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A trip through 2020: How Africa-Europe relations played out

14-12-2020

Nina Thijssen and Virginia Mucchi, ECDPM commentary, 14 December 2020

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Like us, you probably can’t wait for 2020 to be over. It’s been an intense year full of plot twists that have definitely left their mark on how the world goes round – Africa-Europe relations included. If you dare to relive 2020, join us on a journey from January to December to see what the year brought for the relationship between both continents, and what we had to say about it.


January: Some optimism that this time around, things may be different


It’s January, and we are blissfully unaware of what awaits us. We start our journey optimistic, looking ahead to what is supposed to be a key year for Africa-Europe relations. With the sixth summit between the African Union (AU) and European Union (EU) scheduled for the end of October, a more assertive AU Commission and a new European Commission that stressed its commitment to a different way of working with Africa, things are looking hopeful. And although there has been talk of a more balanced AU-EU partnership for years, this time may be different – as Luckystar Miyandazi concludes.


February: A new and interest-driven partnership?


In December 2019, new European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen chose Addis Ababa as the destination of her first official work visit outside of Europe – and she seemed to have taken to heart some of the advice from Amanda Bisong and Chloe Teevan on how to flesh out her commitment to a new partnership with Africa. In February, Von der Leyen tags along 20 of her commissioners for a second visit to meet with AU Commission president Moussa Faki Mahamat and his commissioners.

The EU’s strong focus on the AU does not go unnoticed, and many try to understand the reasons behind it and the practical implications. Chloe Teevan argues that with the US retreat from multilateralism, the EU needs new allies, and Luckystar Miyandazi explains that the high level of engagement from the EU’s side is something we have never seen before.

During the meeting between both commissions, the AU also shares its desire to enhance relations with the EU – but on the basis of the priority areas outlined in its Agenda 2063, and on the basis of equality and respect, as Luckystar points out.



Luckystar Miyandazi talks about the European Commission’s trip to Addis Ababa in Deutsche Welle’s News Africa programme


March: Some major plot twists


A few days before the European Commission announces its plans for a new strategy ‘with’ Africa, Chloe Teevan and Alfonso Medinilla map the common and diverging interests in six areas of the EU-Africa partnership. Both the EU strategy plans and our paper are discussed by African and European think tanks at an event organised by the European Think Tanks Group and UNDP Africa in Addis Ababa. Bruce Byiers scrutinises the EU strategy plans and concludes that while they progress from past attempts to reset the partnership, they fail to answer the most important questions: who, and how?

But the strategy will quickly disappear from people’s minds and agendas, at least for a while, as lockdowns are implemented all over the world. COVID-19 is now everywhere, and it’s all people are thinking and talking about.

Europe rapidly becomes the new COVID-19 epicentre, and although African countries are not spared, the different situation on both continents makes for another plot twist. With Lidet Tadesse, Virginia zooms in on the switch of narratives surrounding Africa and Europe. Suddenly, it’s Europeans who cannot travel freely and as they please, and African countries who can definitely teach the world a thing or two on how to successfully manage the crisis.


April-May: A rude awakening


The world is coming to terms with what is happening, and it is dawning upon us that many of the plans we had made for 2020 will have to change. AU and EU policy milestones – such as the start date of the AU’s African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy – are inevitably pushed back.

The EU and its member states, whose major task in 2020 is negotiating a new seven-year budget, are considering how within that new budget they can help the EU recover, but also help other countries – including in Africa – cope with the consequences of the virus; something our European external affairs team takes a closer look at.

But while the EU is trying to demonstrate its external solidarity under the ‘Team Europe’ banner, solidarity within the EU is taking a hit – with different priorities and approaches in individual member states. Meanwhile, the African response to COVID-19 displays cooperation, innovation and ingenuity, showing that African countries are not waiting to be saved from the virus – yet what is in fact much needed is debt relief.

People also start to reflect on what COVID-19 may bring for Africa-Europe relations. According to Geert Laporte, it may not all be doom and gloom, and with Vera Mazzara and ODI’s Sara Pantuliano he argues that when the dust settles, it will be time to pour a new foundation for EU-Africa relations. The directors of the European Think Tanks Group add that the EU needs to deliver the global leadership that the crisis clearly demands, and should continue to focus on its relation with Africa.


June: Some uncomfortable truths


George Floyd’s killing on 25 May has sparked mass outrage and sets off a wave of Black Lives Matter protests across the world that continue for months. Discussions on racism, structural power imbalances and inequalities are not new, yet something is different this time.

Policymakers across the world (including at the EU and AU level) are making statements and people are speaking up. Aid and development organisations, institutions and universities are – rightly so – not spared and we see an increase of reflections on decolonising knowledge and development. Surely all of this will impact Africa-Europe relations, which afterall are built on a colonial past.


