Africa must answer its own ‘Kissinger question’, say EU diplomats

Two years after setting out its blueprint for a ‘strategic partnership’ with Africa, the EU-African Union summit designed to seal the deal takes place next Thursday in Brussels. A series of glossy initiatives and promises will be unveiled. But much still hangs in the air. [EPA-EFE/STR]

Africa’s version of the ‘Kissinger question’, which originally referred to who should be the United States’ first contact in Europe, is one of the issues that remain open as the EU and African leaders seek to develop a so called ‘strategic partnership’.

“African leaders need to work out what they want from Europe,” Portugal’s EU ambassador, Jose Fernando Costa Perreira, said at a recent event organised by EURACTIV on EU–Africa relations.

“We would like to consider that the African Union is the mirror image of the EU, but the reality is that it is not,” Costa Perreira said. The Addis Ababa–based African Union, he added, “has not been able to reach its zenith” and this “raises the problem of who should be our interlocutors.”

The Portuguese diplomat also stressed the need to move away from a development–focused relationship.

“It is difficult to have a partnership of equals when one continent depends in a large scale on assistance from the other. Until we are able to solve this, I am afraid that this partnership of equals will not be absolutely possible,” said Costa Perreira

Youssef Travaly, the founder of All Sights Africa think tank, agreed, saying that “as long as the starting point is that Africa is a continent that needs assistance from Europe then we won’t move anywhere”.

While the stature of the AU has increased in recent years with the agreement of continent–wide free trade pact, a handful of leading African states, including Nigeria and South Africa, typically prefer to speak as individuals rather than as part of a common AU mandate.

African leaders initially agreed to task the AU, founded in 2002, with negotiating a ‘continent–to–continent’ accord with Europe within the context of the recent talks between the EU and African, Caribbean and Pacific community, only to change tack shortly before the negotiations began.

Talks on a ‘strategic partnership’, identified as one of the main external policy priorities of the Ursula von der Leyen–led European Commission, have been stalled by the COVID pandemic.

Talks were initially planned to be concluded in autumn 2020 but EU officials have conceded that, as planned summits have been repeatedly postponed, an EU–African Union leaders’ summit is unlikely to be held before 2022.

However, despite several recent false starts on attempts to deepen political and economic relations between the two continents, “this time we are convinced that there is real commitment,” said Tebatso Belasang, deputy head of Botswana’s EU mission in Brussels.

“Africa needs Europe and Europe needs Africa,” she said, adding that that “partnership is more important to us today because of the debilitating effects of COVID”.

The pandemic is set to reshape the negotiations. Although African states have seen far lower death tolls and infection rates from COVID, the economic effects are set to leave a shortfall of $290 billion by the end of 2023, which will be only partially offset by the issuance of new Special Drawing Rights by the International Monetary Fund.

European Commission official Francesca di Mauro said that “COVID was a test of the strategy” and “has had a huge social and economic effect on Africa”.

Meanwhile, African and EU officials have hinted that the five strands of the Commission’s strategy paper – green transition; digital transformation; sustainable growth and jobs; peace and governance; migration and mobility – are likely to be added to in the wake of the pandemic, particularly in the field of cooperation on healthcare.

The delays caused by the pandemic, added Tebatso Belasang, have created a “golden opportunity to build supply chains in the health sector”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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