• Thomas Yaw Voets

What the Second AU-EU Ministerial Meeting on Foreign Affairs means for the future relations



Credit photo: https://unsplash.com/s/photos/eu-africa


Introduction


On her very first official trip abroad as the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen personally delivered a striking statement: “the EU is making a new priority of its continental neighbour to the south – and not just because it wants to put a halt to a potentially destabilizing stream of economic migrants”. This was in early December 2019, at the African Union (AU)’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.[1] Since then, however, several attempts to deepen the political and economic relations between the two continents have stalled – not least due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hence, the simple fact that the Foreign Affairs Ministers of the EU and the AU were able to gather physically in Kigali, Rwanda, on 25 and 26 October 2021, was by itself a significant event.


Nonetheless, to assess what this Ministerial Meeting means for the wider EU-Africa relations, it will be necessary to examine the results in more detail. This article will look at how the Ministerial Meeting came about, the build-up to the Meeting, the event itself and the adopted Joint Communiqué. This will allow to conclude with the expected future outlook for the EU’s relations with Africa.


Setting the scene


The AU - EU Ministerial Meeting format finds its origins in the Joint Africa-EU Strategy, adopted in 2007 during the 2nd Africa - Europe Summit organised in Lisbon, Portugal. The Strategy established a three-year cycle for the holding of summits – alternately in Africa and Europe – at the level of the heads of state and government, which aim to provide strategic orientation and guidance for the Partnership between both continents. Within this context, the 3rd Africa-Europe Summit took place in Tripoli, Libya, in November 2010; the 4th in Brussels, Belgium, in April 2014; and the 5th in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, in November 2017. At the last Summit, held in Abidjan, both sides agreed to strengthen the follow-up mechanism of the partnership by establishing an annual AU - EU Ministerial Meeting to monitor and review the commitments made during the Summits.[2]


Since the decision was made in Abidjan, both sides met in 2019, in Brussels, for the 1st AU - EU Ministerial Meeting.[3] This meeting – co-chaired by the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy at that time, Federica Mogherini, and the former Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Rwanda and Chair of the AU Executive Council, Richard Sezibera – produced a Joint Communiqué in which the following issues were stressed: the importance of holding the meeting as an annual event, ongoing oversight of the progress made on the implementation of a number of joint initiatives launched during the Abidjan Summit, and the strategic priority areas for cooperation until the next EU-AU Summit (economic cooperation, peace and security, migration, multilateralism).[4]


Following the conclusion of the 1st AU - EU Ministerial Meeting, preparations began for the next EU - AU Summit, which was to be organised by the EU in 2020. Meanwhile, due to the 2019 European elections, both the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission were replaced. Nonetheless, the new European leadership showed a keen interest in establishing good relations between both continents. As a result, Ursula von der Leyen, the new President of the European Commission, was quick to present her Commission’s vision for the future of Africa-EU partnership.[5] This took place in March 2020, 4 months after she officially took office. Similarly, Charles Michel, the new President of the European Council, was eager to showcase his willingness to cooperate closely with the African continent – visiting the 33rd AU Leaders’ Summit in February 2020[6] and scheduling the sixth AU-EU Summit for 28 and 29 October 2020.


A cancelled Summit


Everything seemed well – from the EU’s side at least. On the African side, the EU’s increased assertiveness faced some resistance as African countries increasingly wanted to be considered self-reliant.[7] South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, for example, said in his inaugural speech as the 2020 chairman of the AU that “the principle of finding African solutions for African problems must be our overriding theme in addressing all the conflicts on our continent”.[8] To make matters worse, the rapid spread of coronavirus meant that the holding of a physical summit, with the physical presence of the 55 AU and 27 EU heads of state and their delegations, was in fact impossible.[9] Although South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa did not object to holding a virtual summit, disagreements over the agenda were the final nail in the coffin for the planned Summit.[10]


Nevertheless, the cancellation of the Summit was in some respects to the advantage of both parties: it gave them much-needed time to deal with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and to resolve some of the longstanding divergences.[11] In addition, the Portuguese presidency of the EU during the first half of 2021 emphasised its credentials as traditionally playing a key role in Africa-Europe relations[12] and embraced the chance to take an active part in preparing the sixth AU-EU Summit.[13]


Despite organising a range of high-level events (e.g. the High-Level EU-Africa Green Investment Forum)[14], the Portuguese presidency did not manage to bring about the sixth AU-EU Summit in the first half of 2021. It did, however, give the much-needed impetus to the relations between the EU and Africa, which meant that the stage was set to finalise the planning for the sixth AU-EU Summit during the Slovenian presidency, which took over afterwards.


A Ministerial Meeting to prepare the next Summit


Although the timeframe for setting up a Summit during the Slovenian presidency ultimately proved to be too tight, the holding of a preparatory EU-AU Ministerial Meeting was taken up in the Programme of the Slovenian presidency.[15] On the African side, Rwanda – which, according to the Lowy Institute’s Covid Performance Index[16], was the African country to have managed the pandemic the best – was eager to host the meeting. Hence, an agreement could soon be found on a definitive date: 25 and 26 October 2021.


