The EU-Africa partnership: One step forward, two steps backwards

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The past years have exposed divergences and missed opportunities of the EU-Africa partnership, especially when looking at the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian war in Ukraine. In light of this and a changing world, Lidet Tadesse Shiferaw argues that acknowledging differences and managing conflicting positions – respectfully – are the only way the partnership can move forward. 

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    Various fractures of the EU-Africa partnership have been exposed in the past years and divergences and missed opportunities of the partnership have been analysed. But none of these debates was as hotly and emotionally contested as the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic and the divergences on the war in Ukraine. 

    These two topics have spurred debate and heated conversations not only among policy pundits and policymakers but also citizens in Europe and Africa, who are at a point of mutual disappointment in ‘the other’. But no challenge should be wasted. The question remains: is it possible to make the partnership relevant in a changing global order? And how can it be mutually beneficial?   

    On 3 March 2023, ECDPM and ETTG organised a closed-door meeting with some African ambassadors in Brussels to discuss this. The meeting was one of a few consultation meetings we will organise to analyse the ripple effect of the EU-Africa interaction on specific policy issues, such as migration, security, health, food, energy and so forth and on the partnership as a whole. A few themes surfaced. 

    The disappointment continues

    First of all, it seems like no matter how much European and African states want to move forward, the partnership is held back by recurring disappointments and missed opportunities. 

    The EU-AU summit in February 2022 ended with an announcement of the  Global Gateway, a €150 billion project that is geared towards infrastructure investment in Africa and elsewhere. They had also reached an agreement to support vaccine manufacturing in six African countries under a WHO initiative. But no tangible progress has been made on either point thus far. 

    There is still no concrete response from the EU on where the money for the Global Gateway will come from, and the six countries selected for vaccine manufacturing continue to struggle to meet the legal and technical requirements to get EU support. The issue of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 and related drugs is still a thorny issue, even if the EU has now agreed on a temporary waiver.

    Moreover, as the EU continues to use the European Peace Facility to provide military assistance to Ukraine, the facility is running at an exponentially higher depletion rate than initially envisioned. African states wonder if they can continue to count on the EU to finance peace support operations in Africa. 

    AU member states empathise with the EU and understand that the primary preoccupation of the EU and its member states at the moment is Ukraine. Yet, they also recall that the mismatch between the EU’s commitments and its delivery was an issue that preceded the Russian invasion and the EU’s inevitable focus eastwards. 

    For example, it is now clear that EU-Africa disagreement on the TRIPS waiver and the slow progress on debt restructuring as a mechanism for COVID recovery in Africa are results of misalignment of priorities and not Brussels' focus on Ukraine. 

    Commitments of the partnership are preceded by pompous branding and high-level fanfare so captivating that shortfalls are no longer interpreted as lack of capacity to deliver only, casting doubt on intentions and credibility as well.
    Lidet Tadesse Shiferaw

    The EU-Africa partnership is not new to disappointments, certainly for African states. However, the blows from the past few years hit differently. Commitments of the partnership are preceded by pompous branding and high-level fanfare so captivating that shortfalls are no longer interpreted as a lack of capacity to deliver only, casting doubt on intentions and credibility as well. 

    The Global Gateway initiative is a case in point. The EU's framing of it as a mega-European response to Africa's plea for infrastructure investments raised such high expectations that the discovery that much of it is not fresh money and a lot of it is yet to be leveraged felt like much ado for nothing. The EU's 'smart rebranding' and rush to present a 'breakthrough' or a formidable 'flagship' initiative around summits – at times aimed at countering Africa's other partners – may be doing the partnership more harm than good. 


    Secondly, it’s not about what the partnership delivers but also how it delivers it. If there is one thing the debates in the past year over the Russian war in Ukraine have revealed, it is that a partnership is measured not by how well it optimises convergence but also how it manages divergence and discord. This requires respect and the ability to accept the other’s choices. Respect, or the lack thereof, has been a matter of discussion in the Europe-Africa partnership, and there is no denying that it is rooted in the history and prevailing power asymmetry between the two continents. 

    African policymakers have repeatedly emphasised that Europe needs a paradigm shift in how it sees Africa and how it conducts diplomacy with it. They have asserted on multiple occasions that there should not be a hierarchy of sovereignty and that unidirectional norm policing has no place in the 21st century.

