For multilateralism to thrive in a world where western liberal hegemony is no longer a given, interregional cooperation needs to be founded on fairer and more equitable terms. The partnership between the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU) is no exception and, despite declarations of a “partnership of equals” championing multilateralism globally, it currently falls short of this goal. The upcoming AU-EU Summit scheduled for 17-18 February 2022 presents an opportunity for the regional unions to review and take stock of their partnership, bridge existing gaps, and upgrade their two-decade cooperation to the next level.

The AU-EU Partnership was launched at the first Africa-EU Summit in Cairo in 2000 as a multilevel and multi-actor arrangement driven by institutional meetings between AU and EU bodies and stakeholder dialogues. In 2007, on the occasion of its second meeting in Lisbon, the Summit adopted the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES), a long-term political framework that aimed at expanding cooperation beyond development aid. Since then, a number of multiannual roadmaps and action plans have been adopted to guide the partnership’s implementation, while subsequent AU-EU Summits were held in Libya (2010), Brussels (2014), and Abidjan (2017). Recent developments notwithstanding, most insiders of both regional unions would agree that cooperation “has not made any significant quality leap” since the last Summit in 2017.1Author’s interviews with AU and EU officials, June-September 2021. For further insights see: Jacopo Resti, “AU-EU Institutional Relations: Towards a New Era?,” FEPS Policy Briefs, 2021 https://www.feps-europe.eu/attachments/publications/211103%20policy%20brief%20aueu%20institutional%20relations.pdf The AU’s political flaws and the EU’s schizophrenia towards Africa lie at the core of the shortcomings in AU-EU relations. A state-centric AU, still held hostage by few and powerful African member-states, struggles to speak with one voice to the EU. As a result, it has failed to effectively place its demands on the negotiation table, as the absence of any official AU reaction to the new EU Strategy with Africa demonstrates. This inability to adopt a common position, let alone a cohesive AU strategy, is a strong blow against the consolidation of the partnership.2Ibid

The AU’s weak political agency has been compounded by the EU’s incoherent and piecemeal approach to cooperation with the continent. The EU’s preference for cherry-picking its African partners according to its own interests and convenience is sidelining the AU and jeopardizing its coordinating role.3Venturi, Bernardo. “AU-EU Relations on Peace and Security.” FEPS Policy Briefs, 2021 https://www.feps-europe.eu/attachments/publications/211103%20policy%20brief%20au-eu%20relations%20peace%20and%20security.pdf This partly explains why AU representatives are not invited to observe EU key policymaking bodies when African relations are on the agenda. On the contrary, the EU is a regular observer of AU meetings, attending AU summits and key internal meetings on peace and security.4Resti, “AU-EU Institutional Relations” The EU’s non-inclusion of its African counterpart in consultations on issues of common concern inevitably undermines relations while advancing EU-financed solutions to African problems. EU actions within the framework of its cooperation with the continent have contributed to the decline in the legitimacy of the AU in Africa’s political and economic landscape.

AU dependency on the EU’s financial assistance and on finance programming narrows the scope of cooperation to financial rather than strategic interests. AU member states’ assessed contributions provide less than 30 percent of the AU budget while external aid stands at around 70 percent of the budget.5Kesa Pharatlhatlhe and Jan Vanheukelom, “Financing the African Union: On Mindsets and Money,” ECDPM Discussion Papers, no. 240. 2019,  https://ecdpm.org/wp-content/uploads/DP240-Financing-the-African-Union-on-mindsets-and-money.pdf Against the backdrop of a proliferation of external sources of funding in the past years, the EU remains the largest donor to the AU, concentrating the bulk of its contributions on the AU program budget and peace-support operations. In particular, EU funding accounts for 90 percent of the AU’s peace and security budget, entrenching Africa’s dependency and providing leverage for the EU to influence the agenda of bilateral relations in ways that advance its own priorities. In order to counter these trends and build the union’s self-sufficiency, AU member states introduced a new funding structure as part of the block of reforms launched in 2016. With the adoption of the Kigali Decision on Financing the Union, a 0.2 percent levy on all eligible goods imported to the African continent was agreed upon and adopted. If fully implemented, tax revenue from the levy could raise up to €1 billion per year. However, as of June 16, 2020, only 17 countries–representing about 31 percent of AU membership–had started implementing the decision.6African Union, Financing the Union. Towards the Financial Autonomy of the African Union, Status Report – An Update, Version Four, June 16, 2020, https://au.int/sites/default/files/documents/38739-doc-report_on_financing_of_the_union_jun_2020_002.pdf A paradigm shift from a donor-recipient relationship to a partnership of equals thus remains to be actualized.

