Despite commitment to the cooperation between equals, the European Union, and African Union (EU-AU) partnership is still characterized by highly asymmetrical trade and development relations. Given the centrality of trade and development to Africa’s social, economic, human development, peace, and security, it is important to highlight the key drivers of inequalities and suggest recommendations to inform deliberations at the EU-AU summit scheduled for 17-18 February 2022. This article is based on a larger study conducted between June – September 2021,1Resty Naiga. “AU-EU Trade and Development Partnership: Towards a New Era? FEPS Policy Briefs, 2021. and research findings that identified the following key drivers of inequalities in EU-AU relations:

The incoherent and fragmented EU-Africa trade and development policy framework primarily developed by the EU. There is a legal and policy separation between North and sub-Saharan Africa – the former being governed by the Neighbourhood Policy and the latter by both the Cotonou Partnership Agreement and the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES).2Jones et al., EU Development Cooperation with Sub-Saharan Africa 2013-2018. Policies, Funding, Results. Maastricht: European Centre for Development Policy Management and Bonn: Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik, 2020. Central to the policy incoherence and inconsistencies is the JAES policy framework’s loss of focus on the initial intention of addressing issues of common concern and promoting a system of effective multilateralism. This has constrained its ability to live up to its core intention of moving beyond a donor-recipient relationship to cooperation based on jointly defined mutual and complementary interests between the EU and AU member states.3EU-Africa Summit, The Africa-EU Strategic Partnership. A Joint Africa-EU Strategy, 2nd EU–Africa Summit, Lisbon, December 8-9, 2007, Instead, the JAES framework has prioritized issues of peace and security over the economic and development aspects.4Bernardo Venturi, “AU-EU Relations on Peace and Security,” FEPS Policy Briefs, 2021 The continued reliance on separate legal frameworks between African countries, donor-receipt relationships, and the loss of attention on trade and development is causing divisions among African countries and contributing to the limited trade and development performance in the past two decades.

African Union’s member states face structural barriers to trade and development. The barriers include limited political will to prioritize trade and development, low levels of economic diversification and technical skills, underdeveloped agricultural sectors, unfair prices, and failure to meet trade regulatory standards.”5Alfonso Medinilla and Chloe Teevan, “Beyond Good Intentions: The New EU-Africa Partnership,” ECDPM Discussion Papers, no. 267 (2020), The inadequate capacity to meet the trade regulations aimed at strengthening food safety through compliance with sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures is among the key drivers of trade inequalities between AU and EU member states. These challenges result in different forms of vulnerability such as failure by AU to achieve agency and define its trade needs for the EU, continued exportation of raw materials, and unfavorable trade regulations and prices. The continued exportation of raw materials and importation of manufactured goods by AU member states have impeded the development of Africa’s food value chains as well as its agricultural and industrial development.6Draper, Peter. “EU-Africa Trade Relations: The Political Economy of Economic Partnership Agreements.” Jan Tumlir Policy Essays, no. 2 (2007). The “Aid for Trade” whose goal is to leave no one behind by supporting its partners in developing climate-resilient economies, boosting inclusive and sustainable economic growth through trade, building trade capacity, infrastructure, supporting Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and facilitating the implementation of trade arrangements would help to minimize the structural barriers. Although the EU’s current main focus on strengthening the value chains of small and medium-sized agribusinesses is desirable, it is not optimal as it reinforces the existing trade dynamic of exporting raw materials, which may impede rather than stimulate the development of Africa’s food-value chains as well as its agricultural and industrial development.7Brian, Stout. 2020. It’s Africa’s Turn to Leave the European Union: The EU doesn’t treat the African Union as an equal partner. Unless the AU resets relations, it’s in for decades more of the same,

