The EU-AU Summit: Geopolitics, a pandemic and a partnership that struggles to thrive

The sixth EU-AU Summit is planned for 17-18 February 2022, after a two-year hiatus, some miscommunication and a lot of back and forth between now and the last summit in 2017. The summit is a welcome development as it allows the two continents to discuss various agenda points that unite and divide them.

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      However, observers of the partnership would also know that EU-AU summits tend to be impressive on verbal commitments, creative in coining adjectives to qualify the partnership, generous in identifying points of convergence (in principle) and photogenic on camera – yet underwhelming in yielding tangible results. This is not a critique on the partnership as much as it is a remark on the limits of summits in general, and the EU-AU summits in particular.

      This year’s EU-AU Summit won’t be radically different from previous ones, but it stands out because it’s happening against the backdrop of a pandemic and fierce global geopolitical competition. Both developments have shaped politics in Europe and Africa at national, regional and continental levels. This in turn has had ramifications for the EU-AU partnership.

      Peace and security and multilateralism – common denominators?

      While the two regions have their recognised differences on topics such as migration management, democracy and norm policing, trade and the (e)quality of the partnership itself, the peace and security partnership has been rather stable. The European Union (EU) is the African Union (AU)’s outstanding financial partner and has made substantial financial and technical contributions to the development of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). Between 2004 and 2019, the EU has spent close to €2.9 billion on the APSA, much of which went into financing peace support operations such as AMISOM.

      Similarly, collaboration at multilateral fora or in support of multilateralism is often cited as an area where interests converge and where the partnership has potential to grow. Indeed, both continents cherish the principle of multilateralism and actively support global governance under the United Nations (UN), despite its structural limitations on representation – notably in the Security Council.

      In recent years, the two continents have also stood by each other, be it in the push for creating the COVAX facility, the defence of the World Health Organization (WHO) when it came under significant critique from the Trump administration, or in support of each other’s candidates for top international positions at the WHO and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

      This is all positive and welcome, yet insufficient to withstand the test of our time – namely the impact of COVID-19 and a changing global order driven by fierce geopolitical competition. Both developments have exposed the limitations of multilateralism in and of itself and as a common denominator in the EU-AU partnership. They have also further compounded the peace and security challenges of both continents well enough to shift their respective interests.

      Two partners shaken by geopolitics…

      The EU, under considerable pressure from its member states and faced with a dynamic security landscape in its neighbourhood and beyond, is increasingly looking to be a geopolitical actor with hard power as opposed to a soft power player. In response to a changing transatlantic relationship since Trump and the rise of competing global powers, the EU is ‘holding its own’ in addition to multilateral interdependence.

      The EU’s global profile is closely linked to its commercial and political visibility in Africa by virtue of geographical proximity, history and also commercial ties. Hence it’s no secret that the EU’s partnership with Africa has been at the top of the EU’s and its member states’ agenda in the past few years, with various iterations of a ‘renewed’ partnership. About 10 out of 27 EU member states have standalone Africa strategies, and more are in the process of developing something similar.

      On the politics and security side, the EU had been one of the keen supporters of the ‘African solutions for African problems’ mantra and an outstanding financial and technical backer of the AU and the APSA. The launch of the European Peace Facility (EPF) however will inevitably change how the EU approaches peace and security in Africa.

      For example, the EU would be able to channel money and lethal weapons bilaterally to African partners and regional coalitions, without having to go via the AU – which is the overarching peace and security coordinator and lead of the APSA. This would allow the EU to be a direct player in security dynamics in Africa, aligning well with its political ambitions and strategy of twinning bilateralism with multilateralism. However, this comes at the expense of collective decision-making in Africa and it undermines the AU’s continental role.

      Africa is also carving its place in the new global order by exploiting the benefits of a diversified partnership portfolio that no longer favours the EU or Europe over other actors. African states are pursuing their own strategic partnership with various global actors and also exploiting the global geopolitical competition to their advantage. While the AU continues to be an unparalleled regional organisation with an indispensable role in maintaining peace and security in Africa and – by association – the world, it’s been met with considerable internal and external pressure, which undermines its role.