July-August: Big milestones


After a turbulent four-day and four-night summit in July, EU leaders eventually agree on a comprehensive package of €1.8 trillion, combining the new seven-year budget and an extraordinary COVID-19 recovery effort, called ‘Next Generation EU’. Mariella Di Ciommo looks at the sums allocated to external action and creates a handy table that compares all the previous proposals with the latest agreement.

Meanwhile, in August, the AU officially opens and hands over power to a newly appointed AfCFTA Secretariat in Ghana – a big step ahead of the start of trading under the AfCFTA in January 2021. The EU agrees to cooperate and support implementation, and with colleagues from the European Think Tanks Group, Philomena Apiko and Sean Woolfrey zoom in on this AfCFTA-related EU-Africa cooperation.


September: Summit or no summit?


For months already, people have been wondering whether the AU-EU summit in Brussels is still on. With a worrying second wave of COVID-19 cases and travel restrictions, rumors have started circulating about a cancellation. In mid-September, Geert Laporte breaks the silence and communicates that the summit will be moved to 2021. He argues that this may not necessarily be a bad thing, as it buys both parties some time to work out some long-standing differences.


October: More good intentions, but are interests aligned?


Despite the cancelled summit, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell seems determined to show Europe’s commitment to the partnership and meets with Moussa Faki Mahamat, his deputy Thomas Kwesi Quartey and Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed to talk about debt relief and to deliver COVID-19 test kits. But it is becoming quite evident, as Alfonso Medinilla points out, that the actual interests between Africa and Europe are not fully aligned.

As another show of good faith, the October EU Council meeting keeps EU-Africa relations as an agenda point. Our director Carl Michiels warns Council president Charles Michel that it would be a mistake to only have a superficial discussion on the topic. The message is received (and answered), yet with hindsight it’s doubtful whether EU leaders have managed to use this opportunity to move beyond the partnership rhetoric.

Later in the month, the EU launches its proposed new migration pact. Anna Knoll looks at what the pact means for the EU’s migration partnership with African countries. Amanda Bisong takes a broader view of migration cooperation between Africa and Europe, and explores how COVID-19 may change it.

Click on the Tweet to read the full Twitter thread


November: Unrest prevails


While 2020 is no stranger to unrest, November seems particularly troublous. In many European countries, we again see protests following the growing resistance against COVID-19 restrictions, as well as protests after Poland’s toughening of abortion laws and France’s proposed law on filming or taking pictures of police in action. As Nigeria is recovering from the youth protests against SARS and police brutality, violence also follows some of Africa’s many 2020 elections.

Finally, while the whole world anxiously looks at the US elections and the chaotic weeks that follow, in Ethiopia a violent conflict breaks out. We are still in the dark as to what the far-reaching consequences of this new conflict will be for the country and the broader region, and what the potential implications for the EU’s focus on Africa are. But according to Lidet Tadesse, the EU’s ‘threat’ to remove budget support to Ethiopia would have damaging consequences for its relationship with the government.


December: Deal or no deal?


On 9 and 10 December, the ‘mini’ AU-EU summit that Charles Michel announced in October is supposed to take place. But one day before the meeting, the AU Commission announces that the meeting is cancelled. Is a scheduling conflict the real reason, or does the last-minute announcement hint at a more substantial problem in the partnership?

It is still unclear how the relationship between the UK and the EU from January onwards will look – and how this will affect international cooperation and Africa-Europe relations. But while a Brexit deal is still not there, a political deal is made between the European Commission and the African, Caribbean and Pacific states on a new partnership agreement replacing the 2000 Cotonou Agreement, as Alfonso Medinilla and Andrew Sherriff report.

Click on the Tweet to read the full Twitter thread


What’s next?


All in all, this year has been quite the rollercoaster, and if it has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t quite predict what the future has in store for us. We therefore won’t speculate too much on what’s next for Africa and Europe, but we will leave you with some questions for 2021.

What will be the impact of COVID-19 on AU-EU relations? How can policymakers reimagine the relationship as they navigate the pandemic-induced ‘new normal’? Will the postponed AU-EU summit in 2021 live up to the high expectations? And how will a newly elected AU Commission change dynamics between the EU and AU?

Can Africa and Europe team up for women’s rights and gender equality and find a way to work together on climate change? How will the AfCFTA play out? How will the Biden presidency reshape the US relationship with the EU and with Africa? And where will China fit into all this?

Finally, for some more time travelling (this time to the future), have a look at this article by Marta Gabarova, European Commissioner for Africa and member of the African-European Joint Authority in 2030, who explains how Europe-Africa relations were liberated from decades-old thinking.

We wish you all a great 2021 (fingers crossed)!


The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

Thank you to Luckystar Miyandazi and Geert Laporte for their useful suggestions and review.

Photo courtesy of Eduardo Soteras / European Union 2020, via EC – Audiovisual Service.


All work on Africa-Europe relations and COVID-19


All our work on Africa-Europe relations and COVID-19 can be found in our two dossiers.


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African institutions and regional dynamicsEuropean external affairs