EU and African leaders seek to rebuild fragile trust ahead of summit

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]

Migration, climate change mitigation and the fallout from the Covid pandemic are set to be the main bones of contention at the upcoming EU–African Union summit in Brussels, insiders to the talks have told EURACTIV.

Ahead of the summit, the EU has been keen to play up its contribution of Covid vaccines and status as one of the largest donors to the COVAX vaccine sharing initiative, as well as proposing its €300 billion Global Gateway programme as a means to encourage investment in green technologies and infrastructure in Africa.

However, trust is fragile. The EU’s rhetoric of a ‘partnership of equals’ has rung increasingly hollow following the EU’s handling of the pandemic. There is a lingering perception that Europe closed its borders, without consultation, after South African scientists discovered the Omicron variant late last year.

Insiders say that the EU’s handling of the Omicron variant will be raised by the African side as an example of how trust can be undermined if the EU does not consult before measures are taken.

Although both sides agree on the principles of reducing carbon emissions and a green transition, African leaders, who more widely want to increase their industrial capacity, want guarantees that the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) will not apply to their companies.

“This is an issue where the two sides agree on the principles but not the details,” an insider to the negotiations told EURACTIV, adding that CBAM is “a crucial element for Africans to see if the EU is prepared to make concessions. If the EU imposes it immediately then it will kill infant African industries.”

Last week, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmersman said that African states would continue to use fossil fuels but gave no commitments that the EU would offer any exemptions from the carbon levy.

Meanwhile, pandemic–mandated lockdowns saw a drop in migrant crossings from North Africa in 2020, but numbers increased again last year. At an EU foreign affairs ministers’ meeting earlier this week, Hungary’s Peter Szijjártó insisted that “migration waves from Africa should be stopped rather than encouraged, and security needs to be improved [in the region] in order to achieve that.”

However, African leaders are unlikely to agree to any new commitments to readmit failed migrants with agreeing on new systems of legal pathways and exchange programmes at all levels.

“The frustration on the African side is that Europe is a fortress that is very difficult to get into, particularly for young Africans,” said the source.

There has also been some disquiet at the francophone heavy focus by European Council President Charles Michel and French President Emmanuel Macron in the preparations for the summit.

Michel and Macron have been driving the EU’s diplomatic effort ahead of the summit. In December, the pre–summit gatherings in Brussels hosted by Michel invited Senegal’s President Macky Sall, Congo–Kinshasa’s Felix Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, and African Union Commission boss Moussa Faki Mahamat.

However, none of the invitees represent major African states, and all come from francophone countries. Conspicuous by their absence were representatives from Nigeria and South Africa, the continent’s two main diplomatic and political players.

African leaders will make their final diplomatic preparations for the summit during an African Union meeting in Addis Ababa on 5 February.

Attendance by African leaders at the summit is expected to be low. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has accused the EU of ‘vaccine apartheid’, is expected to only attend online, while other countries may want to make a stand by boycotting the summit.

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