European Union scrambles to patch up relations at Africa summit

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It is not easy to pinpoint the nadir of the EU’s great pivot to Africa.

The shift in Europe’s focus was trumped with great fanfare by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel at the start of their mandates in December 2019. But the low points since have kept coming.

Did the relationship hit rock bottom in December 2021 when South African President Cyril Ramaphosa slammed the EU for banning travel because of the new Omicron variant of COVID, and accused rich countries of “vaccine apartheid” and of refusing to relax intellectual property protections?

“We need to respect one another,” Ramaphosa declared during a speech in Dakar, Senegal. “But from Europe I just got a message of saying, ‘We banned travel. Thank you. goodbye See you next time.’ That’s not the way to conduct relationships.”

Maybe it was in June 2021, when the EU’s special envoy for Ethiopia, Pekka Haavisto, warned that the government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — a Nobel Peace Prize laureate — was planning to “wipe out” the population in the Western Tigray region.

Was it the moment in October 2020 when African Union officials complained that a delegation led by EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell risked creating a superspreading event by insisting on a visit to Addis Ababa to publicize donations of 7.5 tons of testing kits?

Or was it two months later, in early December, when African leaders, in abject frustration, abruptly canceled a videoconference with their European counterparts to discuss plans for a summit meeting that had been postponed or twice canceled before?

As the heads of state and government of Europe and Africa, along with leaders of the EU and African Union institutions, finally gather in Brussels on Thursday and Friday for that long-postponed summit, the inter-continental relationship is badly battered.

Partly because of the awful fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, but also because of what officials and diplomats describe as a series of political missteps and persistent cultural tone-deafness, ties between the EU and Africa are arguably worse, not better, than when von der Leyen made a point of visiting the AU’s headquarters during her very first week in office.

“Of course, we are at a disappointing place at the moment with the relationships,” said Tomas Tobé, a Swedish member of the European Parliament from the center-right European People’s Party and chairman of the Parliament’s Development Committee. “We have not taken any big steps on creating an equal partnership.”

Iratxe García, a Spanish MEP who is the leader of the centre-left socialists group, echoed the point in a recent article. “We are neighbors, but we don’t know each other enough,” she said. “We share borders, we share a sea, we share challenges, but our communication is still full of stereotypes, misconceptions and a heavy burden from the past.”

When von der Leyen, Michel and other EU officials inaugurated their pivot with a flurry of trips to Africa in late 2019 and early 2020, they proclaimed a goal of ending the old model of Europe-Africa relations based on development aid, which they had said turned the EU into an at-times resented and resentful benefactor.

“The African Union is a partner I count on,” von der Leyen said at the time. “And I look forward [to] working with you in the spirit of a true partnership of equals.”

The pivot, in the words of Alexander Rondos, then the EU’s special representative for the Horn of Africa, was “about the EU being seen and felt in Africa — and by other interests in Africa — as something more than an ATM machine.”

To shared dismay on both sides, that partnership of equals has not emerged — having been made impossible by the pandemic, which from both health and economic standpoints only served to illustrate and exacerbate the huge inequities between the rich North and the impoverished South.

“The pandemic made clear that when the going gets tough, the tough look inwards and choose self-interest over principles,” said Lidet Tadesse Shiferaw, associate director of the European Center for Development Policy Management, a Netherlands-headquartered think tank focused on Europe -Africa relations.

“The difficulties to get protective gear and now the vaccines has demonstrated to African stakeholders that multilateralism is more rhetoric and doesn’t always deliver to Africa,” she said, adding that although the attendance of around 40 African leaders at the summit is significant, there is more enthusiasm on the EU side.

While the EU canceled its planned summit meetings with Africa in 2020 and 2021, Beijing’s big annual meeting, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, was held without interruption.

And China continues to flood Africa with easy financing — albeit with less money than before the pandemic — expanding its reach and influence without attaching strings related to democracy or human rights principles that are typical of economic assistance packages from Europe.

“[The EU’s] pivot to Africa has been delayed because of COVID even though other meetings kept going during the pandemic,” said Assita Kanko, a conservative Belgian MEP. “It felt like COVID just was a good excuse, like one you’d use not to visit your in-laws.”

The bloc is now focused on efforts to help Africa develop its own vaccines, and has recently announced further development and investment assistance, including €150 billion through 2030. That’s part of the EU’s Global Gateway program, in part a geostrategic riposte to China’s Belt and Road initiative.

But even as African leaders began arriving in Europe on Wednesday for a dinner in Paris, hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, the summit was coming under the shadow of difficult security events, including in Mali, where France is preparing to end its nine-year – Long counter-terrorism operation.

The end of that mission comes after two military-led coups d’état in Mali in the last two years, as well as the increased presence of mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group, and public demonstrations against the presence of French troops in the country.

The political turmoil in Mali is part of a pattern of unrest, including a coup last month in Burkina Faso, resulting in four countries — Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Sudan — being barred from this week’s summit because they are suspended from the African Union .

Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has laid out an array of goals for the summit, but also warned that the EU-Africa relationship faces a risk of becoming mired in concerns about illegal migration.

“We have to look at Africa with a positive eye — not only through the lens of migration problems,” Borrell said in a speech to the European Parliament.

Tomas Tobé, the chairman of the Parliament Development Committee, said the summit was a last chance to get the relationship on the right track.

“It has to be a turning point,” he said, adding that an equal partnership was “still the right thing to do.” While vaccine production and food aid remain urgent priorities, Tobé said it was time to put serious focus on longer-term goals like trade and job creation.

Kanko, who was born in Burkina Faso, expressed some skepticism.

“The EU’s way of solving things is to sprinkle around money,” Kanko said. “But in the meanwhile, Russia, Turkey and China are expanding their influence.”

“This is not just about Africa,” she added. “It’s also about a geopolitical battle over fundamental values, democracy and freedom. If the EU influence in Africa declines, it’s not just a loss for Africa. It’s also a geopolitical loss for the EU toward countries such as Russia, China and Turkey.”

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