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The European Union and Africa: Towards a Strategic and Partnership Redefinition




By Jean Clarys

“Africa is undergoing significant change, it has evolved greatly (…) More than just a software update, we propose to install a new software together, adapted to the ongoing transformations,” said Macky Sall, then President of Senegal and Chairperson of the African Union (AU), calling for a “fresh start” during the sixth AU-EU summit in February 2022. This call to adapt AU-EU relations to a new context allows for the opening of reflections on new analytical perspectives to rethink the synergies between the European Union and the African continent.

Indeed, on both sides of the Mediterranean, there is a growing desire to overhaul and rejuvenate relations between the two continents. From the northern perspective, this renewed interest in Africa was initiated by former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, particularly through the Africa-Europe Alliance he officially announced in his 2018 State of the Union address. This extended hand towards its southern neighbor has been further emphasized under Ursula Von Der Leyen’s presidency, who, just one week after taking office, made her first foreign visit to the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, where she affirmed that “the African Union (AU) is the European Union’s (EU) main political and institutional partner at the pan-African level.” 

Just two months after this initial visit, Ursula Von der Leyen returned accompanied by 20 of the 27 commissioners and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell. From the southern perspective of the alliance, African leaders, in addition to strengthening this partnership, also wish to rethink it fundamentally. Thus, in his inaugural speech as Chairperson of the African Union, Macky Sall declared, “Africa is more determined than ever to take its destiny into its own hands,” assuring that he wants to develop “renewed, fairer, and more equitable partnerships” with international partners. 

Following the last AU-EU summit, Patricia Ahanda questioned the possibility of the emergence of a “shared leadership” between the two Unions, while Charles Michel, President of the European Council, and Macky Sall, published a joint op-ed in Le Journal du Dimanche on the eve of the summit, in which they announced their desire to “jointly establish the foundations of a renewed partnership.” 

Two years have passed since the last AU-EU summit, which aimed to embody a major historical shift both morally and materially between the leaders of these geographic, institutional, and political areas. In a context where European news on geopolitical issues is largely dominated by the war in Ukraine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and where the few news items concerning the African continent are focused on migration and security issues in Africa, this article aims to provide an overview of the relations between the two neighboring continents through the lens of official speeches and initiatives of the main actors and analysts of the partnership between the African Union and the European Union.


I. Motivations for Strengthening the EU/UA Partnership

A. Already Strong Ties Between the Two Continents

Beyond the AU-EU relations, due to their shared history and geographical proximity, Africa and Europe naturally maintain significant ties. These privileged links are first illustrated in economic relations. Trade between the two continents amounts to €225 billion annually. With nearly €30 billion allocated to Africa annually, the EU remains the main donor on the continent ahead of the United States, Japan, and China. The combined total of public development aid from the European Union and its 27 member states amounts to €65 billion annually.

Beyond this close economic cooperation, proximity between the two continents is also evident in European military and civil cooperation in Africa. Of the seven military missions currently conducted by the European Union, six are concentrated on the African continent. Four of these missions primarily aim to train local armed forces: in Somalia (EUTM Somalia, since 2010), in Mali (EUTM Mali), in the Central African Republic (EUTM CAR, since 2016), and in Mozambique (EUTM Mozambique, since November 2021). The other two missions tackle maritime piracy off the Somali coast (EUNAVFOR Atalanta, since 2008) and monitor compliance with the UN-imposed arms embargo on Libya (EUNAVFOR Irini, since March 2020).

In addition to these military missions, the European Union also deploys four civilian missions in Africa. Since 2013, the EUBAM Libya mission has assisted Libyan authorities in managing borders. The EUCAP Somalia mission, initiated in 2016, aims to strengthen Somalia’s maritime capacities, particularly to support the military mission against piracy. Two other civilian missions operate in the Sahel region: EUCAP Sahel Niger (since 2012), which aims to improve the capacities of Niger’s defense and security forces, and EUCAP Sahel Mali (since 2014), which helps strengthen the capabilities of Malian law enforcement.

