Finally, the AU-EU Summit took place in Brussels on 17-18 February, after several postponements and a good four years since the last summit was held in Abidjan. Against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the summit convened Heads of State of 27 EU Member States and 40 of their African counterparts under the auspices of European Council President Charles Michel and Senegalese President and AU Chair Macky Sall. The summit was intended to bring about a new start of the partnership, originally coined by the EU as a “new alliance”, with the partners finally settling on a “renewed partnership”. The changed global context has meant that this new start took a fundamentally different shape than the “comprehensive strategy with Africa”, which the European Council and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, both identified as political priorities during the pre-pandemic time of 2019.
Most experts were skeptical about such announcements and expressed their low expectation for this year’s summit. In view of these forecasts and following the earlier postponements, the mere fact of an AU-EU summit actually taking place was considered a success in its own right.
The partnership between the two regions must be given shape in practice and lives before and after as opposed to during these high-level meetings. Summits should rather be seen as recurrent signposts, as points of evaluation and opportunities to identify new directions and priorities. However, even in this regard, the current record was sobering at times. Strongly divergent positions between European and African representatives with regard to migration, the discussion on intellectual property rights and COVID-19 vaccines, and the allocation of IMF Special Drawing Rights feature among the current sources of tension between the partners. The continuing security situation in the Sahel, and especially the breakdown in relations between Mali and France, added to this.
In view of this overall mixed situation, the recently concluded summit and its final declaration can certainly be seen in a positive light and at least a mixed assessment can be drawn.
New approaches and concrete deliverables
As the hosting party of the sixth summit between Europe and Africa, the EU made efforts to innovate both the desired outcome and proceedings of the summit. A break from the past wordy outcome statements, the EU had proposed a lean final declaration that would highlight concrete measures and focuses on investments to be made. There was also a move away from exclusively plenary debates to engaging through parallel thematic roundtables to facilitate an intensive exchange between the African and European heads of state in smaller groups.
A key figure emerging from the summit is the €150 billion „Africa Investment Package“, which Commission President Von der Leyen announced in Senegal on 10 February. This package is intended to mobilise public and private investment for physical and soft infrastructure as part of the currently much-discussed „Global Gateway“ EU investment programme. Already during the closing press conference, observers doubted the promised investments and the associated leverage effects, not least with reference to previous investment packages whose effects and results have not been adequately monitored and evaluated to date. Keeping this promise will be crucial to refute earlier criticisms that previous AU-EU summits have mainly resulted in unfulfilled promises.
In addition to concrete (financial) commitments, the summit also serves to define, adapt and possibly adjust the relations between two historically and economically closely linked partners with intense cultural exchanges. In this context, it is particularly important to consider the demand for an equal partnership and to bring about a common understanding of this equality. Such calls were clearly and repeatedly heard both during the opening statements of the summit and in numerous individual statements.
From fragmentation to strategic focus
Although there seems to be broad agreement on the notion of equal partnership on both sides of the Mediterranean, it remains a distant aim in practice. One reason for this are the various overlapping frameworks and arrangements that the EU and its member states have established for cooperation with Africa, as a result of history, the EU’s own development and the path dependencies created in the process. Europe’s cooperation with sub-Saharan Africa has been shaped under the post-colonial institutional framework with African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states, while cooperation with North Africa is mainly carried out on a bilateral basis in the form of separate association agreements.
Moreover, over the years, the EU has introduced trade agreements with individual and groups of African states, as well as strategic partnerships with larger African states such as Nigeria and South Africa, in addition to various regional strategies. Individual EU member states, including Germany, pursue their own bilateral strategies and initiatives in cooperation with Africa. This fragmented institutional framework is one factor that stands in the way of a coherent European policy towards Africa. The recent summit made it clear that there is a will for renewal. However, declarations of intent alone are not enough to calibrate the foundation of European-African relations. This requires three more fundamental changes to established practices.
First, one must be aware of the limitations of a partnership between two regional cooperation projects. Unlike powerful nation states that compete with Europe in cooperating with Africa, the EU is not able to provide new funds and initiatives in a short-term and flexible manner, as it is bound by its own financial rules and the long-term budget set by member states and the European Parliament.
Secondly, the EU should ensure coherence in its numerous engagements in Africa. While calling for an equal partnership, the EU was the main driver between migration and investment-oriented development cooperation initiatives proposed in 2015 and 2016. Although the EU supports Africa’s emerging continental free trade area, it continues to engage in talks with regional groups of states to deepen existing trade agreements. The EU’s erstwhile support for the African Peace Facility has now been transformed into a European Peace Facility that gives African states less direct say.
Third and last, the EU and Africa should try to be as explicit as possible about the areas in which they want to cooperate. Long lists of commitments and insufficiently specified measures are often a guarantee for unnecessary disappointment. A greater focus on systematically monitoring and reviewing progress made would be a step in the right direction. Such continuous monitoring should be transparent so that the next summit may celebrate the benefits of cooperation, as opposed to calling for another “reset” of the partnership.