As the Ministerial Meeting was planned to take place in a particularly challenging global context marked by the Covid-19 Pandemic and its negative consequences, many of the preparations – both logistically and in terms of the agenda for discussion – focused on how to deal with the issue. An agreement was reached to add the topic of “Joint COVID-19 Response” to the previously planned discussions on four mutual priority areas (investing in people, peace and security, migration, and mobility, mobilising investments for Africa) identified at the last Africa - Europe Summit, held in Abidjan in 2017.[17]


With the agenda agreed on by both parties, the last hurdle for organising the meeting had been overcome. The ambassadors to the EU of the 27 member states could then start working on the EU’s position for a draft joint communiqué – which would eventually be adopted on Friday 15 October 2021.[18]


The Ministerial Meeting


The first day of the Ministerial Meeting was rather uneventful and consisted of discussions between Senior Officials[19], allowing the Foreign Affairs ministers to engage in ceremonial events (e.g. visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial)[20] and/or to have bilateral talks on the sidelines[21]. It was, however, swiftly overshadowed by the Sudanese military’s seizure of power and arrest of top civilian leaders in the country’s capital, Khartoum.[22] This meant that much of the attention and many participants – on both the European and African sides – were focused on monitoring this situation and preparing a response for their respective ministers. Nonetheless, the remaining participants managed to finalise the draft Communiqué at the planned time.


The actual Joint Ministerial Meeting was held on the second day. The proceedings consisted of discussions at the Ministerial level, co-chaired by the Chairperson of the AU Executive Council (and Foreign Affairs Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo), Christophe Lutundula, and the High Representative of the EU, Josep Borrell.[23]


On the day, before the discussions had started, the Foreign Affairs Ministers of Germany, Slovenia, Portugal, and France – the Council presidencies of the EU dealing with the preparations of the sixth AU-EU Summit – published an Op-Ed “Europe-Africa: An Indispensable Partnership”, where they underlined that the current Ministerial gathering was of particular importance, as it would set the stage for the next AU-EU Summit in 2022.[24] By doing so, they aimed to highlight their goodwill and determination to develop more sustainable relations on the basis of the discussions that were to take place later that day.


The discussions were very cordial and led to the adoption of a 10-page Joint Communiqué.[25] There were bilateral meetings being held simultaneously – with the signing of an agreement between Rwanda, Senegal and the European Investment Bank as the highlight, facilitating the establishment of a vaccine manufacturing plant in the two African countries.[26]


The Joint Communiqué stressed that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have enormous consequences and called for enhanced cooperation (i.a. on health and social protection systems, equitable access to vaccines, medicines and health technologies, and economic stimulus programmes) between the EU and Africa in response to the pandemic. The Communiqué also called for investments in key connectivity sectors in Africa (such as transport, energy, and digitalisation), in order to aid the just transition to a green, circular, and climate-neutral economy. There were also calls for continued cooperation on peace, security and governance, with the Foreign Affairs ministers agreeing to further align strategic approaches in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, the Lake Chad Basin, and the Gulf of Guinea. Lastly, deeper cooperation on migration and mobility through the existing migration frameworks and dialogue platforms, and work towards more converging positions in multilateral fora were advocated for.[27]


Conclusion

Considering that the Second AU - EU Ministerial Meeting proceeded without much controversy and heralded a rather comprehensive Joint Communiqué dealing with a broad range of issues of importance for both partners, it can be said to have given a much-needed positive impetus to the rather lukewarm relationship between the two continents. Both parties agreed on convening the 6th EU-AU Summit in the first quarter of 2022 – with the EU proposing to hold the Summit in Brussels from 17 to 18 February 2022[28], which is a big positive step for the EU-AU relations – especially from the EU’s point of view.


Nevertheless, as the initial high of the successful Ministerial Meeting fades, it will be crucial that both parties show concrete results which can resonate with their citizens. In particular, the EU will be expected to make greater progress on its commitments to provide economic stimulus and equitable access to vaccines for the African continent in the run-up to the 6th EU-AU Summit, as this will largely influence the Africans and their leaders in light of the seriousness of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

[1] Herszenhorn, David M. “Von Der Leyen Ventures to the Heart of Africa.” POLITICO, December 8, 2019. https://www.politico.eu/article/european-commission-president-ursula-von-der-leyen-ventures-to-the-heart-of-africa-ethiopia-african-union/. [2] “Press Note for the 2nd Au - EU Ministerial Meeting.” African Union, October 25, 2021. 2. https://au.int/sites/default/files/newsevents/workingdocuments/40895-wd-Press_Note_for_the_2nd_AU_-_EU_Ministerial_Meeting.pdf. [3] Ashimwe, Edwin. “AU, EU Leaders Underscore Role of Partnerships in Covid Fight.” The New Times, October 25, 2021. https://www.newtimes.co.rw/news/au-eu-leaders-underscore-role-partnerships-covid-fight. [4] “EU-AU MINISTERS OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS MEETING Brussels, 21- 22 January 2019 JOINT COMMUNIQUE,” January 22, 2019. https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/37940/190122-eu-au-joint-communique-en.pdf. [5] EUROPEAN COMMISSION. “JOINT COMMUNICATION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND THE COUNCIL - Towards a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa,” March 9, 2020. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52020JC0004&from=FR. [6] Herszenhorn, David M. “Council President Michel Tells African Leaders a Changed Europe Wants New Ties.” POLITICO, February 10, 2020. https://www.politico.eu/article/council-president-michel-tells-african-leaders-a-changed-europe-wants-new-ties/. [7] Barigazzi, Jacopo, David M. Herszenhorn, and Simon Marks. “In Search of Allies, EU Turns to Africa.” POLITICO, February 26, 2020. https://www.politico.eu/article/in-search-of-allies-eu-turns-to-africa-trade-african-union/. [8] “SA's Cyril Ramaphosa Officially Becomes President of the African Union for 2020.” Ecofin Agency, February 10, 2020. https://www.ecofinagency.com/public-management/1002-40955-sa-s-cyril-ramaphosa-officially-becomes-president-of-the-african-union-for-2020. [9] Laporte, Geert. “The AU-EU Summit Didn’t Prove Immune to COVID-19 – but That May Be a Blessing in Disguise.” ECDPM, September 14, 2020. https://ecdpm.org/talking-points/au-eu-summit-not-immune-covid-19-blessing-disguise/. [10] Fox, Benjamin. “Afric