Unequal relations and limited stakeholder participation in the design and development of trade and development policies. The EU has no joint policy framework with the AU and there is no one single policy framework through which the EU, AU, and their member states work together on trade and development. Instead, the EU has developed several different policies for its trade, aid, and political cooperation with AU member states. Therefore, its cooperation policies and instruments vis-à-vis AU member states are guided by multiple, complementary, and at times incoherent and inconsistent frameworks. These policies include: The Cotonou Partnership Agreement (CPA) signed in Cotonou, Benin, in 2000 as the overarching policy framework for development cooperation between the EU and the African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) Group–currently, the Organization of African, Caribbean, and Pacific States (OACPS);8African Union Assembly, “Decision on a New Agreement on Post-Cotonou Cooperation with the European Union” (Assembly/AU/Dec.694(XXXI)), in Decisions, Declarations and Resolution, Thirty-First Ordinary Session, Nouakchott, July 1-2, 2018, the post-Cotonou agreement that sets the political, economic, and sectorial cooperation framework;9European Commission, Partnership Agreement between the European Union and Members of the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States, Article 99(1). and the Joint Africa–EU Strategy (JAES) that provides an overarching, long-term political framework for cooperation at the continental level. The joint strategy’s main objectives are to reinforce the political dialogue between the AU and the EU, expand the cooperation, and promote a people-centered partnership. The JAES also spells out the intention of both continents to move beyond a donor-recipient relationship towards long-term cooperation on jointly identified mutual and complementary interests.10Africa-EU Partnership website: The Partnership and Joint Africa-EU Strategy, However, none of the policy instruments was jointly developed with the AU or other African institutions. The AU is also concerned that the EU’s consultations during policy design and development priority setting are very poor and, at best, tokenism.11Author’s Interview with the AU official, September 2021. For details see Resty Naiga. “AU-EU Trade and Development Partnership: Towards a New Era? FEPS Policy Briefs, 2021. A more equitable and participatory joint AU-EU trade and development cooperation regime would help advance mutual interests and solve the challenge of policy incoherence within AU member states that undermine AU role and mandate within the partnership. Relatedly, the lack of people-centered development can be explained by the failure to capitalize on the AU member states’ demographic dividend and maximize the contribution of its youth and women to long-term growth. This is attested to by the limited participation of women and the youth in the EU-AU development agenda and programs targeting youth and women.

Long-standing donor-recipient relationship between the EU and AU. The European Union and its member states are the biggest contributors to the African Union Commission (AUC), providing more than 80 percent of its program budget.12Ibid In addition, the European Commission launched the Pan-African Instrument in 2014, the first-ever EU program in development and cooperation that covers Africa as a whole, which further increases dependence between the EU and AU member states.13European Commission, “African Union Commission and European Commission Meet to Bring New Impetus to the EU-Africa Partnership,” Press Releases, April 21, 2015,; Brouwers and Le Ber, The Neo-Colonial Europeanization of Africa. Despite the will of the EU and AU to change the nature of the relationship between the two continents into one of equal partners, “actions from the AU and its member states seem loud and clear on maintaining the status quo regarding the EU and its member states as a cash cow–therefore continuing the donor-recipient relationship that presents major structural inequality between the AU and EU institutions and member countries”.14Author’s Interview with AU official, August 2021. For details see Resty Naiga. “AU-EU Trade and Development Partnership: Towards a New Era? FEPS Policy Briefs, 2021. The continued dependency of the AU and its member states on the EU hinders its agency and ability to overcome vulnerabilities related to unequal relations in the areas of trade and policymaking processes. The failure of the AU and its member states to capitalize on its economies of scale in terms of numbers (55 member states compared to 27 EU member states) and achieve collective autonomy raises questions about Africa’s commitment and interest in continental objectives and development outcomes.15Ibid A collective African commitment to financial independence ahead of the summit would help avoid the aid dependency mindset compromising negotiations on the new EU-AU partnership strategy.

Recommendations to the EU and AU

With over two decades of EU-AU trade and development cooperation, there is a need for a renewed commitment to overcome structural impediments to a mutually beneficial relationship. Some of the key recommendations to facilitate the paradigm shift towards a mutually beneficial partnership are:

Joint negotiation of the trade and development cooperation policies. This would require new negotiations aimed at coequality in the framing of cooperation and moving away from a partnership model dominated by the EU’s interest.16European Commission, “Addressing Income Inequalities through Development Cooperation, Vol. 3: Guidelines for Mainstreaming the Reduction of Inequality in Intervention,” Tools and Methods Series Reference Documents, no. 29 (2021), Future EU-AU partnership should pay close attention to more equitable development cooperation by promoting stakeholder participation by hither-to marginalized groups including women and the youth and promoting people-centered trade and development initiatives.

Prioritize sustainable economic growth through agricultural transformation and industrialization. Industrialization is a major component of all successful development and trade partnership projects and Africa cannot be an exception to the rule. Moreover, it is supported by both the EU and AU policy frameworks. On the part of the EU, it is supported by the Joint Communication towards a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa,17European Commission and EEAS, Towards a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa. (JOIN/2020/4), March 9, 2020. which proposes a partnership for sustainable growth and jobs. On the side of the AU, it is supported by the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), which serves as the framework for agricultural transformation across Africa with the purpose of increasing investment and productivity in the agricultural sector to achieve annual agricultural growth rates of more than 6 percent as a means of promoting food security and economic development. Agricultural transformation and industrialization can be achieved through developing climate-resilient economies, irrigation, mechanization, and facilitating market access through developing capacity to meet the trade regulations aimed at strengthening food safety, especially compliance with sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures. These steps would help overcome supply-side constraints and address market-access constraints in the AU member states.18Draper, Peter. “EU-Africa Trade Relations: The Political Economy of Economic Partnership Agreements.” Jan Tumlir Policy Essays, no. 2 (2007). Therefore, despite the internal and external hurdles to successful industrialization in AU member states, it is not acceptable to maintain the status quo–one in which Africa must forever remain exclusively a supplier of cheap raw materials to the developed world.

