27th Sep 2023


EU in whirlwind of Africa diplomacy. Did it work?

  • Ursula von der Leyen and Senegalese president Macky Sall presented a unified front ahead of the AU-EU summit
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EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has been on a whirlwind tour of African nations ahead of the key African Union-EU summit in Brussels next week, seeking to woo them with Europe's recent investment plan, rivalling China's belt-and-road initiative.

On Thursday (10 February), von der Leyen was in Senegal where, once again, she presented the plan touting investment worth in total €300bn. But that plan is global, rather than Africa-specific, and much of it is what critics call recycled aid, leaving many openly sceptical about the overture.

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The EU's Global Gateway Africa is part of a worldwide €300bn effort to increase European infrastructure investment that is meant to compete with China's growing geo-political clout.

In Dakar, von der Leyen hailed a plan worth €150bn for Africa over the next seven years - including €1bn in support of vaccines and €4.3bn for startups.

In Morocco, she announced a €1.6bn green energy accord with the country. However it is still unclear how the money will be invested.

For the German EU commission chief, the race is on to get buy-in from African leaders ahead of the Covid-delayed EU-AU summit in Brussels on 17-18 February.

But Global Gateway is not an immediate game-changer for many observers, and questions on how it differs from other packages remain, going into the summit next week.

The Brussels summit plans to "announce an Africa-Europe Alliance to build a common future, as closest partners and neighbours," according to a draft declaration seen by EUobserver on Friday.

Its infrastructure and green-transition promises aside, the EU also plans to grant African countries better access to healthcare.

The draft text spoke of "manufacturing vaccines, medicines, and health products in Africa, including investment in production capacities, [and] the use of intellectual property ... to enable equitable access".

It even planned more "cultural exchanges and the movement of artists and artworks between our two continents" to forge closer ties.

But for some commentators, the EU charm offensive was not going well.

"It is clear that the EU has been trying hard to change the language, but we are picking up a general sense of scepticism about new EU announcements," Alfonso Medinilla, head of climate and energy at the European Centre for Development Policy Management, a think tank focusing on Europe-Africa relations said.

Pleas for gas

And despite von der Leyen's African shuttle diplomacy, perceptions of what actually constitutes clean energy remained far apart.

While the Global Gateway initiative aims to increase renewable energy, president Sall, speaking alongside von der Leyen in Senegal, pleaded for continued financing of natural gas, saying it would "ensure universal access to electricity for more than 600 million Africans that are still without electricity."

Sall is a strong supporter of natural gas investment. He has previously called plans to end the financing of gas exploration "a fatal blow" for emerging African economies.

Besides differing ideas on what constitutes a clean energy transition, there is a more general scepticism about the EU's investment offer.

Much of what has been presented in the Global Gateway is a rebranding of existing programmes that may end up double-counted or are largely dependent on private finance.

Carlos Lopes, a Bissau-Guinean development economist at the University of Cape Town, said the EU's offers follow a long list of other plans that turned out to be largely "wishful thinking."

"The Global Gateway was not tabled in any intergovernmental process across the two continents," said Lopes, who added that EU planners tend to dump their plans on African negotiators unilaterally.

"It is absolutely fine for the EU to define its priorities. [But] for the Africans to do the same is a bit more challenging given the noise generated," Lopes said.

"The EU discourse is very asymmetrical," agreed Medinilla.

However, French president Emmanuel Macron, who's country is the current holder of the rotating EU presidency, has previously boasted the summit aims to "completely overhaul" the EU-Africa relationship.

"[it will] forge an economic financial New Deal with Africa," he said at a press conference back in December.


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