European Union—African Union Summit: Will It Help Heal the Rifts?

Written by | Wednesday, February 16th, 2022

The summit between the European Union and the African Union (AU) that will be held on 17-18 February in Brussels may dedicate some time, not least unofficially and behind closed doors, to repair growing cracks in the relationship between the two strategic partners. Leaving nothing to chance, only a few days before the meeting between officials from the European Commission and the African Union, the head of EU executive Ursula von der Leyen flew to Dakar, to personally clarify final details with the Senegalese president and current AU chairperson, Macky Sall. “Our two unions share the same vision of a common area of stability and prosperity. The EU needs the meeting to be successful, because relations with the African Union have been frayed for a long time. The summit planned for 2020 fell through — officially because of the pandemic — but observers saw other reasons for the cancellation, including that it was seen as a political signal.
One of the rifts was due to their disagreement over vaccine patents. Ahead of the summit, the EU on Monday (14 February) stood by its refusal to lift patent protections on Covid vaccines. With African Union countries viewing the issue as a priority, South Africa and India have led calls since October 2020 at the World Trade Organization for the temporary removal of intellectual property protections for vaccines, treatments and diagnostics in the fight against Covid-19. Proponents argue this would boost production globally and help address the glaring inequity in access between rich and poor nations. While the African Union members have pushed to include the demand in the conclusions of the joint EU-AU summit, a number of wealthy European countries hosting large pharmaceutical companies have opposed the move, saying patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production and are crucial to innovation.
Meanwhile, “this summit must ascertain concrete ways and means to achieve it,” von der Leyen said after meeting Sall. Signaling Brussels’ good will, she added that the EU would mobilize €150 billion with its EU’s Global Gateway investment program over the next few years to help develop African infrastructure. For Europe, which has been losing ground to China in Africa for a decade, the announcement and summit are the first tests for this EU’s grand strategy to counter China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, which has been reorienting global commerce around Beijing’s strategic needs. Dissatisfaction with the quality of Chinese products and China’s business practices have created an opportunity and hence Europe can turn the tables by filling the investment gap in value-added production in sub-Saharan Africa. But to achieve this, Europe will have to move beyond its old patron-client relationship patterns to create joint venture partnerships with African stakeholders in local manufacturing that employs Africans and adds to African GDP.
But, from trade to investment to climate issues, many stakeholders on both sides call for future relations to be built on mutual respect and societal needs. For example, small, rural farmers from umbrella organizations in Africa and Europe are calling for coherent policies that protect small-scale African and European agriculture. The Network of Farmers’ and Agricultural Producers’ Organizations of West Africa (ROPPA) and European Coordination Via Campesina have jointly expressed the urgent need to rebuild food sovereignty on the two continents. Although scientists agree on the urgency of a global agro-ecological transition to respond to the climate crisis and the collapse of biodiversity, in reality, deregulation policies and the opening of agricultural markets have weakened small and medium-sized farms on both sides of the Atlantic. Subjected to competition from low-cost imports, local agricultural production is being undermined to the point where many farmers are abandoning their farming activity. Both organizations claim that the EU-AU Economic Partnership Agreements are primarily responsible for this situation. “This is far from a balanced partnership. The interests of large European companies have systematically been prioritized over the interests of people and society,” they say, adding that “It is high time to rebuild relations between our two continents based on mutual respect and the interests of our peoples.”

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