AU member states should prioritize trade and define their trade needs regarding the EU. This can be achieved through a majority of the 55 member states taking the lead in determining trade-related continental programs. Apparently, there is a laissez-faire attitude as indicated by a few AU member states taking the lead in driving trade-related programs instead of paying more attention to peace and security issues.19Author’s Interview with AU officials, August 2021.see See Resty Naiga. “AU-EU Trade and Development Partnership: Towards a New Era? FEPS Policy Briefs, 2021. Poor prioritization of trade among AU member states has resulted in inadequate implementation of continental decisions such as the CAADP, which serves as the framework for agricultural transformation across Africa.  Moreover, the Regional Economic Committees (RECs),20The Regional Economic Communities (RECs) are regional groupings of African states and are the pillars of the AU. The purpose of the RECs is to facilitate regional economic integration between members of the individual regions and through the wider African Economic Community (AEC), which was established under the Abuja Treaty (1991). This Treaty seeks to create an African Common Market using the RECs as building blocks. See the African Union website: Regional Economic Communities (RECs), which are the pillars of the AU and “building blocks” of African trade integration,21Resti, Jacopo. “AU-EU Institutional Relations: Towards a New Era?.” FEPS Policy Briefs, 2021 are grappling with implementation gaps–often attributed to a lack of expertise at the national level.22Author’s Interview with EU official, September 2021. See Resty Naiga. “AU-EU Trade and Development Partnership: Towards a New Era? FEPS Policy Briefs, 2021. There are also concerns about lack of political commitment on the part of participating countries, inadequate funding, and governance weaknesses. Governance weaknesses are attributed to a lack of coordination and clear division of labor between the AU, RECs, member states, and other continental institutions such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the African Union Development Agency (AUDA), “with each conducting planning and resource-mobilization activities independently – and, in some cases, even competing for the same financial resources” from the EU.23Jan Vanheukelom, “Understanding the NEPAD Agency. How to Translate Vision into Practice?,” ECDPM Background Papers, December 2017, p. 8, Accordingly, there is need for improved governance, political will, and institutional reforms in order to strengthen the AU’s ability to promote socio-economic and political integration on the continent and the AU’s mandate towards the EU.

Prioritize implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). The effective implementation of AfCFTA is central to achieving Africa’s continental integration and strengthening the common voice and policy space of AU member states in global trade negotiations.”24African Union, Training on the Settlement of Disputes: The African Continental Free Trade Area, April 2019, Therefore, the AU should prioritize addressing the implementation gaps, strengthening coordination, and building capacity to increase labor skills within the member countries and the RECs as a means of ensuring successful implementation and overcoming market access challenges. The EU should support capacity building towards advancing technical knowledge in implementing the AfCFTA goals and addressing non-tariff barriers to trade such as those related to sanitary and phytosanitary standards. The “Aid for trade” agenda aimed at “leaving no one behind” through building trade capacity, infrastructure development, and facilitating the implementation of trade regulations should play a role in helping the AU member states establish appropriate institutions and regulatory structures to contribute towards African self-reliance and a mutually beneficial partnership with the EU.

Reduce dependency on foreign aid by broadening the domestic resource base. The weight of economics and the long-standing donor-recipient relationship between the AU and member states make the hope of a mutual-interest-based partnership unachievable. Reducing dependency can be done through effective and efficient utilization of the aid for trade on the intended objectives, mobilizing yearly contributions from the 55 AU member states, and implementing the 0.2 percent import levy on all eligible goods imported to the continent–this levy has the potential to raise €1 billion revenue per year.25Resti, Jacopo. “AU-EU Institutional Relations: Towards a New Era?.” FEPS Policy Briefs, 2021 The AU can also facilitate collective action among its member states through sanctions on the non-paying members, institutional reforms, and good governance, including transparency measures such as publicizing data on individual member state payments without necessarily going against the pan-African ethos of solidarity and non-interference. The failure of member states to treasure independence and honor their obligations towards the AU raises questions about the commitment towards taking charge of their own development agenda and Pan-Africanism.


Trade and development cooperation remains a crucial area with the greatest potential to make a people-centered, reciprocal, and transformed EU-AU partnership a reality. The successful implementation of the AfCFTA is particularly important given its potential to promote inclusive development, improve the livelihoods of those most in need, and, most importantly, minimize the trade asymmetries with other regions of the world. The need for concerted efforts to rein in the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of international cooperation. In the same vein, AU-EU joint efforts are required to promote their mutual-interest-based partnership and stimulate post-Covid recovery through sustainable economic growth. Indeed, “We are stronger together.”

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