Von der Leyen in Addis Ababa: Seven ingredients for a successful first date

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

As the new European Commission President prepares to make her first trip to Ethiopia, Chloe Teevan and Amanda Bisong suggest how Ursula von der Leyen can give some substance to her commitment that Europe is seeking a new partnership with Africa.

As the new European Commission President prepares to make her first trip to Ethiopia, Chloe Teevan and Amanda Bisong suggest how Ursula von der Leyen can flesh out her commitment to seeking a new partnership with Africa.

Chloe Teevan and Amanda Bisong are policy officers at the European Centre for Development Policy Management, an independent think tank working on Africa-Europe relations and international cooperation.

Ursula von der Leyen’s first trip outside of Europe as president of the European Commission will be to Addis Ababa, where she will meet with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Chairman of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat.

The symbolism of this is powerful and gives some substance to her commitment that Europe is seeking a new partnership with Africa.

However, von der Leyen will need to demonstrate to African partners that a different quality of partnership is on offer.

Jean-Claude Juncker’s 2018 State of the Union marked an uptick in European interest in Africa, but this came towards the end of his presidency, after the ‘migration crisis’ and when China’s growing influence in Africa became inescapable.

Such sporadic interest without proper consultation leaves African leaders unimpressed.

Africa relations are 'not equal', leaders warn EU

As the field of competitors for investing in Africa becomes more crowded, the EU will have to quickly improve its offer. The challenge for Ursula von der Leyen’s new European Commission will be to turn the so-called ‘partnership of equals’ promised by her predecessor into something concrete.

But at a time when it is searching for allies in defending the multilateral system, Europe also needs a real partnership with Africa. The AU and African countries are important partners on peace and security and in combating climate change, while swiftly growing African economies offer future opportunities.

Von der Leyen’s early trip to Addis Ababa, and the positive rhetoric around Africa in her political guidelines and mission letters, bode well for starting off on a more proactive footing.

But beyond the rhetoric, here are some concrete ideas to move forward:

Be in listening mode: Von der Leyen should be prepared to listen to the concerns and interests of partners at the African Union, in the Ethiopian government, and in civil society and business. She should leave all tailor-made solutions behind in Brussels and promise genuine engagement with African partners.

Don’t look for easy answers to address the ‘jobs’ question: The Africa-Europe Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs plans to use European trade and investment to create 10 million jobs, thereby helping to resolve the unemployment crisis in African countries. But job creation is not simply a question of more foreign investment and trade; tackling some of the underlying issues that impede job creation requires a thorough understanding of political and economic realities in African countries, and programmes adapted to those realities. Long-term investment in skills development, especially for women, will also be essential. Further, African stakeholders often highlight that the quality of jobs is as important as the quantity.

Support intra-African trade and mobility: 54 African states have signed the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) to boost intra-African trade and promote economic transformation. But to capitalise on the AfCFTA, Africa needs better infrastructure, more efficient customs and border management, more liberal mobility schemes and effective institutions to underpin continental trade governance. EU support to the implementation of the AfCFTA can help ensure its success, provided such support is based on local realities, in line with African partners’ interests.

Flexible frameworks for research, innovation and the digital economy: Job creation requires systems that support and connect local researchers, scientists and entrepreneurs. Many African officials and researchers value EU partnerships on research and innovation, and want to cooperate more, but stress that local expertise and ideas must be valued. Similarly, African entrepreneurs and citizens are embracing technology and the digital economy at a terrific rate. Von der Leyen and her team should develop more flexible frameworks to support R&I and the digital economy, including simplified application processes and more small grants.

Talk mobility alongside preventing irregular migration: The European focus on preventing irregular migration flows from Africa to Europe is unpopular in Africa, and African policymakers repeatedly stress that migration can only be tackled as part of a wider approach. In addition to the tense discussion on the return, readmission and reintegration of failed asylum seekers and irregular migrants, or stronger border controls, von der Leyen will need to be ready to renew efforts with EU member states to open up more legal pathways for entrepreneurs, researchers and workers from Africa to Europe.

Put the climate action and the SDGs at the heart of the relationship: As von der Leyen seeks to make the EU a champion on climate change with the Green New Deal, Europe will need to live up to the promise of the SDGs in its development policy, but will also need African partners for collective action on climate mitigation.

Work together to further peace and security: While the EU’s existing financial support to peace operations is appreciated, von der Leyen could support the AU’s efforts to raise funds from within Africa and from the UN to ensure more predictable and sustainable finance for peace operations on the continent.

This visit offers the first opportunity to reboot and renew the EU-Africa partnership. But again, the opportunity can only be seized if von der Leyen is ready to have a real dialogue that includes each side putting their interests on the table.

The Commission president must be ready to listen and adapt to the views of African stakeholders and to work with them in coming up with priorities and programmes that both sides can call their own.

Africa offers a test to von der Leyen’s ‘geopolitical Commission’

The field competing for influence in Africa is becoming increasingly crowded. Under Ursula von der Leyen, who has billed her new European Commission as a ‘geopolitical Commission’, the EU will have to improve its offer to African leaders, and quickly.

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