Letting go of old habits to create an equal partnership between Europe and Africa

The future of Africa’s relationship with the European Union (EU) will be decided in the coming months ahead of the African Union (AU) – EU Summit in 2021. The summit had been postponed due to COVID-19. The PSC Report spoke to Carlos Lopes, special high representative of the AU in its negotiations with the EU post-2020.

What are Africa’s priorities when engaging the EU?

The priorities of the AU with respect to our continental partnership with the EU are defined in the AU Summit Decision of November 2018. These are peace and security, development, the African Continental Free Trade Area [AfCFTA], migration and climate. You would notice that the decision has left an opening to include other topics as deemed necessary. That is important, especially as we deal with the aftermath of COVID-19. 

COVID-19 has exposed our structural vulnerabilities as a continent. Our partnerships need to be reimagined so that they support our structural transformation. We will therefore use that space provided by the heads of state and government to incorporate areas that will allow us to address structural issues rather than provide short-term responses. 

How will the AU ensure these priorities are taken into account during the joint ministerial meeting and the summit? 

There are two statutory meetings that can decide on the future of the partnership. This is a partnership that should involve a dialogue process that will have to ensure that AU priorities are as much part of the final outcome as our partner’s views. At the AU level there has been several intensive sessions reflecting on its priorities and ambitions for the partnership. Africans will naturally negotiate based on their priorities but cognizant of the fact that the outcome is eventually a product that satisfies all parties.

What have been the achievements of AU–EU collaboration so far?

I can only speak from my perspective, which encapsulates the African perception. There is no joint assessment with the EU that would allow us to appreciate the opportunities offered by and the limits of the partnership. But from the AU perspective, cooperation in the area of peace and security has been an important learning curve and key contributor to the partnership. We need to build on such experience with the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) as an interface. The humanitarian efforts being undertaken in the framework of the AU–EU–UN Tripartite Taskforce on the Situation of Stranded Migrants and Refugees in Libya also show that pragmatic solutions can be found for pressing issues when there is enough will. 

But this is timid. There is an urge to go further. Providing opportunities to the youngest population in the world starts with structural transformation that will allow the creation of jobs for the youth. Jobs to enable them to become actors in their development. Supporting the economic integration of Africa requires support to the AfCFTA in its own right. We can support multilateralism holistically and not selectively; for instance on migration. Rethinking the framework of our cooperation and how we implement our agreements is a priority for Africa. Most players, not to mention public opinion on both continents, are tired of proclamations about ambition, paradigm shift and the like; they want real and tangible change.

How can the two organisations create a more equal partnership in the future?

First, I think it is important to recognise the position of Africa. Admit Africa has views and wants agency. To name but two examples: we often forget that Africa is Europe's third-largest trading partner, after the United States and China. Geopolitically, Africa is also not insignificant, as noted by several EU officials themselves.  

Second, a relationship between equals recognises that both partners have priorities. I remember endless discussions about ownership which were about ‘here are the priorities that are needed to improve your lot’. We have all evolved. We admit the need for listening, negotiating and co-developing a partnership. Today, it should no longer be about the centrality of aid. Our partnership should focus on addressing the challenges we face, demographically, technologically and environmentally. We need complementary and supportive responses that are good for both continents. The potential of the partnership is significant. We need courage to let go of old habits. 

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