143. Highs and lows of relations between the AU and EU

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 5 July 2021
Publication: Business Day
Image courtesy of: Michael Daries_Kult Creative

As the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU) prepare for a postponed summit this year, the AU declared a Continental Free Trade Area into existence in January in a bid to unite a continent of one billion inhabitants in 55 territories, from the Cape to Casablanca. The 27-member European Union (EU) has brought together 447 million people from Sofia to Stockholm to create the world’s only truly supranational body. This is, however, two clubs of rich and poor nations: while the EU has a GDP of $15 trillion, Africa’s GDP is $2.3 billion; while 60% percent of the EU’s trade takes place within its borders, only about 14% of African commerce is within the continent.

A key source of tension between both blocs has centred on migration. Last year, 12,929 African migrants attempted to cross the Mediterranean into the EU, with 983 of them drowning. Several European governments and populations view migration as a security threat, often scapegoating and criminalising migrants. “Fortress Europe” has thus resulted in governments sometimes violating refugee rights and strengthening border security in contravention of their own free movement principles.

The EU accounted for 36% of Africa’s external trade and remains its largest investor at €261 billion. Brussels also contributed €2.7 billion to the AU’s African Peace Facility between 2004 and 2019. In February 2020, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen led a delegation of 22 of her commissioners to Addis Ababa for the 10th EU-AU Commission-to-Commission meeting. A month later, the EU Commission unilaterally issued the “Towards A Comprehensive Strategy with Africa” outlining five priority areas: peace and governance; migration and mobility; green transition and energy access; digital transformation; and sustainable growth and jobs.

Security cooperation has been consistent. In October 2020, the 12th joint meeting of the AU Peace and Security Council and the EU Political and Security Committee was held virtually. The security situations in the Sahel, Sudan, and Somalia were discussed. In the Sahel, the meeting condemned attacks against civilians by armed groups and pledged support for the United Nations mission in Mali, as well as the French-led G5 Sahel Joint Force. Both organisations promised to continue supporting the efforts of the transitional government in Sudan, calling for donor pledges to be delivered. The two organisations also pushed for the acceleration of the restructuring of the Somali National Army (SNA) to take over responsibilities from the 20,000-strong AU mission in Somalia (AMISOM) which is heavily funded by the EU.

But the realities on the ground in Somalia were such that heads of state of the major troop-contributing countries (Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Burundi) often by-pass the AU Commission when making decisions on the mission, and there are constant complaints about the lack of AU capacity even to administer AMISOM’s budget. The EU paid the salaries of AU peacekeepers, the UN reimbursed contingent-owned equipment, while the United States bilaterally provided military equipment to Kenya and Uganda. This support has thus not always been well coordinated for the greater good of the mission, and the AU is far from leading conflict management efforts in an operation being run in its name.

In 2020, the EU promised support to help alleviate Africa’s external debt of $417 billion which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fulfilling this promise will remain a high priority for this “strategic partnership,” and a test of its enduring value to Africa. The AU/EU relationship is being renewed at a time when a quarter of Africa’s global migrants – 10.6 million out of 39.4 million – live in the EU, sending vital remittances to their home countries. The AU/EU summit scheduled for October 2020 was postponed to 2021 due to the Covid/19 pandemic, and both sides must work hard to build a relationship of trust and mutual benefit.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.