      Internally, the institutional reforms of the AU Commission, an increasing number of political crises and conflicts in member states, and more recently, a resurgence of unconstitutional changes of government, have overwhelmed the AU. These dynamics have put the unpopular topic of constitutionality and accountable governance on the agenda, and have eroded the Union’s much acclaimed ‘zero tolerance for unconstitutional governance’.

      Externally, foreign interference in geostrategic regions such as Libya, the Sahel and the Horn have undermined the peace and security role of the AU. Arrangements like the EPF risk adding to these developments by sidestepping the AU as a peace and security coordinator.

      There are also concerns that the EPF will be instrumentalised by some EU member states with specific and relentless interest and presence in Africa. Recent coups in the Sahel region and rising tensions between Mali and France (and others) on troop deployment offer lessons on the dangers of security partnerships in complex settings where unresolved (colonial) history, national and regional political dynamics play out in tandem.

      Peace and security is one of the top agenda points of the summit. Yet, it is to be seen how much time and what candour remains beneath the celebration – especially on the European side – of the ‘success’ of holding a summit that is almost two years overdue. There won’t be any easy answers, but the first step towards a constructive dialogue is to actually engage in a conversation, including on unpleasant topics.

      …and a partnership shaken by a global pandemic

      The pandemic has also tested the strength of the EU-AU partnership. The response to COVID-19 has shown that the notion of a united Europe-Africa front to tackle challenges of the 21st century, through multilateralism, is aspirational at best.

      Despite the narrative of a ‘united, global response to COVID-19’ with the EU in the lead, the global response to the pandemic has been characterised by protectionism, vaccine nationalism and bilateralism. For example, the same EU members that had supported the COVAX facility ‘hoarded’ vaccines – limiting the supply of vaccines to COVAX; thereby undermining its effectiveness.

      Moreover, despite branding itself as a champion of vaccine equity and assigning an elevated strategic importance to its partnership with Africa, the EU (together with the UK and Japan) has consistently rejected calls to suspend intellectual rights over vaccine technology – to increase vaccine production in Africa and elsewhere. More recently, the EU has angered African leaders and the general population by announcing that the EU’s digital COVID certificate doesn’t apply to Covishield – the very vaccine it financed to reach African countries via COVAX.

      The EU-AU Summit next week will therefore be held with a recent memory of what worked and didn’t work when responding to COVID-19 in the past two years. While health is on the agenda and certainly more can still be done to strengthen the partnership on health, the pandemic has offered lessons that can’t be unlearnt. When the going gets tough, the tough look inwards and choose self-interest over principles.

      For Africa, neither multilateral fora like the COVAX facility, nor the momentum from a rebranded EU-Africa partnership between ‘twin continents’ have delivered. In contrast, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rose to the occasion by coordinating the continent’s procurement of personal protective equipment, leading its global partnership for response against COVID-19 and recently pushing the drive to manufacture vaccines in the continent.

      This reinforces the lesson that collective African action delivers, while global multilateralism only pays off on a case-by-case basis. This makes a compelling case for enhancing African self-reliance, and much of the homework goes to African leaders in this regard. But it also casts a shadow on the credibility and reliability of the EU as a partner of conviction and not convenience. It tempers the overall promise of a Europe-Africa alliance for multilateralism.

      This is not to paint a doomsday picture of a failing EU-AU partnership as much as it is to point to the need for a reality check on the depth and strength of the partnership. Both continents are confronted with numerous internal and external challenges, and the summit as well as follow-up occasions offer an opportunity to unpack those.

      Clearly, it’s not because words like ‘partnership of equals’ and ‘Europe-Africa alliance’ are verbalised often that these will manifest in reality. Leaders from both continents must be willing to go beyond the usual pompous joint statements, impressive financial figures and flashy pictures that depict togetherness, and hold each other accountable. At the end of the day, the EU-AU partnership will be judged not by the volume of fresh or rebranded money the EU promises or the number of African heads of states that attend the summit – but by tangible outcomes that add to the quality of life of Africans and Europeans alike.

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

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