It is important to point out that challenges to global governance provide the AU and the EU with fertile grounds for cooperation. The struggle to revive multilateralism and the urgency of pandemic recovery offer the partnership a unique opportunity to work as the main force leading global recovery initiatives and multilateral cooperation. However, seizing this opportunity means going beyond business as usual to unleash the partnership’s full potential. This requires both organizations to take the following urgent action at the upcoming Summit:

Expanding Engagements Beyond Annual Summits.

To build mutual understanding and trust, the AU-EU partnership should engage in constructive dialogue beyond annual institutional meetings. It has to broaden existing contacts and exchanges between AU-EU institutions, officials, and working groups. The EU must enhance the participation of the AU in its key policy-making bodies–notably, its African Working Party (COAFR) and the Political and Security Committee (PSC)–when AU-related issues are on the agenda. Furthermore, civil society should be regarded as a major stakeholder in the development of a new partnership. This calls for a genuine and active involvement of civil society in the process leading to and following the Summit and a specific space for civil society groups’ recommendations during the meeting. Special consideration and support should be given to civil society initiatives that promote multi-stakeholder platforms piloting innovative approaches in the areas of education, entrepreneurship, environment, and cultural preservation, such as the AU–EU Youth Cooperation Hub.7See, for instance, the seven pilot projects of the AU-EU Youth Hub, available at: https://aueuyouthhub.org/pilot-projects/ Ensuring adequate participation of civil society would not only reflect the goal of a “people-centered partnership,” unanimously declared in the JAES, but would also take into consideration the reiterated calls arising from civil society groups for meaningful and timely consultations on the future partnership.8JAES Group, JAES Group Letter: Engaging Civil Society in the Future Africa-EU Partnership, December 8, 2020, https://wp.me/paJLmU-2dZ.

Going Beyond the Donor-Recipient Relationship.

As long as the donor-recipient relationship endures, achieving an equal partnership will remain unachievable. AU-EU cooperation must promote AU’s financial autonomy and the AU must devise ways of raising its own resources.9Resty, Naiga. “The EU-AU Development and Trade Partnership: Towards a New Era.” FEPS Policy Briefs, 2021 https://www.feps-europe.eu/attachments/publications/211103%20policy%20brief%20aueu%20relations%20on%20trade%20and%20development.pdf The EU must leverage its experience in the Customs Union and Common Market to provide needed funding and technical assistance to the dream of continental African economic integration, embodied by    the new African Comprehensive Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). In the short term, cooperation should aim at streamlining the implementation of the AU Kigali Decision and facilitating the collection of the 0.2 percent levy on African imports. Clear cost-sharing agreements are needed to disburse EU financing only when the minimum allocation by AU member states is reached to reduce dependency and promote financial accountability. Going beyond the donor-recipient relationship also entails consolidated parliamentary cooperation with the aim of setting a joint AU-EU agenda with agreed financial requirements. In the absence of an interparliamentary dialogue, EU financing to Africa will perpetuate unilateral recipes to African problems, disregarding growing demands of AU member states and civil society for social inclusion and sustainable development. This can be achieved by enhancing existing cooperation channels, notably the EU Delegation for Relations with the AU Pan-African Parliament, and by developing new avenues for parliamentary cooperation, such as the EU Regional Parliamentary Assembly with sub-Saharan countries established under the new EU-OACPS Partnership Agreement.10European Commission, Partnership Agreement between the European Union and Members of the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States, April 15, 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/international-partnerships/system/files/negotiated-agreement-text-initialled-by-eu-oacps-chief-negotiators-20210415_en.pdf

Going Beyond Crisis-Driven Financing.

The AU-EU partnership has a track record of cooperation in the peace and security sector. However, cooperation has been mostly crisis-driven and failed to develop an enduring structural conflict prevention system. It has deployed electoral observation missions and mediation support, yet failed to embed prevention strategies and practices at the institutional level. In this regard, future AU-EU cooperation needs to address governance challenges “between elections,” and not only “during elections.” Enhanced cooperation on conflict prevention must translate into concrete actions at the institutional and ground level. Institutional cooperation should focus on developing viable early-warning mechanisms by improving access to and monitoring of shared information flows and facilitating training and inter-institutional exchanges of military and civilian peacebuilding staff. On the ground, meetings between AU liaison offices and EU delegations should be held on a regular basis and lead to concrete follow-up actions, including joint field assessments and visits to enable the planning of joint programs and operations.

On the eve of its third decade, AU-EU cooperation is at the crossroads–having to choose between perpetuating ineffective practices of cooperation or going beyond business as usual to realize the partnership’s full potential. Opting for the second option would not only make a “partnership of equals” more likely, but it would also provide the partners with the opportunity to lead multilateral cooperation and shape global governance in a post-COVID-19 era. Ultimately, making the case for a win-win partnership while advocating for multilateral governance calls for a new era of AU-EU cooperation going beyond Summits, donor-recipient relationships, and crisis-driven financing.

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