Were it not for the current Ukraine crisis, the Sixth European Union–African Union Summit held in Brussels from 17-18 February would likely still be on the front burner of geopolitical conversations.
The much-hyped relations reset event lived up to its billing: 40 African leaders were in Brussels; a mix of pomp and substantive outcomes defined the summit where both regions pursued intersecting and sometimes divergent interests.
The implicit backdrop was China’s rising influence in Africa, and countries such as the USA, Japan, the United Kingdom, France and Germany are strengthening bilateral engagements.
Co-chaired by the AU Chairperson and Senegalese President Macky Sall and President of the European Council Charles Michel, key takeaways for Africa included a pledge of €150 billion ($168 billion) investment package targeting the energy, transport, digital infrastructure, health and education sectors.
The amount would be spread over the next seven years, translating to about $24 billion per year—a significant outlay considering the EU’s current Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Africa totals about $250 billion.
The investment package is an offshoot of the EU’s €300 billion ($336 billion) Global Gateway programme launched in 2021, rivalling China's Belt and Road Initiative, which is already financing critical infrastructure in various countries on the continent.
Increasing Africa's access to Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) - a basket of billions of dollars of the world’s leading currencies held by the IMF— gained currency at the summit.
French President Emmanuel Macron and President Sall had set a target of the release of $100 billion unused SDRs to boost liquidity in African countries during the Summit on Financing African Economies held in Paris in May 2021. In Brussels, the feeling was that EU member states could do more than the $13 billion pledged already.
The EU also committed to increasing its COVID-19 vaccine donation to Africa from less than 150 million doses currently to 450 million doses by mid-2022, in addition to mobilizing €425 million ($465 million) to support vaccine distribution and to train medical teams.
On the flip side, African leaders could not convince the EU in Brussels to waive intellectual property (IP) rights for vaccines to enable Africa to produce its own jabs and save more lives.
Africans and many others, including the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, as well as the Executive Director of UNAIDS Winnie Byanyima, have been calling for equitable vaccination of global populations. WHO reports that just over 11 per cent of Africans are vaccinated compared to 66 per cent of Americans, 85 per cent of Chinese, and 62 per cent of Europeans. The global average is 56 per cent.
In Brussels, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa urged the EU to approve the waiver for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
And President Maada Bio of Sierra Leone asked, pointedly: "Are we equal partners in this? Do we consider there are human beings on the other side?"
The IP issue was punted to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). An anodyne post-summit declaration expresses a commitment to “an agreement on a comprehensive WTO response to the pandemic, which includes trade-related, as well as intellectual property related aspects.”
However, in mid-March, the WTO announced a deal reached by the US, the EU, India and South Africa for a limited IP waiver for COVID-19. The deal excludes treatments and tests. Director-General of WTO Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala welcomed the deal but cautioned it still needs the approval of the body’s 164 members.
Although migration was a key concern for the Europeans, the summit was less specific on ways to tackle the flow of migrants from Africa to Europe. Instead, the final declaration states: “We will continue addressing all aspects of migration and mobility… We commit to addressing the challenges posed by the brain drain and investing in youth and women to support their empowerment, skills, education and employment prospects.”
France announced its military withdrawal from Mali at the summit even as the EU reiterated its “support for Africa-led Peace Support Operations.”
The Africans were clear-eyed about their priorities. First, they needed the EU, a supranational body, to engage Africa through support for pan-African projects such as Agenda 2063, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the African Union Green Recovery Action Plan.
Second, canvassing investment opportunities on the continent, the leaders wanted a change of mindset, from a donor-recipient continent to that of partnership.
Third, they demanded action, not just words; many development experts believe that the EU-AU summits were often talkfests and that prior EU commitments remain largely unfilled.
In an op-ed published ahead of the summit, the Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa Vera Songwe maintained that “too many summits have happened with too little impact in the last few years.”
“There is a long history of unfulfilled promises… when it comes to the EU and Africa,” concurs W. Gyude Moore, a policy analyst with the Centre for Global Development, a global poverty research institution.
The clamour for equal partnership was the low-hanging fruit as EU top officials sounded the right notes throughout the summit. “The European Union wants to be Africa's partner of choice. This is basically the summary of the summit,” said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission.
Mr. Michel emphasized that the summit was organized to “enable us to listen to each other, to better understand each other.”
The concept of equal partnership was also captured in the final declaration: “This renewed partnership will be founded on… respect for sovereignty, mutual respect and accountability, shared values, equality between partners and reciprocal commitments.”
To ensure actions match words going forward, Mr. Michel proposed a monitoring mechanism consisting of AU and EU representatives, the private sector and civil society actors to review and report on which projects are “coming to fruition in accordance with the established schedule, and which projects may need further impetus, adaptations and improvements.”
Jolted into action
Findings from EU-commissioned research showing that Africans consider China and the US — not the EU — as top partners had triggered a major PR campaign to showcase the EU’s activities in Africa to Africans.
Yet the EU is Africa’s largest trading partner, accounting for 33 per cent of exports from Africa and 31 per cent of imports. Africa’s export to China is 17 per cent export and import 22 per cent, while the US is 6 per cent export and 6 per cent import.
Strengthening trade relations, increased FDI and supporting the continent’s projects such as the AfCFTA, coupled with communications campaigns to win the hearts and minds of Africans could well catapult the EU to the top of the list of Africa’s friend-in-need—and indeed.