Sun. Apr 14th, 2024
By Niall DugganToni Haastrup, and Luis Mah

The sixth leaders’ summit between the African Union and European Union will finally take place this week in Brussels, following several postponements due to the coronavirus pandemic. Traditionally occurring every three years, the summit was initially scheduled for 2020.

The AU-EU summit is often touted as the ideal venue for European and African elites to discuss issues of mutual concern. But this one is particularly significant, as it provides the opportunity for both sides to unpack the new EU strategy directed toward Africa, which was launched in 2020.

Beyond the strategy, however, the EU also just launched the 300 billion euro Global Gateway initiative in December 2021, coinciding with the Eighth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, or FOCAC. The timing was no fluke. The Global Gateway, of which European Commission President Angela von der Leyen just earmarked 150 billion euros for Africa, is a direct rival to China’s $1.3 trillion global infrastructure investment program, the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI. Like the BRI, the Global Gateway will fund infrastructure development and investment, with its initial time horizon projected to run through 2027. But it will also be used to promote norms and values such as democracy, good governance and transparency, as well as green governance, all to boost private sector investment. There is also an increased focus on green solutions, ostensibly to mitigate the impacts of climate change. This new, more pragmatic approach in the EU’s external relations underlines the idea of a “geopolitical commission” under von der Leyen

The timing of the announcement of the Global Gateway, signaling the EU’s intent to challenge China’s deepening presence and influence in Africa, was not lost on observers of Africa-EU relations—least of all China. The most recent FOCAC summit saw the launch of the China-Africa Cooperation Vision 2035, an ambitious framework that acknowledges that there are increasingly more competitors for Africa’s attention these days. Vision 2035 committed both sides to cooperation on a China-Africa satellite remote-sensing application and the development of an “Africa Green Great Wall.” Significantly, it promised to step in where Western powers have failed by promising a billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to African countries, with 400 million doses to be produced on the continent.

It is worth noting, too, that even as the EU seeks to counter China in Africa, the Chinese approach is also evolving, downplaying infrastructure development in favor of a focus on rebalancing Sino-African trade. Beijing has committed $10 billion to support African exports and develop more Chinese free trade zones in Africa. Investments through a China-Africa Private Investment Promotion Platform will also provide a substantial line of credit to African financial institutions. The proposed Chinese investment not only outstrips that of the EU, but also paves the way for an increase in China’s overall influence over Africa’s financial sector.

Although it is unsurprising that Brussels is fixated on Beijing’s influence in Africa, China is not the only competition the EU faces there. Other actors like the United States, Turkey and Russia have asserted their interest in Africa in recent years. This emerging political landscape challenges the EU’s decades-old privileged position as the main external partner for countries and institutions on the continent. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that Africa is remaining passive while outside powers use it to advance their own interests. As scholar Folashade Soule argues regarding Washington’s and Beijing’s engagement with the continent, African leaders are fully aware of outside actors’ designs and are refusing to allow themselves to be pawns in or proxies for great power rivalries.

The EU’s outreach to Africa appears to be more about competing with other outside powers, rather than engaging with Africans themselves.

Rather, and as we have previously argued, in the past two decades, African political elites have been increasingly assertive about their interests vis-à-vis their international partners. In other words, they are exercising agency. The creation of the African Union in 2001 and its evolution since then has been one approach to exercising that agency. The intent to reinforce what Africa and Africans need over the priorities of external partners has been further articulated in the AU’s Agenda 2063 and the African Continental Free Trade Area, or AfCFTA, which was launched in January 2021. Although AfCFTA is still unproven, it is nevertheless the largest free trade area in the world, aiming to create a market comprising 55 countries and 1.3 billion people by lowering tariffs for about 90 percent of products traded within the area. Its creation potentially increases the continent’s leverage in collective bargaining and, with it, its capacity to manage its international partnerships.

These new articulations of African agency provide the continent with the essential space and leverage to engage other partners beyond the EU. As AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat put it at the AU’s most recent leaders’ summit earlier this month, the organization must revisit its existing partnerships so that it works faster to achieve the goals set by African themselves. Brussels would do well to factor that into its new approach. While the EU was still Africa’s largest trade partner in 2020, its market share has been decreasing since 2000, and others are quickly catching up. Yet, the EU’s outreach to Africa appears to be more about competing with these new “others” that are increasingly active on the continent, rather than engaging with Africans themselves. The message from Africa going into the AU-EU Summit is that, if the EU is to compete in this brave new world of multiple actors in Africa, at the very least it must do so on African terms, so that the geopolitical rivalries playing out on the continent do not end up being to the detriment of Africans.

It also bears noting that, while the EU is now jostling with other actors for continued relevance in Africa in a range of policy areas where it previously had prime position, it has not made its own case very well in recent years. For instance, despite its #TeamEurope campaigns emphasizing its multibillion-euro program to procure vaccines for developing countries during the pandemic, it is difficult to forget that Europe hoarded vaccines while African barely made do.

The reversal of the EU’s historical tendency to ignore African priorities is essential to resetting relations, which the EU claims it wants to do. The current approach is no longer sustainable if the EU is to engage with Africa and Africans meaningfully. It is now essential for the EU to reimagine its role and retreat from being the agenda-setter in Africa-EU relations toward being a champion for African aspirations, following through on its commitments and acknowledging African agency. In fact, this would be the best way for it to increase the leverage it enjoys compared to other actors in its relationship with African states.

Niall Duggan is a lecturer in international politics at University College Cork.
Toni Haastrup is a senior lecturer in international politics at the University of Stirling.
Luis Mah is a lecturer in development studies at ISEG-Lisbon School of Economics and Management, Universidade de Lisboa.

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