EU–Africa relations: a partnership delayed but not derailed

As the EU searches for allies in a post-COVID world, a group of European thinktank leaders looks at how to build a stronger Europe-Africa axis in the multilateral system? EPA-EFE/STRINGER

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.

COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic two days after the Commission published its strategy for a “sustainable partnership” with Africa.

At the heart of the Commission blueprint was a focus on the green transition, energy, and digital transformation. The strategy paper, which set out the EU’s priorities, proposes five partnerships on energy, digitalisation, inward investment, peace and migration. Those remain on the table, with the EU executive anxious to ensure that the EU’s carbon adjustment mechanism will not hurt African exports.

The COVID-19 pandemic has derailed the pace of the talks and, in part, reshaped their direction.

‘The main narrative was that we want an equal partnership – we don’t want to have a donor-recipient relationship. Even though the strategy is still valid, COVID-19 has changed a lot,’ said Jutta Urpilainen, the EU’s Commissioner for International Partnerships.

The result is that the agenda is likely to be expanded to include reinforcing healthcare across Africa and increasing EU investment in education.

In March, EU lawmakers in the European Parliament urged the two blocs to prioritise healthcare by stepping up EU-Africa collaboration on health research and innovation to boost local production of equipment and medicine.

“Our African friends are our allies and all Europeans have to grasp the importance and the opportunity that this partnership offers to us,” Zacharopoulou told lawmakers. The French MEP added that this should begin by “reinforcing Africa’s healthcare systems”.

However, while over a year has passed, the Commission’s March 2020 strategy paper is still the only negotiating document on the table.

While the EU’s African embrace is couched in a mix of idealism and self– interest, it is, in part, the result of other competitors also making a new dash to the continent, particularly China, which has rapidly accelerated its presence on the continent, primarily through infrastructure development.

There is anxiety and frustration among EU diplomats that Beijing’s offer of financial assistance “with no strings attached”, without the conditions that the EU and the European Investment Bank attach to their support programmes. Both US and EU officials say that theirs are the “best and most attractive offers on economic development” to African countries.

European Commission officials, meanwhile, point out that the bloc is still the largest export and import partner for trade in goods with Africa, accounting for 31% of exports and 29% of imports.

Britain, India, Russia and France have also hosted Africa-focused investment conferences within the last year, while the United States, under President Joe Biden, is showing more interest in the African Union and US–Africa relations than his predecessor Donald Trump, who had prioritised relations with Morocco, Egypt and Kenya but offered little engagement with the wider continent.

The African Growth and Opportunity Act, which offers quota and tariff-free terms on a wide range of goods, is due to expire in 2025. Had Donald Trump been re–elected, AGOA would almost certainly have been scrapped, with bilateral trade agreements with a small group of countries, led by Kenya, pursued instead. There are hints that the Biden administration will either extend AGOA again or upgrade it.

Biden used a speech to the African Union in February, which Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Robert Godec said “signalled that the US wants to engage across the continent”.

For its part, the UK held its second annual African investment summit in January, and has finalised trade deals that roll over the terms of the EU’s economic partnership agreements with its main African trading partners.

However, London, too, appears to only be interested in a group of English–speaking African countries. Boris Johnson’s government’s Integrated Review on foreign policy identified only South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana as priorities when it comes to “our shared prosperity goals, our democratic values and our security interests”, with Nigeria and the East African region singled out as partner priorities.

The questions of who speaks for Africa with Europe, and now vice versa, are another dynamic that affects the pace and direction of partnership talks. The African Union has gradually become a more assertive institution, though its institutional memory and mandate are far weaker than the European Commission’s, and Carlos Lopes, the well–respected former executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, is the AU Commission’s chief advisor in its negotiations with the EU.

However, the AU still takes second place to leaders of major African countries, particularly South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Kenya. The failure of the AU to secure a mandate from the continent’s leaders to negotiate directly with the EU and take the place of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Community, was a major setback to its reputation, and a reminder that its member states are unwilling for it to acquire significant diplomatic power.

The EU, meanwhile, has its own institutional power struggles.

In the European Commission, DG Devco, which was responsible for drafting the bulk of the March 2020 strategy paper, has long been the driving force behind relations with Africa, through the prism of development. The Commission’s diplomatic arm, the European External Action Service, has the official mandate to negotiate with the AU.

At leader level, meanwhile, both Commission President von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel have sought to carve out their own diplomatic missions with African leaders. Michel, in particular, has made a series of trips to East Africa this year promoting EU investment and vaccine diplomacy in the region, prompting some speculation about institutional overlap.

While the EU, and others, have scrambled to procure supplies of COVID vaccines for their own populations, African countries have struggled to secure more than a toehold in the vaccine procurement market, prompting complaints of ‘vaccine nationalism’ from the likes of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and accusations of ‘vaccine apartheid’ from the Kenyan government.

There is deep disappointment among African leaders that the Covax mechanism, launched by French President Emmanuel Macron, and coordinated through the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, that was supposed to lead to an equitable global distribution of vaccines, has instead become a programme that is largely devoted to helping developing countries gain access to relatively small quantities of the vaccine.

That has prompted some to recall Africa’s fight to gain access to affordable HIV medicines in the 1990s and 2000s, and an angry civil society response to the vaccine shortage.

