EU-Africa relations have hardly followed a linear path, but the events of the past two years – namely, Covid-19 and the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine – seemingly put it under additional strain, allowing age-old grievances to come back in full force.
2020 was supposed to mark a reset, or at least a review of the partnership. Following high-level meetings between European and African officials, a new EU Africa strategy was launched in March, with the aim to give new momentum to inter-continental relations in light of a new, geopolitical European Commission and new common challenges. The feeling was that after much focus on (stemming) cross-Mediterranean migration flows, the tone would be finally set right, engaging on a more equal and opportunity-driven basis.
Nevertheless, the timing could not be worse. When the strategy was announced in Brussels, borders started closing in Europe, marking the beginning of the isolation that characterised the first months of the pandemic. Soon thereafter, policymakers in Europe became mostly concerned about securing protective equipment, supporting businesses and managing the spread of the virus. While extraordinary budget support measures were being passed into law in Brussels, African countries were left facing staggering amounts of sovereign debt, that once more underlined the different standards applied to public finance in the Global South and the Global North.
Unequal vaccine distributions did not help project a positive image of Europe’s commitment to its “priority” partner either. While emergency support was provided and funding was channelled into the COVAX initiative, the first batch of collectively purchased doses reached the African continent only months after vaccination campaigns had started in Europe. More than three times the necessary doses of vaccines were hoarded by Europe in the early phases of the vaccination campaign. Excess doses were later shared with partners – and counted as Official Development Assistance – all while calls for a TRIPS waiver on vaccine production were repeatedly rejected.
It is no surprise, then, that the EU-AU Summit initially planned for October 2020 was twice rescheduled, while the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) took place at the height of the Omicron variant spread in December 2021 as planned. Faced with the consistent engagement of Africa’s non-European partners, which arguably made better show of solidarity than Africa’s historical partner during the pandemic, the EU had a hard time catching the attention of its neighbour even with the launch of its new global development strategy, the Global Gateway (GG). Introduced as a response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, it initially fell on rather sceptical ears, and its ambitions are now being questioned. The fact that African partners, who are supposedly the main beneficiaries of GG projects, were not consulted in the design phase certainly did not help to foster a sense of true “partnership of equals”.
Fast forward to February 2022, when the 6th EU-AU Summit finally took place. The simmering tensions along the Russia-Ukraine border took part of the attention away from the partnership’s own issues. When the war eventually broke out, Europe and Africa’s divergent views of the international order were put on full display at the UNGA vote on Resolution ES-11/1, condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Although a majority of African countries voted in favour, most of the attention in Europe focused on those that abstained, whose vote was interpreted as an implicit acceptance of Russia’s aggression and a sign of Russia’s influence in Africa.
While European policymakers interpreted this behaviour as reneging on the shared belief in multilateralism, African leaders saw in Europe’s outrage a further sign of i) ignoring African countries’ agency in choosing their partners, and ii) double standards in military aggressions and peace negotiations. In the first case, European policymakers have been seemingly concerned about ‘losing ground’ to non-traditional donors in Africa – China mostly, and Russia more recently – in narratives that depict African leaders as being somehow ‘tricked’ into detrimental partnerships. Such a view ignores African countries’ own interests, and the agency that they exercise when dealing with their external partners – be they European, Chinese, or Russian. Secondly, being shocked at some countries’ non-alignment with the European view of a war of aggression on Europe’s border, while taking a rather controversial stance on issues that directly affect the African continent (read: disregarding African initiatives), seemed rather dubious to African stakeholders. Last but not least, requesting political support from African partners without showing African citizens the same outpouring of solidarity directed towards Ukrainian refugees put into significant question the truthfulness of statements about a partnership of equals.
Europe’s management of the Ukraine crisis also represents a challenge in the EU-Africa relationship with regards to support for peace and security initiatives. Coups seems to be on the rise again, and non-European partners are sought after to secure African societies from terrorism – something Europe is concerned about. In the meantime, AU reforms to secure independent funding for peace and security initiatives have not been as successful as hoped for; and the EU, which had been a long-time financial partner for Africa’s security, merged its African Peace Facility into the European Peace Facility. The latter, though originally global in scope, has been so far mainly used to support Ukraine. Although funds have been earmarked for the AU, these do not match the scale of needs. Reducing key financial support for peace and security initiatives in a time of arguably increasing sources of insecurity casts a shadow of uncertainty about the future of the EU-Africa peace and security partnership, which has been one of the most productive to date. It also raises questions about Europe’s true commitment to its relationship with Africa, given the currently charged geopolitical reality the partnership is immersed in. If the actions of the Russian Wagner Group are a concern, why decrease support to African-led security initiatives?
Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine have cast a significant shadow over the EU-Africa partnership, leaving many observers wondering about the actual nature of this relationship. Nevertheless, with crises come opportunities, as the saying goes. While Covid-19 did not bring about the reset that many had hoped for, the Ukraine crisis has brought into the open the divergences that do exist in the EU-Africa partnership. It is up to these parties now to be receptive to these differences and talk them through, if the partnership is to live up to its original ambition.
The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ETTG.