B. The Growing Role of Africa in the World

This renewed interest from the European Union in the African continent is also explained by an international geopolitical context where Africa occupies an increasingly prominent place, while Europe suffers from a certain decline in its international centrality, both economically and geopolitically. Thus, far from being the only power refocusing its international strategy towards the African continent, the EU faces fierce competition from third powers on African soil. China, the United States, Turkey, India, Japan, Russia, Brazil, South Korea, and the Gulf countries represent as many aspirants for strengthened cooperation with various African countries – aspirations that go far beyond the mere importation of natural resources.  

Although in 2024, Africa still plays a minor role in the world economy, representing 3% of global economic output in 2023, the continent boasts some of the most dynamic economies on earth. Many analysts anticipate that the continent will be the fastest-growing region by 2027. In this context, the European Union sometimes struggles to convince its Mediterranean partners to trust it, facing competition from various third powers, which manage to deploy homogeneous national strategies while intra-European fragmentation sometimes undermines the EU’s credibility and effectiveness on the continent.

In this international scramble for Africa, the EU’s main competitors are China, the United States, and Russia. The “China-Africa”, “Russia-Africa”, and “USA-Africa” summits follow one another at a rapid pace, embodying this significant enthusiasm. Each of these powers deploys its own strategy according to an agenda defined by sometimes very different priorities. China is undoubtedly the most influential foreign power in Africa. Its large-scale investments in infrastructure, mines, and development projects have significantly strengthened its presence. China is involved in numerous large-scale projects, such as the construction of railways, ports, and urban development initiatives.

Moreover, the Belt and Road Initiative has extended the country’s influence across the continent, making it a key economic partner for many African countries. In November 2021, China organized the 8th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Dakar. At the same time, the Middle Kingdom has significantly increased its investments on the continent, reaching $2.96 billion in 2020, an increase of 9.5% compared to 2019, for a total sum of $140 billion over a decade. However, although very high, this investment represents only half of what the European Union plans to invest in five years .

The United States, meanwhile, adopts a multifaceted approach to its influence in Africa, combining development aid, diplomatic engagements, and military cooperation. On October 5, 2021, as part of the Blue Dot Network, the United States financed projects in Africa amounting to $650 million. In December 2022, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen stated, after the USA-Africa Summit, which brought together 49 African heads of state in Washington, “A thriving Africa is in the interest of the United States. A thriving Africa means a larger market for our goods and services. It means more investment opportunities for our businesses.” This event led to a promise of $55 billion in US investment over three years. Additionally, Joe Biden is now advocating for granting Africa a permanent seat at the G20, of which South Africa is currently the only African member.

Although officially the Biden-Harris administration tries to separate its African offensive from its rivalry with China, it is clear that this awakening on the continent aims to counter the advance of the Asian power, whose trade with Africa increased from $10 billion in 2002 to $282 billion in 2022.

Regarding Russia’s influence in Africa, it is interesting to note that it is mainly strategic and political. Russia’s strategy primarily aims to gain support for its global positions, particularly within the UN General Assembly. Russia’s involvement often includes military cooperation, notably through the Wagner Group, which provides security services to various African governments in exchange for access to natural resources like gold and diamonds. Russia’s influence is less economic compared to China’s, but strategically significant.

Other powers, less obvious to the general public in their presence on the African continent, are also deploying growing strategies in Africa. This is the case of South Korea, which positions itself as a key partner in Africa’s development strategy. Japan is also increasingly investing in the continent, finding it a means to gain diplomatic support from the 54 African countries that collectively represent more than a quarter of UN members. India, on the other hand, views its relations with the African continent as a stepping stone in its “quest for superpower status.” 

With Egypt and Ethiopia recently joining the BRICS, Brazil hopes to deepen its economic and diplomatic relations with the two countries to strengthen its place in this group. Turkey’s commercial and defense relations are at the heart of its strategy in Africa. Over the past two decades, trade between Turkey and Africa has increased from $5.4 billion to over $40 billion in 2022. Additionally, Turkey has become a key player in the changing security landscape on the continent. Ankara, already present in North Africa and the Horn of Africa, has concluded defense agreements with West and East African countries, including Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Rwanda. While the details of these agreements vary, from security provisions and technical support to military training, they often include arms sales provisions. 