The European Union provided more than €2.2 billion to the Covax programme, second only to the United States, and EU diplomats have been instructed to join local ministers as vaccine deliveries arrive. For example, the arrival of the first Covid vaccines in Uganda prompted the EU External Action Service, to proclaim that ‘Uganda receives 1st batch of Covid19 vaccines thanks to #TeamEurope’.

However, the promises from France, the United Kingdom and other western countries to offer their surplus vaccines to Africa still have no timeline.

That could be a misstep. China was quick to make diplomatic capital by offering large donations of personal protective equipment during the first wave of the pandemic, and the Russian Sputnik vaccine and China’s Sinopharm are already being made available to African countries.

The frustration over the slow pace of vaccine procurement has prompted South Africa and India to lead the campaign, which has rapidly gained wide support from civil society and international leaders, to set aside Intellectual Property patent laws to allow for greater production of COVID-19 vaccines ‘for the common good’.

Vaccine nationalism, along with opacity on pricing and the refusal of Western countries to lift intellectual property restrictions on vaccine manufacture, is among the biggest obstacles facing Africa’s campaign against the second wave of the coronavirus across the continent.

While the campaign for a waiver on the patents for COVID vaccine, now backed by US President Joe Biden, though not the EU, has support from a number of African countries, experts say that an IP exemption is a sideshow to the main event; that of establishing an African pharmaceutical sector that can manufacture medicines and vaccinations in bulk.

John-Arne Rottingen, chair of the World Health Organisation Solidarity Trial of COVID-19 Treatments has described a patent waiver as being simply ‘the wrong approach’ given the complexities of production.

Instead, technology transfer, such as the agreements that AstraZeneca has struck with the Serum Institute of India and Fiocruz in Brazil for the manufacture of its vaccine, are models which WHO and African public health experts say should be the priority.

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, has pointed to South Africa, Egypt, Senegal and Morocco as having the potential to manufacture COVID vaccines, although he conceded that “these will need to be expanded and strengthened”. 

In other areas, there is still a disconnect between EU and African leaders. A case in point is over the EU’s wish to export its climate change policy and Green Deal, another key priority of the Von der Leyen Commission. EU High Representative Josep Borrell, said in January that the Green Deal would be ‘a key part of our African partnership’

President von der Leyen has called for the creation of “an African Green Deal for a stronger and more prosperous Africa”.

But the scope of the EU’s proposed carbon levy on imports, the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), has caused some disquiet among African officials who worry that a continent that only accounts for 2% of the world’s carbon emissions will end up being hit by a tax designed to target China and other high emitting countries.

“The implementation of this tax would have the effect of punishing developing countries, even driving them into environmentally harmful practice,” Muhammed Magassy, a Gambian lawmaker who also sits in the parliament of the 15–member Economic Community of West African States, wrote for EURACTIV.

AU officials say that establishing green value chains in Africa will take decades to reach. And the continent’s aid-dependent countries are concerned about the EU’s plans to attach new conditions to aid, by specifying that 25% of aid money must be spent on projects related to climate action.

On the European side, there is awareness of the dilemma and, publicly, EU institutions are promising that there will be support programmes to mitigate any extra costs.

African demands for cash, primarily private investment in their burgeoning renewable energy firms, was one of the subtexts at the EU-Africa Green Investment Forum in April.

African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina and other development finance institutions talk up the continent’s vast opportunities for green growth.

“Africa is a huge market offering incredible opportunities. The recovery pathway offers enormous opportunities. Recovery must be green and build climate resilience. Recovery must boost green investments,” Adesina said, adding that African countries are rapidly scaling up renewables, particularly solar and wind power.

While climate change is a huge challenge for Africa, Adesina urged investors to seize on the opportunities it presents, which he said would be worth $3 trillion by 2030.

“Africa may be the continent that is most vulnerable to the immediate effects of climate change but it is responsible for some of the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per head,” said European Investment Bank President Werner Hoyer.

“This is also the continent where mistakes made elsewhere can be avoided. Africa can invest in innovative technologies and make the right choices for a sustainable and inclusive future,” adds Hoyer.

The lofty promises of cash and political cooperation are yet to become reality.

The African Continent Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) came into force in January, and the EU has contributed financial and technical support. But for the moment, beyond a reference to supporting “regional and continental economic integration” in Africa, via AfCFTA, the EU’s ‘partnership’ paper includes little of substance on trade.

There is no prospect of a revised offer from the EU on trade relations. Nor will the recently concluded successor to the Cotonou agreement change trading arrangements between the EU and ACP, which will continue to be based on the regional economic partnership agreements, of which only the EPA with the Southern African Development Community is fully in force, and the Anything But Arms agreement.

So what is going to be new, especially since a repeated demand of African governments is that trade agreements be made more flexible to allow them to build up domestic and regional manufacturing bases that would, in turn, allow them to export more high-value finished products rather than raw goods to Europe?

In his African diplomatic visits this year, European Council President Charles Michel has talked up the importance of beefing up European financial support for Africa’s private sector, primarily via the European Investment Bank. Part of that could lie in EU financial support for the construction of more factories in the pharmaceutical sector in Africa.

 “it is very important in terms of the future for Africa, but also for Europe because that means diversification of the supply chain and that is also good for us,” Michel said during a visit to Angola on 29 April.

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