EU-AU summit: Seeking a partnership with a purpose

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]

Two years after the EU set out its blueprint for a ‘strategic partnership’ with Africa, the EU-African Union summit designed to seal the deal takes place in Brussels next Thursday (17 February). A series of glossy initiatives and promises will be unveiled but much still hangs in the air.

Though draft communiques and summit deliverables are still frantically circulating between EU and African Union officials, there is an outline of a plan.

The EU plans to unveil six initiatives at the Summit, including three investment packages, as part of what it calls a ‘Prosperous and Sustainable Partnership’.

The first of these will be based around the Global Gateway initiative – launched last September as the EU’s answer to China’s Belt and Road programme – which promises infrastructure investment in energy, digital and environment projects.

“At the summit, investments will be at the heart of the discussions because they are the means of our shared ambition,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in Senegal’s capital Dakar on Thursday, after announcing that the Global Gateway would include an investment plan worth more than €150 billion for Africa.

The programme promises to establish an EU investment platform in each African country but will not be backed by any new financing commitment by Brussels.

Far more significant is whether and how much of the $450 billion Special Drawing Rights issued by the International Monetary Fund last year, a large chunk of which was allocated to EU member states, will be reallocated to Africa to help cover the costs of the COVID pandemic.

Few EU states have any intention to use the SDRs for themselves – the EU recovery fund and ECB bond-buying means they have little need to – and a draft EU communique had initially stated that EU states should allocate 50% of the SDRs to Africa. This was rejected by some EU countries, however.

Redirecting SDRs to Africa has been one of French President Emmanuel Macron’s pet projects, and insiders say the French EU Council presidency has made a concerted push on SDRs, but progress has been mixed.

France, Italy, and Spain have so far pledged 20% of their new SDRs, while Belgium and the Netherlands also recycled smaller amounts.

One civil society leader described the EU’s slow progress on the SDR allocation as “extremely disappointing” and a “missed opportunity for the EU to up its offer” to Africa.

Macron is understood to have set a target of between $40 billion and $45 billion for the SDR allocation, But this would still fall well short of the demand made by Senegal’s President Macky Sall, chair of the African Union, at the AU summit last week, that at least $100 billion of SDRs should be redirected to Africa as part of a ‘New Deal’.

Vaccines loom large

Progress on vaccine production and access is also up in the air. Macron has promised to establish a ‘global licensing’ system, but there has been little movement on the detail.

The EU is unlikely to agree to the AU’s main demand, and on which there is unanimous African support, for a World Trade Organisation waiver of intellectual property rights on COVID vaccines.

“We haven’t seen the commitments that we need from the pharmaceutical giants or the EU on the IP waiver,” said one civil society leader.

However, there could be developments on European investment in vaccine production sites in Africa. Senegal’s Sall, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, and Ghana’s Nana Akufo Addo are due to meet pharmaceutical giant BioNTech n Marburg next Wednesday.

There are also signs of a developing pharmaceutical production industry in Africa. South Africa recently produced its first batch of Moderna vaccines.

Security concerns

Elsewhere, security and defence risk becoming a derailing factor. The EU is increasingly frustrated about the future of the anti–Al Shabaab Amisom mission in Somalia, while the status of the EU- and French-led military mission in the Sahel is increasingly fragile, following a series of recent military coups in the region.

Mali, Guinea, Sudan, and Burkina Faso have all been suspended from the AU over the past year after their governments were overthrown by the military.

Every leader at the African Union’s weekend summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, “condemned unequivocally… the wave of unconstitutional changes of government,” said the head of the AU’s Peace and Security Council, Bankole Adeoye.

On a trip to East Africa at the start of February, Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative on foreign affairs, warned that Amisom’s structure and mandate must be reformed if the EU is to continue funding it.

At the summit, the two sides are due to agree the text on an Africa-Europe Security and Stability architecture, a joint commitment to strengthen African capacities and support African peace operations. However, this is primarily about restating existing defence and security efforts.

Also worth watching, and important to the summit’s credibility, is how many African leaders will physically attend.

Trust has been badly damaged during the COVID pandemic, with widely held African complaints about the EU’s vaccine hoarding compounded by the travel bans imposed on southern African states following the discovery in November of the Omicron variant.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has accused the EU of ‘vaccine apartheid’, much to the bloc’s discomfort, is set to be the most high–profile ‘no show. Nigeria and Kenya have also hinted that their heads of state will not attend the summit in person.

We are likely to see more anger expressed by African leaders towards their EU counterparts.

“There is still a profound lack of balance in the partnership,” said one insider to the summit preparations. “We end up covering up the underlying tensions.”

“My guess is that it will be business as usual but with a lot of good intentions,” he added.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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