    The debate on this is far wider than those carried out by political leaders on both continents. It touches on the enforcement of norms and international law in a global system of governance that does not treat all states equally and where sovereignty is seen as a dereliction of duty rather than ownership of a state’s responsibility towards its citizens. 

    Yet, there is arguably a general consensus among various stakeholders in Africa that Europe’s values agenda is as much about Europe’s own moral positioning as it is about its notions of global solidarity. The double standards and the West’s claim to the moral high ground must stop. 

    As if that was indeed the message of the universe for the partnership, president Macron was met with the same reaction in his latest visit to the DRC, where president Tshisekedi broke all diplomatic decorum and castigated the west for its lectures and double standards to an applauding audience. The lesson and perhaps the challenge for Europe and Africa is how to engage in candid, even if occasionally acerbic, dialogue with a lot of pragmatism and with no condescension. 

    Of paradigm shifts and single stories

    Thirdly, to build anything that comes close to a 'partnership of equals', Europe and Africa must have the courage to envision a partnership beyond money. The power asymmetry in the partnership is rooted in both tangible (economic) and intangible (mentality) factors. While Europe has to see Africa as more than a charity case, Africa needs to lay down a strategic agenda vis-a-vis the EU and engage proactively.

    Refocusing the partnership from aid to trade and investment has been an objective of the partnership in the past few years. Yet the realisation of it has not been to everyone’s liking as there is often a big gap between commitments and their attainment when it comes to trade, investment and technological transfer. The fallout over the COVID-19 vaccine acquisition is the latest example – among many – where an opportunity to ensure equitable distribution was missed out in favour of a system that secured donations.

    To build anything that comes close to a 'partnership of equals', Europe and Africa must have the courage to envision a partnership beyond money.
    Lidet Tadesse Shiferaw

    As resounded in our meeting with the African ambassadors on 3 March, there is an appetite for a partnership beyond money, and in African opportunities and entry points abound.

    Energy security is deeply intertwined with Africa's industrialisation and the EU's mid to long-term objectives to diversify its imports and create an opportunity for partnership. However, this would need to be pursued along with investment in infrastructure and technology in Africa so that much of the production value added remains in Africa. The opportunity to export to Europe should not have priority over domestic needs for access to energy as 43% of the population in Africa does not have access to electricity, with great variation across countries. 

    Similarly, there are opportunities to invest in food systems and optimise the food production capacities of African countries – the importance of which has been made even more apparent due to the food crises induced by the war in Ukraine. 

    All of these opportunities certainly come with various political and technical constrictions and the African ambassadors we spoke to were clear that Africa would also need to look within itself to find solutions and leverage these opportunities. This is indeed critical, and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the African Peace Fund and the reinvigorated roles of the Africa CDC in the past three years are good examples in this regard.

    What is Africa's EU strategy?

    However, for Africa to be a strategic partner and a global player, it has to take a proactive role in shaping its partnership agendas. What is Africa's strategic objective vis-à-vis the EU, for example and can Africa afford to engage in issue-based diplomacy and make common African positions on the go in the current geopolitical context?

    The diversity of interests in a continent of 55 countries and the fact that partnerships are negotiated at the bilateral and not continental level does not lend itself to an African-EU strategy. But very few countries in Africa have comprehensive partnership strategies for the partners they work with, be that the EU, China, Turkey or others at the bilateral level.

    Similarly, the past few years have demonstrated that the whole system of global governance needs an overhaul to reflect the demands, interests and values of more actors than the west. It may now be clear that two continents do not always share the same views on what collaboration at multilateral fora means, how well the current system is working (for everyone) and what it ought to look like if/when reformed.

    Yet, if the two sides have learnt anything in the past few years, it is that optimising areas of mutual interest, minimising the 'commitments to realisation' gap, acknowledging differences when they arise and managing conflicting positions – respectfully – are the only way the partnership can move forward.

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

    AU-EU relations one year after the 2022 summit

    This commentary is part of a series of public and closed-door events, opinion pieces and analysis that will look at how the AU-EU partnership has evolved in the past year and propose ways to improve relations between the two continents. 

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