Dr Christine Hackenesch and Dr Niels Keijzer are both Senior Researchers at the German Development Institute (GDI) in the research programme ‘Inter- and Transnational Cooperation”. Dr Christine Hackenesch is specialized in political sciences and works as regional coordinator Africa. Her work areas include EU-Africa relations, China-Africa relations, political regimes in Sub-Saharan Africa, EU Support for democracy, human rights and good governance as well as EU external relations with a focus on EU development policy. Dr Niels Keijzer’s specialization is social science, he mainly works in the areas of EU development policy as well as aid and development effectiveness.
The regular summit meetings of heads of state and government are a key moment in the partnership of the African Union and the European Union. However, the last of these summits took place in November 2017 in Abidjan. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 summit in Brussels was cancelled and might now take place in 2022. In a GPI interview, we spoke with Dr Christine Hackenesch and Dr Niels Keijzer about the engagement of the European Union and Africa in the first year of Covid-19 and how the next AU-EU summit could lead towards a comprehensive partnership with Africa in 2022.
GPI: The regular summit meetings of heads of state and government are a key moment in the AU-EU partnership. The last summit took place in November 2017 in Abidjan. The 2020 summit in Brussels was cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic and might now take place in 2022. How has the AU-EU partnership evolved since the Abidjan summit and how did partners engage during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic?
Niels Keijzer: In Abidjan the official debates between the EU and AU representatives were contentious, particularly on the topic of migration, as an effective shared agenda failed to materialize following fraught negotiations over the summit’s outcome document. The outcome document emphasised both parties’ interests and the opportunity for a “paradigm shift to an even stronger, mutually beneficial partnership”, but this is yet to occur.
When the von der Leyen Commission took office in December 2019, cooperation with Africa assumed a higher place on the EU’s agenda. Already during the summer, the European political ambition towards cooperation with Africa witnessed a sudden and steep shift. With only weeks between them, the European Council’s strategic agenda for the period 2021-2024 and Ursula von der Leyen’s manifesto to gain the European Parliament’s support for her position as European Commission President both expressed high priority for developing a comprehensive strategy with Africa.
The European leaders’ impetus for 2019 was thus aimed at hitting the reset button in AU-EU relations. It was soon followed by high-profile visits to Addis Ababa by the European Commission and European Council presidents, who appeared to compete with one another in the field of relations with Africa. In contrast to the expectations these visits may have raised among Europe’s African partners, on 9 March 2020 the European Commission and External Action Service laid out proposals for the comprehensive strategy that can best be described as a call for continuity in the relationship rather than the paradigm shift envisioned in Abidjan.
Christine Hackenesch: Within days of the publication of the EU’s communication, many of the EU’s plans and ambitions were rendered obsolete when the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic hit Europe and Africa. However, although the EU proposals were made “pre-pandemic”, the EU insisted that the proposal maintained its relevance throughout 2020. During this time, the AU was in the final year of the current AU Commission’s tenure and seeking to salvage its ambitions to translate the ratified African Continental Free Trade Area agreement into a reality. Meanwhile, the EU mobilised and redirected development finance to support African states coping with the direct and longer-term implications of the pandemic. The EU supported COVAX, the global vaccine initiative, and sought to engage on sustainable debt management. Apart from the question whether the EU was supportive enough in ensuring access to vaccines for African countries, divergences exist between European and African partners as to whether the EU should require African states to ‘build back better and greener’.
Due to these divergent interests and difficulties in facilitating a constructive dialogue via new online tools, 2020 was unfortunately largely a lost year for the continent-to-continent partnership. The summit and the preparatory ministerial meeting planned for end of October could not be organized in time, partly because there was still a lack of clarity as to whether a physical meeting could be organized – and because there were differing views on whether a virtual summit would be desirable. An attempt by the president of the European Council to hold a smaller “leaders’ meeting” in December of that year was cancelled at the last minute, in part due to a lack of consensus on the agenda, but also due to difficulties in deciding who could attend.
Niels Keijzer: A June 2021 EU Council Document simply stated that the summit is “to be scheduled”. In the meantime, there has been little strategic dialogue on the continent-to-continent partnership, due in no small part to the EU’s detailed planning for its 2021-2027 budget cycle. A key component of the AU-EU partnership, the African Peace Facility, has been replaced by a European Peace Facility, and it remains to be seen to what extent the EU is willing to continue to provide financial support for pan-African cooperation and integration throughout the budget period.
GPI: What do you expect from the next summit if it takes place in 2022? Where should the AU und the EU set priorities to further develop their partnership?
Christine Hackenesch: It is hoped that the AU-EU summit can be rescheduled for early 2022 and will benefit from committed engagement by the French and Senegalese Presidencies of both Unions at that time.
Next years’ summit will need to face the double challenge of tackling immediate concerns related to vaccines, debt management and short-term stimulus measures, while also laying the groundwork for redirecting the longer term goals of the partnership. In terms of content, key priorities for the longer-term cooperation could relate to renewable energy, digitalization, sustainable agriculture, trade, urbanization, good governance and peace and security – fields of action in which both sides have common interests. Cooperation in these fields of action is not only about promoting sustainable economic development, but also about job creation and social cohesion.
In the medium term, the AU-EU cooperation will need to move beyond the idea of Africa and Europe dealing with “development” in Africa. Both parties need to transcend such a short-sighted perspective to address global challenges such as climate change, digitalization and the Covid-19 pandemic. Without ignoring the socio-economic structural asymmetries between the two continents, both sides need to engage more on common challenges and find ways for horizontal forms of cooperation where developments within the EU are equally part of the cooperation agenda. One concrete example is renewable energy and green transition in general, which are high priorities on both continents.
- Dr Christine Hackenesch, Senior Researcher, German Development Institute
- Dr Niels Keijzer, Senior Researcher, German Development Institute
Judith Ramadan, Project Management