This picture would remain incomplete without mentioning the growing influence of Gulf countries on the entire continent. The United Arab Emirates, for example, are attempting to expand their relations with East African countries to project their power and contain Iranian influence. Overall, the Gulf countries’ strategy in Africa is motivated by economic diversification, securing food and energy supplies, increasing their geopolitical and cultural influence, and protecting their security interests. 

Finally, it is essential to highlight the growing role of major African powers in the development of the rest of the continent. This is the case, for example, of Egypt, particularly in Nigeria but also across the continent. These strategies are often supported by major private actors; for South Africa (MTN Group, Shoprite Holdings, Standards Bank Group), for Nigeria (Dangote Group, UBA), for Morocco (Attijariwafa Bank, OCP Group), or for Kenya (Equity Bank, Safaricom).

C. A Shared Destiny Imposing Joint Challenges

Thus, while the already close relations between these two continents and Africa’s centrality in the world are factors in the renewed interest shown by the EU and the AU for this partnership, an awareness of a shared destiny imposing common challenges further strengthens the willingness of leaders on both sides of the Mediterranean to reaffirm their cooperation. It is in this spirit that Ursula von der Leyen declared on the eve of the AU-EU summit: “Africa needs Europe and Europe needs Africa.” Africa is now perceived as an essential and intrinsically linked partner to Europe’s future. In this sense, in June 2022, African and European diplomats met in Addis Ababa to reflect on “Why Europe and Africa Need Each Other in Times of Crisis.” 

These shared challenges can be roughly summarized in the following themes: “peace and security, migration, climate change, digital transition, and the crisis of multilateralism,” to which the energy issue naturally adds. One of the first shared challenges facing the two continents lies in managing migratory flows. Based on the axes defined in the Valletta Joint Action Plan, which aims to support African and European partners by strengthening migration governance, two initiatives were launched following the February 2022 AU-EU summit, namely The Atlantic/Western Mediterranean Route TEI and The Central Mediterranean Route TEI. 

Their objectives, shared between the two continents, can be summarized in 5 points:

– Prevent irregular migration and combat human trafficking and smuggling,

– Create an environment conducive to development and promote legal migration and mobility pathways,

– Help partner countries ensure the protection and economic autonomy of migrants,

– Facilitate sustainable return and reintegration of stranded migrants,

– Address the root structural causes of irregular migration and forced displacement.

Peace and security are also common challenges that bind the two neighbors, due to their geographical proximity and the importance of human and economic flows between the two continents. In terms of peace and security, the EU’s goal is to support African initiatives to combat terrorism and promote African actions for the continent’s stability, by supporting peacekeeping operations and strengthening local capacities. Indeed, instability and insecurity in Africa inevitably have repercussions on Europe. Thus, in close collaboration with the African Union, the EU deploys its resources to foster “African solutions to African problems” in Somalia, the Sahel, the Central African Republic, and Mozambique. 

The issue of climate change is also at the heart of shared challenges between the two geographical areas. On the eve of the AU-EU summit, Josep Borrell, Vice-President of the European Commission, announced, “In recent years, the EU has mobilized to help Africa adapt to its consequences (those related to climate change), notably through the Great Green Wall project against desertification, but we will have to significantly increase this effort in the future. We must also join forces to make the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) a success. Together, we represent 40% of the UN countries, and together, we can put the world on a path to more equitable and sustainable development.”

Regarding the energy issue, due to the acceleration of history linked to a context of increasing geopolitical tension and competition, the EU has understood that Africa is one of the most legitimate partners to achieve its strategic autonomy goal. In return, African leaders emphasize the interest for their countries to cooperate with a European Union capable of supporting the continent in an industrialization process that allows the transformation of natural resources on-site into converted energy. 

