cycle (Data: Africa CDC).

As China and the EU race to provide the highest number of doses to African countries, heads of African states had a different position on what should have been on the summit’s agenda: the EU offer of sharing vaccination patents and technology with African pharmaceutical companies. Clearly, this would represent a new degree of cooperation between the two unions, one in which African states would not be dependent on European decisions, especially regarding such a sensitive matter as public health. On this point, Germany and other European countries did not agree on giving away their assets, and it soon became clear that a compromise could not be found in such a short time. Instead, Von der Leyen proposed a final decision on the subject to be taken by the spring.

While EU institutions seemed to be primarily worried about the commitment of African countries to accept and, possibly sponsor returns, the AU asked for further guarantees regarding investments within the frameworks of the Gateway Strategy and the newly approved EU Green Deal, with climate change being an urgent issue pressing African governments to act swiftly. Furthermore, African leaders approached the funding debate sceptically, cautiously ensuring the financial resources earmarked and already included in the 2021-2027 EU budget would not undergo a rebranding. The promised €150 billion investment package seems to fall short on a few critical issues identified by African leaders, ranging from investments on renewable energy to migration concerns.

A step towards closer relations

In the meanwhile, the situation in Eastern Europe was increasingly deteriorating and the risk of an escalation was just around the corner. Although national leaders from both continents seemed determined to value the importance of the summit, which had already been delayed for 18 months, the resonance of the meeting did not make papers’ headlines due to the Ukrainian-Russian crisis. Arguably this had a relevant impact on the outcomes of the meeting, rather limited in scope considering the broadness and relevance of the reports on the table. Even though the current circumstances and instability at the European border did not provide ideal conditions in which to reach substantial agreements on sensitive issues (namely Covid-19 vaccinations, patents rights, and energy transition policy), the summit represents an important stepping stone for relations between the two unions. In these ways, the meeting has laid the foundations for ambitious decisions to be taken in the near future, and together between the EU and AU.

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