European Union (EU) Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her entourage of officials met African Union (AU) Leaders in Addis Ababa for an AU-EU Joint Commissions Summit.
It followed a visit earlier this month by European Council President Charles Michel, who met with African leaders at the annual AU summit to propose the development of a new AU-EU Partnership.
These visits by EU leaders were not a coincidence; they intended to persuade African leaders towards greater cooperation between the two continents to address shared challenges and foster mutual Opportunities.
However, this desire to relaunch African-EU relations has also been motivated by several long-term geopolitical trends, which the EU has previously been slow to respond to.
One such trend has been the competing use of investments in African nations by global powers such as the United States and to a lesser extent Russia.
The EU and its member states have long been aware of this modern “Scramble for Africa” and the use of “investment diplomacy,” however formulating a single Africa Policy has been difficult to achieve.
The EU has traditionally struggled to engage with Africa, due to the EU institutions having other external relations priorities and some member states resisting greater powers for the EU on this matter.
EU external policy largely focuses on partners within the eastern neighbourhood which aspire to become EU members. Only in recent years with the migration crisis and increased security issues has the EU reviewed its approach to the southern neighbourhood and realised the need for more cooperation with the wider African Continent.
Additionally, ex-colonial powers in the EU, such as France and formerly the United Kingdom, have historically preferred to engage with African nations themselves rather than supporting a European approach.
This national pushback against the development of a comprehensive EU strategy towards Africa thus reinforced disillusionment within the EU institutions for a stronger Africa-EU relationship.
However, with the United Kingdom now outside the EU and French President Emmanuel Macron advocating for a stronger Europe in the world, the EU has a newfound mandate to change its relations with Africa.
Despite this, the EU will initially experience difficulties in catching up with other global powers that already have long-established partnerships with African nations.
Since the reform and opening-up of China in 1979, Chinese engagement with African countries has proliferated from investing in small, sector-specific initiatives to funding large infrastructure projects under the Belt & Road Initiative.
Today, China is Africa’s largest trading partner and one of its largest investors but African-Chinese engagement goes far beyond economics. Medical expertise during the Ebola Crisis and assistance in constructing the AU headquarters further demonstrated Chinese commitments towards African-China relations.
The United States has responded to the presence of China in Africa by offering its own alternative investments through the newly established International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC), in an effort to retain diplomatic leverage in the continent.
The IDFC encourages private sector-led growth rather than development continuously stimulated by aid. This move away from aid dependency to instead helping Africans lead their own development through entrepreneurship was also present in the EU’s rhetoric in Addis Ababa.
The United Kingdom is also bolstering its presence in Africa post-Brexit. A popular belief within Britain has been that leaving the EU would allow a renewal of the Commonwealth, with 19 members coming from Africa.
Keen to facilitate this, Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosted an Africa-UK Investment Summit in January as part of his “Global Britain” strategy and announced an intention to increase British investments in Africa.
However, African nations will likely question to what extent these symbolic gestures in re-calibrating Africa-UK relations are genuine given this has only occurred due to Brexit.
Despite stiff competition, the EU believes it has something special to offer Africa other than financial investments. The EU is the world’s most successful regional economic integration project and therefore can provide the AU with expertise in supranational institution-building.
Regional integration theories suggest that for enhanced African economic integration to be possible, it will be necessary for the AU to develop greater political and legal capabilities. The AU currently lacks enforcement powers and the notion of consensus, a successful attribute of the EU institutions, often remains hard to achieve amongst AU members.
This does not mean however that the EU is a template for the AU to replicate. As African leaders themselves have stated, the continent must pursue its own development led by the African people.
Rather, the EU is a reference point of supra-nationalism for the AU to consider when developing African strategies which achieve the objectives of the Agenda 2063 plan, such as building intra-continental high-speed rail and reducing barriers to citizens working across member states.
The EU thus stands reasonably well-prepared to re-align African-EU relations and enhance its position as an actor vis-à-vis other global powers in Africa if it can focus on offering advice on institution-building.