NIAS Africa Monitor

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NIAS Africa Monitor
Europe and Africa: Will AU and EU be equal partners?

  Anu Maria Joseph

The EU-AU relations have the potential to become equal partners. However, it has a long way off having numerous challenges.

In February, the European Union(EU) and the African Union(AU) held their sixth summit in Brussels. The summit introduced a "Joint Vision for 2030" aiming at a "renewed partnership." Before the summit, both sides aimed to reset years of an unbalanced relationship dominated by mistrust, grievances and disappointments. The two-day summit discussed matters of mutual interest to bring about a comprehensive Europe-Africa partnership along with the global challenges of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The summit served as an opportunity for both sides to transform the usual donor-recipient aspects into an equal partnership. It mainly focused on the goals for the future to build an area of solidarity, security, prosperity and mobility.

The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, said: "A new forward-looking ambitious spirit has emerged that must form the foundations of this special partnership between Europe and Africa." Senegal's President Macky Sall, who currently chairs the African Union, said: "We now have a historic opportunity to look at the basis of a new kind of partnership, a renewed partnership, we want to build together".

EU and AU: Three major challenges
Although both the EU and AU have acknowledged the need to develop a strong partnership of equals, the deep-rooted challenges obstruct the progress.

First, the EU-AU relations have remained asymmetric; the EU unilaterally defined the terms of engagement, even when it rhetorically insisted on the idea of partnership. The EU's outlook on African development does not correspond to the needs of the continent. Human rights remain the basis for the EU's approach to trade and development cooperation with the AU. It reflects the lack of justice and mutual respect towards its African partners.

Second, even after the two decades, the AU still lag in its ability and capacity to act as an effective independent institution. It remains as an entity forged by foreign benefactors, especially the EU. Further, the AU's integration is often stumbled by internal divisions and distinctive expectations of its member states. In addition, while seeking access to EU trade and aid initiatives, European leaders have cultivated privileged ties with African elites and ignored the need of African public interests and capacity building.

Third, the issue of chronic instability in West Africa, ethnic-regional conflicts in the Horn of Africa and a dangerous Islamist militancy followed by migration are great concerns for EU member states. In the past 18 months, a wave of military coups has taken place in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Sudan fuelled by impotent state institutions, corruption and economic insecurities. 
The Road Ahead: Four potential areas of cooperation
Despite the above, the EU-AU's joint objective to develop as equal partners has enough potential.

First, the new initiatives. The EU's global gateway investment scheme is expected to re-ensure the EU as Africa's best partner, countering China's Belt and Road. The EU has promised 450 million vaccine doses to Africa by mid-2022. About EUR 425 million have been allocated to ramp up the pace of vaccination. These initiatives are expected to regain the trust of the African countries, which were disappointed with vaccine waiver and supply controversies. 

Second, Africa's growing geostrategic significance. The heightened interests of the global powers bring the AU and its members better options to reduce its dependence on a single external partner EU. The development initiatives offered by China and the US provides options for Africa. Besides, Russia, India, Turkey, and the Gulf countries also have been competing for political, economic and military footprints in the Africa. The  "new scramble" for Africa's emerging market, natural resources and geopolitical advantage provides an opportunity for both to rework their relationship.

Third, the recent institutional reforms of AU opened hopes for changes. In 2018, the African Union adopted the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which connects the 55 African countries to form the largest trade agreement in the world. The agreement creates a single continental market for goods and services to strengthen the economic integration of Africa. It has given foundations to the institutional reform of the AU, paving the way for pan-African progress. Parallel to AfCFTA, the African Union Passport project, giving visa-free travel between the Union's 55 member states, has given political momentum to the idea of pan Africanism. The long term prospects of the initiatives have the right potential for the AU to leverage its collective economic influence in its political relationship with the EU and other partners.

Finally, the EU remains the leading aid, trade and investment actor for AU member states. African exports of raw materials, chemicals, fishery and agricultural goods continue to be the mainstay for many European industries. Europe needs Africa as much as Africa needs Europe, even though both differ in their capacities.

The EU has to move beyond the aid centric and human rights-based approach to partnership. It is equally important for the AU and its member states to set agendas to ensure their concerns and interests are addressed. Besides, the AU needs to implement progressive resolutions to address the institutional challenges and foreign dependency. In sum, the two 'sister continents' have identified their potential and laid the foundations to redefine their strategic framework to be equal partners. However, the objective has a long way ahead with the challenges.

About the author

Anu Maria Joseph is a postgraduate scholar at the Department of Political Science in Madras Christian College, Chennai. Her areas of interest include democracy in Africa, human rights issues, ethnic conflicts in Africa, Afro-European and Afro-China relations.

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