Concerning the digitization of the African continent, many actors are calling for access to satellite technology and the installation of undersea cables. However, there is a major obstacle to overcome, which lies in the deficit of access to electricity suffered by a large part of the African population. Thus, barely more than one in two people have access to electricity in Africa in 2024. If current trends continue, less than 40% of African countries will achieve universal access to electricity by 2050. The digitization of Africa, but also its corollary, which is the democratization of access to electricity, are priorities for both partners.

Finally, the European Union, like the African Union, shares the principles of multilateralism. To carry more weight in international institutions, the two geopolitical entities have an interest in cooperating to enable the advent of a reformed, fair, and representative multilateral system that reflects the needs of all actors. In this regard, Europe wants to support Africa’s proposals to reform multilateral institutions such as the United Nations Security Council, the WTO, and the Bretton Woods institutions, just as it supports the AU’s accession to the G20.

II. Towards a New Partnership?

A. Paradigm Shift from Aid to Cooperation

While the interest in strengthening the partnership garners unanimous support on both sides of the Mediterranean, the desire to “lay the foundations for a renewed and deepened partnership” also calls for a revisited approach with African leaders aiming to open an era of shared leadership. Koen Doens, Director-General for International Partnerships (INTPA) at the European Commission, speaks of a “paradigm shift” by emphasizing that the term “development” no longer meets the expectations of both AU and EU leaders. Now, “Team Europe moves forward with Team Africa, as partners,” rejoices Koen Doens. 

It was at the summit on February 17-18 that this new vision of the alliance between the African Union and the European Union was formalized, marking a major and historic turning point in relations between the two continents. The overhaul of the AU-EU relationship aims to be radical in the sense that it revisits “the semantics, vocabulary, nature of their interactions, but also infrastructures, economy, health, innovation, climate, and employment.” 

This way of rethinking relations between the leaders of the two continents aligns with the French strategy, a country that is one of the main drivers of this dynamic within the EU. Emmanuel Macron committed to this at the New Africa-France Summit in Montpellier on October 8, 2021, by explaining that he wanted to revisit “more generally all the semantics of development: what allows for this common finance, its instruments, its grammar.” It is also interesting to note that the 2022 AU-EU summit was placed on the European agenda thanks to the French Presidency of the European Union (PFUE), which made the strengthening and overhaul of Africa-Europe relations one of its main priorities.

This rebalancing, desired by African leaders for several years, must therefore allow for the transition from a hierarchical relationship, focused on aid from Europe to the African continent, to an “equal-to-equal partnership.” Patricia Ahanda emphasized the day after the February 2022 summit that for this diplomatic rebalancing to become a reality, Europe must establish a fair and equitable cooperation process with Africa. At the same time, African states must demonstrate their ability to position themselves as true partners by establishing a common strategic agenda. Macky Sall’s speech at this event, mentioning the installation of new software in Euro-African relations, illustrates the determination of African states to end past imbalances and finally build a win-win partnership for both continents.

B. Thematic Areas Defined Around Concrete Projects

The partnership between European countries and the African continent has diversified significantly. Just five years ago, member states mainly focused on migration and security issues. Today, these issues are only two aspects of a much broader picture, including climate change, digitization, connectivity, trade, human rights, and many other areas. 

This redefinition of the European strategy with the AU is centered around five thematic partnerships:

– Green transition and access to energy,

– Digital transformation,

– Growth and sustainable job creation,

– Peace and governance,

– Migration and mobility.

Investment in infrastructure is the common denominator of these five partnership axes and is at the heart of the African demand. A close adviser to the AU presidency confided to Olivier Caslin, a journalist at Jeune Afrique, that the most important thing “is that Africa can have the infrastructures it needs.” Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, head of investment and infrastructure at the South African presidency, also emphasized that “creating new infrastructures in all areas will play a very important role in the continent’s future.” In the same vein, Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), explains that the issue of infrastructure is central because without solid foundations, there is no effective and long-term economic development possible. 

In response to this African demand, the EU announced, at the end of the AU-EU summit, the deployment of the Global Gateway, a €150 billion project over seven years aimed at infrastructure investments in Africa. The announced goal of the European Commission is to “support projects wanted and carried out by Africans,” with a priority on transport infrastructures, digital networks, and energy. “We will invest with Africa to create a green hydrogen market that connects the two shores of the Mediterranean,” declared Ursula von der Leyen in October 2021. This green transition is also at the heart of the African Union’s Agenda 2063, named “The Africa We Want.”

