The AU-EU Abidjan Summit: Is there life beyond migration?

Amidst hopeless traffic jams and a long queue of presidential planes at the airport, the besieged city of Abidjan was the scene, last week, of the fifth Africa-Europe Summit. It was the first time African and European leaders were holding their three-yearly Summit in sub-Saharan Africa.

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      The Summit was a unique opportunity for President Alassane Ouattara to show the world that Côte d’Ivoire, just six years after the end of the civil war, has regained its status as an important African player. The iconic Hotel Ivoire, overlooking the Ebrie Lagoon, welcomed some 5000 members of 55 African and 28 European countries. But what were the successes and failures of this Summit? Has there really been a rapprochement between the two continents? And have Europe and Africa been sowing the seeds for a new, more interest-driven type of partnership? Despite an ambitious agenda of common priorities, the migration issue seems to have monopolised a large part of the discussions, mainly because of the urgency relating to the dramatic situation of refugees and migrants in Libya.

      Tackling long-term challenges with short-term actions?


      According to High Representative/Vice President Mogherini, this was “the first summit where we truly worked together as equals with our African partners, searching for common answers to our two continent’s problems”. It was positive to see a high turnout of key African and European leaders including Muhammadu Buhari, Jacob Zuma, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and Moussa Faki Mahamat.

      The key topic of the Summit was “Investing in youth for a sustainable future and inclusive growth”; a major issue, in light of the alarming demographic trends in Africa and the urgent need for jobs and measures to tackle growing insecurity and migration. And, it should be recognised, that with the help of former football star Didier Drogba, European and African youth representatives were able to attract some attention in the margins of the summit, although the average age of delegations members was far over 50.

      The African population will double in size from one billion to two billion by 2050. One in four citizens on earth will be African. Each year, Africa needs to create 18 million jobs, while only three million are provided right now. Enough reasons for African and European leaders to be worried, and to make commitments to increase investments in the transformation of African economies.

      Most African countries are showing signs of progress but reforms need to move faster. Failure to do so will create major problems of insecurity and migration on the African continent, also affecting Europe. Against this worrying background, several European leaders have put Africa at the centre of their foreign policy concerns. The EU also demonstrated its commitment to support Africa with a major investment plan of more than €40 billion.

      But this longer-term perspective was overshadowed by short-term measures to curb migration, which dominated the discussions between both continents. Several EU member states representatives travelled to Abidjan with only one outcome in mind: obtaining a strong and fast commitment from Africa to accept the return of economic migrants. Possibly on a voluntary basis but, if needed, even by force.

      The international media focused almost exclusively on the migration issue, as a follow-up to the shocking story about African slaves in Libya. In this case, European and African leaders demonstrated vigour by agreeing on immediate action to evacuate thousands of African migrants from the Libyan detention camps. More efforts will be deployed to dismantle criminal networks. Morocco, represented in Abidjan with a large delegation of over 300 persons led by King Mohammed VI, showed its goodwill by accepting to facilitate the air transport. Many African countries urged the EU to do more in terms of visa facilitation and circular migration.

      Towards a new type of political partnership?


      Another issue that drew attention during the summit was the statement by AUC Chairperson Moussa Faki who quite bluntly said that “[I]t is high time that we assess the 42 years old ACP-EU Partnership, together with our European friends. These types of relationships are outdated”. This was the first public statement by the African Union Commission’s highest official on the future of the Cotonou Agreement. There can be no doubt that this will give a major headache – and possibly a few sleepless nights – to those EU and ACP circles whose intention it is to make sure that this old-style relationship continues after 2020. The African Union is expected to communicate its official position on Post Cotonou by January 2018, when the next AU Summit will take place.

      Abidjan gave some clear signs of hope that something is changing in the asymmetric Africa-Europe relationship. Africa’s bargaining power is growing and, while still very dependent on EU support for its operations, the African Union Commission is taking on a more prominent role in a new-style political partnership. So far, the good news from Abidjan.

      But what about inclusiveness?


      Several side events were organised in the margins of the Summit, including the Africa-Europe Business Forum, an “alternative” civil society Summit and a meeting between the European and the Pan-African Parliament. While on paper African and European heads of State subscribe to the principles of an inclusive and participatory partnership with the fullest involvement of youth and civil society, one could hear major frustration about the way heads of state were dealing with this in practice. A clear example of how far these words are from the realities on the ground is that the civil society Summit was interrupted by the Ivorian police. Understandably, civil society reacted quite strongly.

      Giving a legitimate place to youth and civil society organisations is easily said, but for some countries, it is difficult to act accordingly. Because of a total lack of trust, several African authoritarian political regimes insisted on removing concrete language from the final text on the role of civil society. Increasingly, there seems to be a gap in Africa between reform-minded countries with an open mentality, and a growing group of countries that are closing the space for their civil society.

      The AU and its Commission are confronted by the challenge to convince these states that inclusive governance is a key prerequisite to building sustainable societies and a basic requirement to keep the younger generations happy. Failure to do so could lead to frustration, violence, terrorism and an ever-growing wave of migration.

      Surprisingly, many EU countries that traditionally have pushed the governance and inclusive partnership agendas remained silent on this issue. At a moment when several EU member states are striking deals with repressive regimes – and even armed groups in Africa – values no longer seem to be a top priority. While it is positive that the EU is slowly burying its patronising attitudes with unrealistic conditionalities, African civil society expects greater political courage and more sophisticated support from Europe.

      Increasing substantially economic investments is a major step forward, but is it enough, I wonder, to keep the youth happy? More could be done by leaders in both continents to foster the right governance conditions to effectively build open societies able and ready to confront the future challenges in Africa and Europe. This rather long-term investment is not always sexy for political leaders who are mostly attracted to short-term agendas and immediate action. But it is the only way to regain the trust of the younger generation and avoid massive flows of millions of African migrants to the European continent in the coming decades. Curious to see what progress will be made in those key governance domains when the EU-AU show will schedule its next performance, this time in a European capital.

      The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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