Monday

25th Jan 2021

Opinion

Memo to Michel: How to make most of EU-Africa at the summit

  • The risk is that because of other pressing issues, the European Council will end up having a very short and perfunctory Africa discussion (Photo: Council of the European Union)

Dear President Michel,

On the agenda of today's European Council there is the item EU-Africa relations. It is a bit of an 'orphan' item.

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  • The original EU-African Union summit, scheduled for the end of October, was postponed due to coronavirus (Photo: Isaac Kasamani)

It was planned months ago, because member states were supposed to discuss and agree on their approach for the EU-AU summit, scheduled for the end of October.

Although that summit has now been postponed, EU-Africa is still on the agenda, mainly to show – to Africans and to Europeans – that member states take the relationship seriously.

And rightly so. Removing it from the agenda would precisely have sent the opposite signal: introvert Europe is mainly busy with itself.

The risk is that because of other pressing issues, the European Council will end up having a very short and perfunctory Africa discussion. This would probably mean reiterating its commitment to an "ambitious and modern partnership" and agreeing to hold a mini-summit in December, but pushing the task of preparing the substance of what scaling up the partnership with Africa means to a later date.

Although understandable, this would be a big mistake.

Pressing as other issues might be, this foreseen discussion, if structured well, would give you the chance to get member states to have a much-needed strategic debate and agree key orientations to guide the relationship with Africa for years to come.

Without a steer from the level of leaders, policy-making on Africa in the EU will drift, proceed in silos and be more of the same.

Some talking points

- Discussing the impact of Covid-19 is unavoidable, but it should not crowd out a wider, strategic discussion.

It would be good to point out that Africa has handled rather successfully the health aspects of the crisis: better than expected and better than many in Europe.

But, like Europe, it will be hit hard by the economic consequences (with its first recession in 25 years). So, Europe will need to do its part – and it is. The next phase in the debate will be on debt relief (amounts and modalities). This is a chance for Europe to do well and also be seen as doing well, in and by Africa.

- It will be imperative not to end up with a vague wish list of good intentions, in which each member state includes its priorities, but without truly committing to it.

Plus, you will also need to avoid dwelling on topics that you already know are too divisive internally in the EU, such as migration. And, of course, you will need to focus on issues that also reflect the aspirations of the African continent, such as growth and economic integration, otherwise they will fall flat, yet again.

- The green transition and digitalisation are forward-looking and bold domains, where we can frame and build something new. And they speak to both European and Africans interests. But discussions on these clusters still often lack concrete ideas to bring the partnership to light.

Here are some ideas to change that:

- Climate crisis: This is a priority for both the EU and Africa, but interests differ regarding how to tackle climate change. A true partnership on this is possible, but compromise will be necessary. On the one hand, the EU will need to address the concerns of those who fear the EU Green Deal will impose new barriers to African exports.

Further, in building a Green Deal "with" Africa, it will be essential to begin by working together to meet some of Africa's legitimate concerns, whilst integrating a green growth agenda.

For example, an agreement to prioritise a clean energy partnership that addresses Africa's energy shortages or green investments that create sustainable jobs and growth. By building a basis of trust and shared interest, it should become easier to focus on other legitimate questions such as biodiversity.

- Digital: Covid-19 has demonstrated the importance of the digital economy more than ever, but also underlined some of the challenges in terms of respecting rights and freedoms.

The EU should continue to support the African Union in working towards the achievement of the African Digital Single Market, whilst also working with Smart Africa and African governments to support the harmonisation of regulatory frameworks at the regional level and build cross-border infrastructure.

While sharing its expertise on digital regulation, including on the rollout of GDPR, the EU must also work with local experts to develop simpler regulation that works for local markets and local administrations.

More should also be done to connect and support local innovation ecosystems, including through simplifying access to grants and creating EU-Africa peer-to-peer networks.

- One last point on handling. With the UK out, it is important that the other countries that traditionally have been most interested in Africa are active in the debate but do not dominate the discussion.

So, it will be important to get a good framing from EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell (who was in Addis Ababa last week) and then get leaders from the Netherlands, Italy and Sweden to come in early and strong.

Plus, it would be good for central Europe to be more visibly engaged on African issues. If you make your usual pre-Council phone calls, be sure to mobilise countries such as Estonia or Slovakia.

Discussing EU-Africa is not divisive like other files. The risks are lack of direction and imagination; and to fly on auto-pilot and see in a few years' time that Africa has gone its own way. But with the right framing and deft handling, you can turn this agenda item from an orphan into a transformative discussion.

The postponement of the summit gives both Europe and Africa the time to sit down and agree on some of these shared ideas.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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