Overall, the axes defined by this program correspond to those announced by the European Commission regarding thematic partnerships. These are: accelerating the green transition, accelerating the digital transition, accelerating sustainable growth and decent job creation, strengthening health systems, and improving education and training. Below is a list of examples to understand the realization of this initiative by 2030:

– Accelerate universal access for all in Africa to reliable Internet networks. For example, the UA-EU Digital4Development hub will deploy the undersea cable in the Mediterranean that will connect North African countries to EU countries. An extension of the cabling towards West Africa is currently under consideration, with the first landing in Dakar. Finally, the Africa 1 digital submarine cable will connect Europe to the entire East African coast.

– Integrate African and European multimodal transport networks in line with regional and continental frameworks and adapt these networks to the economic potential of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

– Improve vaccination coverage and strengthen the African pharmaceutical system with regional manufacturing capacities to meet local needs and demand. More concretely, in this sense, the Team Europe Manufacturing and Access to Vaccines, Medicines, and Health Technologies initiative aims to support African partners in strengthening local pharmaceutical systems and manufacturing capacities,

– Invest in young businesses and the development of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Africa, for example through IYAB-SEED, which places particular emphasis on supporting women entrepreneurs.

C. A Partnership Beyond Money

Thus, while concrete actions are defined to enable the strengthening and overhaul of the partnership between the two continents, some analysts emphasize the importance of going beyond the economic aspect of this cooperation. Lidet Tadesse Shiferaw, a researcher specializing in peace and governance issues on the African continent, pointed out that “Europe and Africa must have the courage to envision a partnership beyond money.” 

In this sense, some analysts, like Nicoletta Pirozzi, head of institutional relations at the Istituto Affari Internazionali, explain that, for example, concerning migration issues, a change in discourse is needed to address the flow of people not as a public order concern but as a structural phenomenon with potential economic and social benefits for Europe and Africa. 

Beyond money, many African leaders are calling for increased consideration and respect from the European Union and its member states for African positions. This demand aligns with the resurgence of a non-alignment movement. African leaders are requesting a change in vision from European leaders regarding the positions of African countries in international forums and their interactions with sometimes rival powers of the EU. 

A striking example of this disagreement lies in the European Union’s reaction to the results of the United Nations General Assembly vote on the “Aggression against Ukraine” resolution in March 2023. During this vote, many African countries abstained or did not vote, forming the largest regional bloc to act in this manner. The EU was “shocked” by this result, which was perceived by African countries as questioning their sovereign right to vote freely.

African countries also denounced “Western hypocrisy,” accusing European countries of treating peace and security issues in Europe seriously while neglecting conflicts elsewhere in the world. During a roundtable organized by the European Think Tanks Group (ETTG) and the Regional Bureau for Africa of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), titled “Assessing the Implications of COVID-19 and the Ukraine War for Africa and Europe-Africa Relations,” a European representative admitted that “with hindsight,” at that moment, Europe’s reaction to African countries’ position in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had been “excessive” and that it had been “a narrow way of looking at the relationship” between the two geopolitical areas. 

Another way to approach this partnership beyond money involves increased consideration of the consequences of European internal policies that sometimes impact the entire African continent and its population. The examples, although they may not seem obvious at first glance, are numerous. The EU’s agricultural subsidies through the CAP make European products more competitive, which can undermine local African production and threaten the continent’s food security. Another example is the new carbon border tax deployed by the EU (CBAM), which, according to some analysts, acts as an obstacle to Africa’s industrialization. A study cited by African Climate Wire indicates that the CBAM could reduce Africa’s total exports to the EU by 5.72% and lower African GDP by 1.12%. 

Moreover, it is interesting to note that the EU’s strict sanitary and environmental standards for imports can exclude many African products from the European market. Finally, a last example of a way to approach the UA-EU partnership beyond economic issues could lie in increased European support for the influence of African countries in international forums. The European Union has committed to distributing special drawing rights to African countries. These special drawing rights are assets created by the IMF and allocated to states that can spend them without incurring debt. 

