Federica Mogherini, high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy and vice-president of the European Commission, receives Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the African Union Commission. Photo by: EU

ABIDJAN and BRUSSELS — Migration and security issues are likely to dominate the African Union-European Union Summit taking place this week in Côte d’Ivoire, despite the official theme of “investing in youth for a sustainable future.”

An internal European Commission briefing, seen by Devex, showed that Brussels initially hoped to agree to a suite of summit conclusion documents, such as guiding principles for investment. However, expectations fell as time ran short. The summit is now expected to culminate in a joint declaration, accompanied by a list of priority development projects.

The commission briefing indicated that the list of projects would be a “rather drastic revision” of the original requests sent by the AU on behalf of its member states — the final list is expected to be much shorter.

Members of the European Commission’s foreign service, EEAS, as well as its development arm, DEVCO, have spent recent weeks traveling to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to hash out the agenda with their AU counterparts, the EC briefing says.

More than 5,000 participants are expected to descend on the water-logged city of Abidjan, partly flooded from daily off-season rains. Delegates will include 83 heads of states, representing 55 African and 28 European countries, as well as from the African Union and European Union Commissions, and a plethora of multilateral banks, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations.

Day one of the summit will focus on economic opportunity for young people, as well as climate change issues, followed by sessions on mobility and migration, and then peace and security. The second day, which will conclude by midday, will feature a morning session on AU-EU cooperation on governance.

The hope is for final issues to be ironed out prior to the actual event. Senior officials met Sunday Nov. 26 and will meet again Monday to go through the joint declaration line by line. Foreign ministers convene on Tuesday, ahead of the summit on Wednesday and Thursday morning.

Here are Devex's top six things to watch at the summit in Abidjan this week.

1. Working toward a common strategy on migration

Migration will be one of the major elephants in the room in Abidjan, an adviser to one EU development minister told Devex.

The EU at first considered trying to get both sides to endorse a position paper on migration to complement the ‘Continental Dialogue on Migration and Mobility’ proposed by the AU. However, EU sources told Devex that more work is required, with Brussels wanting to avoid duplication with the priorities of the 2015 Valletta Action Plan and the Khartoum and Rabat processes.

In addition to migration policy, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said in a speech last week that the summit would also address mobility — an acknowledgement that 80 percent of African migrants and refugees move within Africa. However, she also promised “a positive agenda, to see how we can both benefit from the movements between our continents.”

“There [are] a lot of sensitive topics, so let’s focus on ones both [sides] want to move forward on,” said the adviser from an EU member state, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

European leaders want to see more progress on border security and AU states accepting people deported from the EU. African leaders, meanwhile, charge that the EU must do more to offer legal pathways for people seeking short-term stays in Europe.

A list of the EU’s hoped-for “deliverables” from the summit, seen by Devex, also includes the “launch of a structured dialogue with European and African private sector under a Sustainable Business for Africa platform.”

The EU’s latest policy tool is the External Investment Plan, a 4.1 billion euro ($4.8 billion) initiative to draw in private investment by de-risking some development projects on the continent. Brussels sees the EIP as part of its efforts to reduce “migratory pressures,” although NGOs are concerned it could do more for European companies than developing countries.

How the EU presents the EIP to African leaders, and how it is received, is another area to watch. Geert Laporte, the deputy director of the European Centre for Development Policy Management, wrote recently that “instead of presenting itself in a somewhat patronising way as the ‘moral conscience’ and ‘do-gooder’ in Africa, the EU would gain more trust and respect if it would clearly express its interests in Africa, acknowledging that it is not always straightforward to get the right balance between values and interests.”

2. Rethinking the future of the AU-EU partnership

“The AU-EU relationship is dysfunctional,” a widely read International Crisis Group report recently argued. “Both institutions complain vociferously about the other’s deficiencies and limitations and yet they ascribe great value to the partnership.”

ICG pins the dysfunction on a patronage-style relationship. Heads of EU delegations “act like viceroys, they lecture presidents,” an AU official was quoted as saying in the ICG report. Meanwhile, the EU is sick of being treated like a cash machine, while receiving little of the credit.

This week’s summit will be a chance to try to move beyond that dynamic, at least at the margins.

Much of the EU’s relationship with sub-Saharan African countries is governed by the Cotonou Agreement, agreed in 2000 between the EU and 79 countries from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. The partnership outlines the EU’s commitment to support regional integration, jointly tackle security threats, share trade strategies, and mitigate climate change effects. That agreement ends in 2020, and its successor will be negotiated over the next two years.

Brussels hopes the summit will allow it to glean how African countries see the future relationship, although the EC briefing downplays expectations. “Given that the AU has only started to prepare a common position and that the EU will not have started discussing draft negotiating directives (to be adopted on Dec. 12), we do not expect much substance,” it says.        

ICG reported the Netherlands and Germany are among those EU countries that would like to see changes to the ACP system, such as by encompassing all developing countries, with Africa included as a separate pillar. But some North African countries reportedly prefer to keep their relationship with the EU under the European Neighbourhood Policy, fearing a loss of funding.  

