‘Stars are aligned’ for EU-African relations

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]

This article is part of our special report Renewal of international cooperation in a post-pandemic world.

The EU’s plans to strike a ‘strategic partnership’ with Africa were one the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Portuguese government, which holds the six-month rotating EU presidency, is anxious to conclude the agenda by the summer.

“We will have this year a new African Commission with new priorities, so I think the stars are aligning now for stronger EU-African relations,” Jeremy Pellet, CEO of Expertise France, a French agency for international technical expertise and development aid, told EURACTIV.

“The pandemic has challenged almost every project we have everywhere in the world,” said Pellet.

According to Pellet, one of the main challenges for the next few months will be to deal with the economic and development impact of the crisis.

“In this context, the future EU external funds will be essential to help countries recover from this crisis,” Pellet said.

The EU’s €70.8 billion Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument for 2021-2027 (NDICI) is intended to support sustainable development in Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Pacific and the Caribbean.

“The EU’s support for development is and remains very strong for the years to come, and it is also more political than before, which shows that the EU wants to be present not only as a donor but also as a diplomatic actor,” Pellet said.

His agency is set to soon merge with the French Development Agency (AFD) to support finance projects in developing countries and the French overseas territories.

“We will be able to to offer comprehensive support to our partners and to beneficiaries and we will be able to make financial solutions and technical assistance work, the real strength of this integration,” Pellet said.

One of the key French priority areas will be the focus on Africa.

“We will be there to respond to the French and European priorities in terms of international development: Africa, dealing with global challenges, climate action, health, economic development, will be key given the pandemic,” he said.

“We will focus on the Sahel region, where we have a specific interest in supporting the states to be present in all territories – we are dealing with several issues there where we support efficient security systems, the development of public services and work to improve governance and the State of law,” Pellet said.

In mid-January, President Emmanuel Macron opened the door to potentially withdrawing some troops from Africa’s Sahel region, saying France could “adjust” its operations after successes against Islamist militants and the arrival of more European forces.

France, the former colonial power in the region, has the West’s largest military presence waging counterinsurgency operations in Mali and the wider Sahel, an arid region of northwest Africa just below the Sahara desert.

A decision on this is meant to be taken at the next joint summit of France and the G5 Sahel countries in February in N’djamena, the capital of Chad.

A the same time, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is set to forge intertwining economic, political, and security ties between Africa and China, and will advance Beijing’s geopolitical interests.

Over the past few years, China has rapidly accelerated its presence on the continent, from infrastructure development to trade and education.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi used his recent visit to Africa to signal that Beijing was still willing to fund infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative, despite fears that the multibillion-dollar scheme faces budget cuts amid a looming pandemic downturn.

European diplomats are worrying that Beijing could be winning the so-called battle for hearts and minds on the African continent by purporting to offer development aid “with no strings attached”-approach, without the conditions that the EU attaches to its financial assistance.

“When it comes to China, we should not be naive as we know that sometimes behind international cooperation approaches, there might be diplomatic interests,” Pellet said.

Asked how much he sees Franco-African relations being challenged by China economically, Pellet said that “the response should be a European one”.

“Our best response is to work among Europeans to develop our partnerships in Africa together, relying of high-quality expertise and a strong spirit of solidarity,” he added.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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