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AU-EU summit: one-sided partnership

Written by Laia Aycart-Piquer, Megan O’Donnell

Image credit:AU-EU Summit, Brussels, February 2022. Paul Kagame Image license:CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Postponed twice due to the pandemic outbreak, the 6th AU-EU summit took place last week in Brussels, gathering world leaders for a two-day series of thematic roundtables.

Despite the old-fashioned “partnership of equals” message from Team Europe, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen took a step forward during her visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2019, making clear that Africa is a priority. After two years of silence due to Covid-19, the summit shows the commitment from both unions chaired by President Emmanuel Macron (France) and President Macky Sall (Senegal) to reboot the dialogue.

Acknowledging common challenges and opportunities, the leaders of both unions committed to A Joint Vision for 2030 under the banner of “a renewed partnership” built by trust, “solidarity, security, peace and sustainable and sustained economic development and prosperity”. But is Europe a reliable partner for Africa and is this really a partnership of equals?

Covid-19 vaccine distribution is fuelling mistrust

The AU feels anger and resentment over how they have been treated in recent years. The EU’s efforts to control and restrict the supply of vaccines during the pandemic and block distribution to countries ready to pay has damaged trust they can be a genuine equal partner. This is in addition to the EU’s resistance to a Covid-19 vaccine patent waiver and travel bans in response to the rise of the Omicron variant in South Africa.

During the summit, Team Europe insisted on supporting international cooperation to address the pandemic, building on each other’s strengths and learning from mutual experiences. However, Team Africa claims agency in Covid-19 vaccine production within its nations. Africa is prioritising investment in manufacturing capacity despite importing 99% of the vaccines, and aims to produce 60% of all used vaccines by 2040.

There is clearly no lack of commitment and determination from Africa. The Partnerships for African Vaccine Manufacturing was launched in April 2021 to drive key actors to reach this goal. Countries such as Egypt, Senegal, Rwanda and South Africa have already begun and many more have expressed their interest. Sharing best practices, technology and vaccine patents are crucial to ensure progress. But despite the support from many countries, this remains unlikely. This is blocking progress on vaccine manufacturing and deepening mistrust between the EU and AU.

The unconvincing Global Gateway pledge

At this summit, Europe presented a new major investment package intended to reignite the African-European relationship. The Global Gateway Africa-Europe Investment Package – a €150 billion infrastructure strategy to support the green and digital transition by 2027 – is widely perceived as a rival bid to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on the African continent.

Within two days, the Global Gateway has already undermined African trust. Koen Doens, Head of the Commission’s Development Department, uncovered in a staff email that “there was no specific calculation produced” in the investment package and “we do not enter into the debate on the split between grants, guarantees [and], private sector”. As demonstrated, the financial plan lacks preparation as well as transparency and a detailed explanation of its scale, management and implementation.

There is uncertainty around how the loans and grants will be unlocked and distributed which risks, once again, the trust from the African Union. “There have been grand declarations of events and intentions in the past but nothing concrete nor an action plan has been put in place” stated Dr Carlos Lopes during the event The South African perspective: Can the EU & Africa reboot their relationship?

There were numerous discussions around the topic but as Ronak Gopaldas, Director at Signal Risk, pointed out: “This sounds like wishful thinking without enough action”. Ronak attributes past experiences of unfulfilled plans to the unconvincing Global Gateway and low expectations from the African side.

Focus on cities and local actors

On a more positive note, African and European youth groups, civil society groups, businesses and the private sector met, ahead of the summit, to re-open the dialogue and share perspectives. Despite taking a step forward in creating a space for non-state actors to convene, the reality is that we are still anchored in the old top-down model. We heard their voices but once the leaders met, they were not brought to the table. Besides, there was no connection between the leaders’ agenda and the points raised from the non-state groups’ discussion.

Looking forward, more effort must be put into including cities at the discussion table as they are key political actors. Cities have a pivotal role and the ability to be more dynamic and reactive than states. Consequently, they can better focus on the needs of their residents and their contribution to economies and societies. By creating new initiatives, cities and mayors boost opportunities and improve the lives of their citizens. Mayors play a key role in the local transformation and also pioneering innovation being able to break barriers and change the narrative on the Africa-European relationship.

A group of mayors from cities located across Africa and Europe saw the opportunity to work together and create initiatives where young people can thrive, mobility is a choice and newcomers can find a home. The Africa-Europe Mayors’ Dialogue is a platform led by the cities of Milan and Freetown to deliver practical and collaborative solutions for human mobility in and between cities. African and European mayors work together towards delivering innovative and practical solutions to address common challenges and share best practices across the Mediterranean Sea.

Political leaders at the subnational level have not been included in the AU-EU summits, which have therefore missed out on what cities and mayors have to say and offer. In response, the mayor of Milan, Italy, Giuseppe Sala claims that “all future intergovernmental summits between Africa and Europe must go ahead with cities represented”. The participation of cities is essential to ensure that AU-EU collaboration fosters shared interests. It would help ensure that projects are close to local realities and offer tangible solutions, and that no one is left behind.

Now is not the time to drop the ball

In conclusion, African leaders welcome the intentions from Team Europe. But as South African President Cyril Ramaphosa reminded us in an interview with SABC News, “Africa has lived through various promises and still remembers what has not been done in the past”.

The current climate of mistrust built from past experiences and the damage done during the pandemic creates a real challenge for Europe, as it seeks to prove it can hold a genuine partnership of equals with Africa. But what will happen if a new Covid-19 variant appears in Africa? Moving forward not only requires new deals but also not going back to old patterns – to square one – in Europe’s interest.

On the other hand, Europe is also dealing with internal security issues. While European leaders tried their best to focus on the AU-EU summit last week, all eyes were focused on Ukraine. With Russian President Vladimir Putin launching an invasion, the momentum from the summit could fade away.

Nonetheless, it is not the time to drop the ball. Thanks to the summit, Africa is back on the European agenda and the dialogue is more open than ever. Additionally, the relationship between Africa and Europe should not be left in the hands of a few nations with longstanding historic ties. Instead, this can be an opportunity to create more space for Eastern European countries in Africa’s relationship.

Lastly, the AU-EU summit was solely led by heads of state and senior officials. To build a partnership of equals, the AU-EU needs to transition from an unbalanced top-down approach to a more horizontal relationship. We need honest conversations that include cities, civil society groups and youth generations to bridge the gap between political narratives and lived realities.