If not in substance, at least the optics of the relationship are changing in Abidjan. The meeting is the first between the AU and EU, rather than the EU and “Africa.” Mogherini said that for “probably the first time ever” the two sides are meeting “as equals, as real partners, as brothers and sisters, as neighbours.”

Yet the gap in capacity is clear: the EU comes with a staff of more than 30,000 and a budget of $189 billion, while the AU has 1,600 staff and projected spending next year of $769.4 million.

“Is the AU fit for purpose? It depends on what the purpose is,” the EU development adviser said.

3. EU commitment to African security and stability

Security and counter-extremism are expected to be another topic underlying conference discussions. Brussels had initially hoped to conclude a memorandum of understanding on closer peace and security cooperation during the summit, EU sources told Devex. That timeline appears to have been too optimistic, but the memorandum will be up for discussion.

Insecurity is often cited as among the root causes of migration and displacement, which the EU aims to address. In June, the EU pledged 50 million euros through the African Peace Facility to the newly formed G5 Sahel Joint Force’s counter-terrorism mission, matching the collective pledge of the five aligned member states. The force became operational in late October and is expected to include 5,000 personnel across five countries to counter terrorism, fight organized cross-border crimes, and reduce human trafficking.

The French-led effort is still shy of the 423 million euro ($504 million) estimated by the preliminary budget needed to run the mission for the first year. An international planning conference is set for Dec. 14 in Brussels to address financing concerns and overlaps with present U.N. missions working in the region.

Alongside funding, the EU has also historically supported the continent with military training and equipment. As part of the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy, the EU has deployed six military missions, half in Africa. EU Training Missions in both Somalia and Mali have existed since 2010 and 2013, respectively. EU Capacity-Building Missions, meanwhile, support maritime civilian law enforcement in Somalia and aid in fighting drug trafficking in Niger.

Whether heads of states on either side will raise concerns or present figures on how continued instability impacts migration patterns and the flow of illicit goods to Europe remains to be seen.

4. Internal politics shaping the partnership

Domestic and regional politics in Europe and Africa impact each side’s priorities, politics, and interest in the partnership.

The summit has already seen controversy over Western Sahara, a disputed territory claimed by Morocco, which is the AU’s most recently admitted member state. King Mohammed VI of Morocco is expected to attend the summit.

Some EU leaders had pushed to exclude the territory from the summit, resulting in South Africa threatening to forcibly change the location of the summit to the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Western Sahara is an officially recognized AU member, but is not recognized by the U.N. as a sovereign state, but rather as a “non self-governing territory.”

Following intense negotiations, Mogherini eventually supported AUC Chairperson Moussa Faki’s efforts to resolve the dispute, Jeune Afrique reported. Both Morocco and the territory will be present this week, but Mogherini said “the composition of the participants in this summit does not change our position on Western Sahara,” the publication reported.

Migration within Africa has also sparked recent debate, after a CNN investigative video documented human trafficking in Libya, including the selling of African migrants seeking asylum in Europe. If the summit addresses this issue, it may expose divides between sub-Saharan countries, whose citizens are among those allegedly being abused, and North African states where trafficking is taking place.

Across the ocean, Europe is also dealing with a storm of internal concerns, including unease over the migration crisis, a rising populist far-right, and Brexit. German politics also stand in disarray, as Merkel’s efforts to form a new government risk stalling.

5. A must-attend event?

French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy are all expected at the summit. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres is also expected to give a statement during the opening ceremony.

But watchers will be more interested in how long the VIPs stay. The European Commission briefing expressed concern that some heavy-hitting leaders only plan to attend the opening day, risking “a rather empty second day,” the briefing says. In the past week, plans for the summit have shrunk from an initial two days, to one day and a half.

The recent resignation of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has summiteers abuzz as to whether the country will send a representative. The same is true for Kenya, where last week the country’s Supreme Court upheld the reelection of President Uhuru Kenyatta. This would also be the last chance for Africa’s first female president, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, to make a public appearance before her term concludes.

6. Giving youth a chance

With half of Africa’s population under 20 years old, the theme of youth is apt. Yet Mogherini’s pledge to use young people as the “lens” through which to view all the other issues on the table risks being overshadowed by geopolitics.

The 4th Africa-Europe Youth Summit in October produced a declaration with young people’s agenda on education, job creation, governance, peace and security, climate change, and culture and the arts. A key test will be how national leaders engage with these proposals.

Mogherini pledged that young leaders “will have a key role in the Summit,” including in building “concrete ideas” about how to make policy more effective.

The provisional work program foresees an informal pre-summit meeting between youth representatives and heads of delegation. How many EU officials take part, and how actively, could set the tone for the rest of the day’s discussions.

Stay tuned for more Devex coverage from the AU-EU Summit.

About the authors

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby worked as the West Africa Correspondent for Devex, covering global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her master of science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.
  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.