Additionally, the EU collaborates closely with the AU to strengthen African institutional capacities by providing technical expertise and financial support. This support is found in the assistance provided by the EU to strengthen cooperation with the African Medicines Agency (AMA) to harmonize standards and regulations on the continent. This initiative facilitates the participation of African countries in international health organizations such as the WHO. Finally, in partnership with the WTO, the EU helps African countries reform their trade policies and integrate international standards, enhancing their ability to negotiate and influence global trade rules. The EU also provides technical assistance to help African countries understand and apply WTO rules, thereby strengthening their positions in international trade negotiations.

III. Many Challenges Remain to be Overcome

A. Divergent National Strategies on Both the European and African Continents

While the European Union is composed of 27 countries and the African Union comprises 55 countries, one of the main challenges facing the partnership between these two entities is to speak with one voice on both sides of the collaboration. On the African side, the absence of representatives from Mali, Guinea, Sudan, Niger, and Burkina Faso at the 6th AU-EU summit, countries then sanctioned by ECOWAS following military coups, perfectly illustrates the difficulties in unifying all the countries belonging to the continent under the same organization. 

Thus, many analysts denounce the heterogeneous geopolitical climate in Africa that would prevent the construction of symmetrical relations with the European Union. These analysts point to “the lack of a common strategic vision of the African Union,” the individual and uncoordinated economic initiatives of some African states, as many structural obstacles to a virtuous and beneficial partnership for the entire continent. To overcome this challenge, it seems essential to strengthen intra-African cohesion initiatives such as the AfCFTA, the African Union Peace Fund, or the Africa CDC. 

These divergent national strategies are also found north of the Mediterranean, where intra-European fragmentation undermines the credibility and effectiveness of European discourse and action on the continent, weakening, in particular, the leverage effect that member states could exert if they were more united. This difficulty in reconciling the strategic interests of different member states stems first from a heterogeneity in the level of interest shown by European actors towards the African continent. Thus, some European countries, such as France, have a deep attraction to the continent, materialized in an organized and multimodal strategy. France is also one of the main drivers of European proactivity towards the African continent.

However, this interest in the African continent is far from unanimous among European nations. Thus, only 11 of the 27 member states display an official strategy more or less transversal and comprehensive towards the African continent. This is the case for Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, Malta, Estonia, France, Belgium, Portugal, and the Netherlands.

B. Points of Tension Persist Between Europe and Africa

Finally, many points of tension persist between Europe and Africa. Firstly, African leaders denounce a gap between European discourse and action. The Global Gateway initiative is one of the first victims of this sentiment. Thus, following the announcement of its deployment, a close adviser to the AU presidency admitted, “There are doubts that part of the amounts promised by Brussels merely recycle previously allocated EU funding.” Presented by the EU as a massive and European response to Africa’s infrastructure needs, the Global Gateway has raised high expectations. However, the fact that a significant portion of the announced funds is slow to be mobilized has given the impression of an exaggerated communication operation.

The EU’s strategy of announcing “breakthroughs” or “flagship initiatives” at various summits, often to compete with other African partners, could ultimately do more harm than good to this partnership. While the EU committed at the 6th AU-EU summit to invest more on the African continent to promote peace, the March 2021 merger of the African Peace Facility with other instruments to benefit the creation of the European Peace Facility has widened the gap between discourse and action. Thus, of the €5.62 billion budget of the FPE for 2021-2027, €3.1 billion has already been deployed or promised to Ukraine, spreading the fear among African partners that the European commitment to peace and security in Africa may significantly diminish.

 Although African states understand this new priority, they also emphasize that, despite the EU’s commitments, the EU’s orientation towards the East preceded the Russian invasion. In line with this difference in treatment between the Eastern neighborhood policy and its treatment of the partnership with the African continent, Nicoletta Pirozzi noted that more than 7.8 million Ukrainian refugees entered the EU in 2022, with a record number benefiting from temporary protection, while at the same time less than 140,000 migrants arrived by sea across the Mediterranean, triggering a strong opposition from many EU member states regarding rescue, reception, and relocation obligations. This exposed the EU to accusations of double standards in the treatment of migrants and refugees from Ukraine, on the one hand, and Africa and the Middle East, on the other. 

