Talk of an EU–Africa partnership may have only emerged in the last two years, but the promise of better trade and political relations with its southern ‘sister continent’ came from Jean Claude Juncker, who set out plans for a continent–to–continent trade deal and a change in the narrative in his 2018 State of the Union speech.
“Africa does not need charity, it needs true and fair partnerships. And Europe needs this partnership just as much,” Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
While Europe’s rhetoric on Africa changed with Juncker, the momentum has come from his successor as European Commission chief.
The promise of a ‘strategic partnership’ between the European Union and Africa was one of the first major foreign policy pledges that would lie at the heart of the “geopolitical Commission” led by Ursula von der Leyen.
In her very first week in office, von der Leyen flew to Ethiopia to meet with counterparts of the African Union and signal a pivot by the EU to its ‘sister continent’, the cosy phrase which has become de rigueur among Commission officials.
A European Commission ‘strategic partnership’ white paper then emerged in March 2020, with the promise of a ‘move away from donor-recipient relationship’.
Just days later, the World Health Organisation confirmed COVID–19 as a pandemic.
Since then, the story has been one of delays, as policymakers in both continents have been preoccupied with their response to the pandemic and dates for an EU-African Union summit have had to be repeatedly shelved because of the pandemic.
But both EU and AU officials are adamant that the pandemic has not derailed the ‘partnership strategy’. Instead, they say, one consequence of COVID is likely to be a focus on greater cooperation on healthcare and other policy topics.