EU offers blueprint for relations with Africa

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat. Photo by: Etienne Ansotte / European Union

BRUSSELS — The European Commission released its vision for EU-Africa relations Monday, citing clean energy and digitalization as key elements of a relationship based on “mutual interests and responsibilities.”

The document, released jointly with the European Union’s foreign service, sets out five areas of partnership to be “jointly defined” at a summit between the African Union and EU in Brussels in October, including green transition and energy access; digital transformation; sustainable growth and jobs; peace and governance; and migration and mobility.

After initial concern that the aim of preparing an Africa strategy in the new commission’s first 100 days wouldn’t leave enough time for proper consultation with African partners, the document “Towards a comprehensive strategy,” published Monday, is presented as a first step, to be finalized at a summit in October.

One key question that remains is who the EU considers its main interlocutor in Africa. The October summit is with the AU, but the EU is currently negotiating a new treaty governing trade, political and development cooperation with the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States, including a dedicated African pillar. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s two trips to the AU headquarters in Ethiopia since taking office in December have put the emphasis on Addis Ababa — and worried some in the ACP — but the AU’s political influence is not a given either.

Although the EU and its member states are the AU’s main sponsors, providing around €300 million ($342 million) each year, Jutta Urpilainen, EU commissioner for international partnerships, told reporters Friday that “the real question is how much power African states will give and will also delegate to that organization.”

Despite criticism that the EU already has enough documents governing its relationship with Africa, Urpilainen said that another EU-Africa strategy was justified due to increased geopolitical competition and the growing youth demographic in Africa since 2007, when the last Joint Africa-EU Strategy was published. And with EU member states, including her native Finland, and Denmark preparing their own Africa strategies, Urpilainen said it was important the commission released its own version fast in order to help Europe speak with a coherent voice.

On the green transition, the commission document says that both Europe and Africa need to opt for a “low-carbon, resource-efficient and climate-resilient future in line with the Paris Agreement.” The commission last week released more detail on its plan to make the EU carbon neutral by 2050, while the European Investment Bank decided in November to end support for fossil fuel projects, including gas, from 2022.

Yet the picture in Africa is more complicated. Amadou Hott, Senegal’s minister for economy, planning, and international partnerships, told reporters at EIB’s Africa Day in Dakar last month that as it moves away from reliance on diesel, his government is seeking to “gasify” the economy. “Maybe in the very long run, people will stop using fossil fuels, but that’s a transition,” Hott said. “It takes time. It’s not just tomorrow we can do it.”

Urpilainen also underlined the need for a new “narrative” about Africa. Language about a “partnership of equals” from the previous commission, as well as in Urpilainen’s mission letter from Von der Leyen, is gone — perhaps reflecting the view of Koen Vervaeke, managing director for Africa at the European External Action Service, who told a panel discussion in Brussels recently that when it comes to an equal partnership, “the more you speak about it, the more unequal it becomes.”

Instead, the document states, there is now “a clear understanding of our respective and mutual interests and responsibilities, reflecting the comprehensiveness and maturity of our relationship.”

However, “the EU's interests remain mostly vague,” Benedikt Erforth, researcher at the German Development Institute think tank, told Devex. “Only in the areas of migration and international cooperation the interest-driven nature of the document shines through.”

On migration, the commission calls for more cooperation from African states in accepting returns of their citizens from Europe, while the EU “should equally continue efforts to resettle persons in need of international protection to Europe.” Uprillainen defended the document’s call for a migration policy based on “human rights and international law” in a week that saw Greece win praise from EU leaders for acting as a “shield” against those migrating, even as the UN Refugee Agency criticized Athens for suspending asylum applications.

“Of course our values — human rights, rule of law, good governance, democracy — they are all present in this strategy,” Urpilainen said, adding that these were “the basis of our international cooperation, also when it comes to migration policy.”

The document argues that increased interest in Africa from “many players on the world scene” means the EU should adapt to give more prominence to “values, key principles and good regulatory practices.” That could be easier said than done.

Last month, AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki said that “cultural, sociological and even spiritual diversity” meant that it was normal to expect differences between the EU and AU on issues such as international criminal justice, sexual orientation, and the death penalty.

Asked whether the commission’s focus on the likes of digitalization and good governance meant Europe’s priorities were trumping those of African leaders more interested in trade and infrastructure investment, Urpilainen said those topics were also part of the commission’s approach.

“When I have had opportunity to meet ... African leaders, quite often they raise the need [for] infrastructure and connectivity, and I fully understand that,” Urpilainen said.

For another German Development Institute researcher, Niels Keijzer, the document provides little detail about “the processes through which this agenda can be realized, with which actors, and by when.” He said references to development instruments under the EU’s 2021-2027 budget ignore the fact that these are at risk of being cut as part of ongoing negotiations.

“As a former finance minister I know that you need to first earn the money in order to spend it,” Urpilainen told reporters, reiterating that the document contains no new funding commitments. “We are waiting for the result of the negotiations on the [2021-2027 budget], and then of course we know how much money we are able to allocate to this partnership.”

For Pro subscribers: Want to know more? Devex spoke to the European Commission to get more details on the first draft of its new Africa strategy.

About the author

  • 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.