These tensions reached their peak during the COVID-19 crisis around the issue of the temporary waiver on intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines. Indeed, the European Union was one of the main opponents of this waiver. African leaders then accused the hoarding of vaccines, and Namibian President Hage G. Geingob denounced a situation of “vaccine apartheid.” Aware of this health challenge, Ursula von der Leyen promised a €1 billion investment from the European Union to strengthen vaccine production capacity in Africa, starting with the financing of vaccine production centers in South Africa, Senegal, Egypt, Morocco, and Rwanda.


While populist discourses on both sides of the Mediterranean denounce the threat posed by the southern neighbor in far-right rhetoric in Europe, or the northern neighbor in anti-colonial extremist rhetoric in Africa, the partnership between the African Union and the European Union seems to be at an interesting level to build a virtuous synergy between the two continents. Thus, it is evident that common interests are shared by the populations belonging to the two geographical, institutional, and political entities.

These common interests, exacerbated in a polarized, competitive, and ultra-globalized world, impose the necessity to rethink and profoundly reform the partnership that binds the AU and the EU. This overhaul echoes a strong desire from African populations and leaders to gain sovereignty, independence, and consideration. However, structural and sometimes mental barriers still hinder this institutional, economic, and political revolution. Simply observing the map showing the IMF’s projection of the distribution of nominal GDP worldwide highlights the deep structural imbalance between the share represented by African nominal GDP compared to that represented by European nominal GDP. 

Europeans, aware of this asymmetry, have already started rethinking relations with the African continent for several years. This paradigm shift is seen in the communication of March 9, 2020, “Towards a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa,” in the development of the new EU trade policy, in the determination of the Strategic Compass, in the creation of Team Europe, or with the creation of the NDICI.However, this 6th AU-EU summit paves the way for a historic turning point in the functioning of this partnership, marking a 180° shift from a development aid dynamic based on a donor-beneficiary relationship to an equal-to-equal cooperation.

This profound mutation will first occur through a refocusing of the partnership from aid to trade and investment. In this sense, several major African economic actors published an op-ed in Le Point, explaining that “Capital must be at the heart of the European strategy for the continent’s development.” They emphasized that “European investments, if wisely directed, can become powerful levers to encourage innovation, strengthen infrastructure, and promote sustainable economic growth in Africa. Africa, on the other hand, has much to offer and has exceptional human and natural resources.” 

However, to enable this virtuous synergy, Europeans must abandon their exaggerated perception of risk in Africa. This overestimation of risk impacts the attractiveness of African countries, making the cost of capital prohibitive for investors, with much higher interest rates than in Europe or the USA. Rating agencies, key players in this process, must therefore adopt a more nuanced and balanced approach. This increase in European investments is expected to take more into account the priorities of the African continent, particularly in terms of access to energy in a territory where 43% of the population still lacks electricity.

Africa’s industrialization depends on it. This infrastructure development and the expected technology transfer will allow Africa to benefit more from the added value of its production, rebalancing relations between the two continents. Finally, beyond this economic solution, the main solutions for establishing a constructive partnership and overcoming the errancies of previous decades would also lie in reducing the gap between “commitments and realization,” recognizing differences when they arise, and managing conflicting positions respectfully. 

More generally, reviewing the UA-EU partnership framework by moving from primarily institutional and state actors to a partnership involving more private actors and civil societies could also allow a profound rethinking of the functioning of relations between the two continents. It is in this sense that Hervé Berville, then a French deputy in charge of combating global inequalities and rapporteur of the Foreign Affairs Committee, called for “de-etatizing the relationship with Africa” by implementing a “results agenda,” based on “innovation and evaluation,” and fully trusting civil societies.

© Jean CLARYS, 2024. All rights reserved

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