The 5th AU-EU Summit: a (small) step forward

African leaders and their European counterparts met in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to debate on how to solve some mutual problems ranging from youth unemployment and security to investment and migration. Coming at a time when migration is high on the political agenda, the Summit’s discussions were dominated by migration with one objective: reinforcing existing measures to curb the illegal immigration of young Africans to Europe. This article was originally published in the 9th issue (January 2018) of The Ethiopian Messenger, the quarterly magazine of the Embassy of Ethiopia in Brussels.

Expectations were high in the run-up to the 5th AU-EU Summit, which took place from 29-30 November 2017 in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. More than four tumultuous years after the previous Summit and with considerable challenges laying at both shores of the Mediterranean, AU and EU Member States alike hoped to take concrete commitments in the best interest of their respective populations. As the Cotonou Partnership Agreement, which governs relations between the EU and the ACP States, is about to expire, many stakeholders were also hoping for a complete rethinking of EU-Africa relations.

Promising signs and persisting limitations

However, this historic summit that was supposed to be dedicated to youth, investment, development and strengthening security in African states ultimately turned into a meeting of Heads of State and government on the migratory emergency, and this longer-term perspective was overshadowed by short-term measures to curb migration, which dominated the discussions between both continents.

This Summit also demonstrated the growing importance of Africa-EU Summits for both continents. Participants of the summit included 83 heads of state from Europe and Africa, representatives of the institutions of the European Union and the African Union, as well as non-profit associations and undertakings. Whereas the second (2010) and third (2014) summits had been ignored or boycotted by some EU and AU Head of States, the 5th Summit saw a high turnout of key African and European leaders including Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, European Council President Donald Tusk and AU Commission President Moussa Faki Mahamat. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres also give a statement during the opening ceremony. It was also the first time African and European leaders were holding their three- yearly Summit in sub-Saharan Africa.

While most of the older EU members were represented by their heads of state or government, nine Central and Eastern European countries also attended the Summit. However, they were mostly represented by State Secretaries, proving once again their lack of interest in the EU-Africa framework.

Migration front and centre

Although the official theme of the summit was “investing in youth for a sustainable future”, the attention of the first Africa-EU meeting since the start of the migrant crisis quickly turned to migration and allegations of slavery in Libya. European and African leaders pledged to help youth find work and repatriate some 3,800 migrants stuck in a Libyan detention camp and the final Summit declaration and signed a separate declaration on the creation of a joint task force specifically focused on reversing the humanitarian emergency.

EU-AU commission and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres agreed to create a joint EU-AU-U.N. task force in order to save and protect the lives of migrants and refugees along the routes and in particular inside Libya. AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker also agreed to accelerate the voluntary return of migrants to origin countries, resettle those in need and seek to disband of human trafficking networks.

Even though the decision to rescue migrants in Libya and the action plan announced in the Ivory Coast are welcome initiatives that should be implemented as soon as possible, many experts also say the root causes of migration must be simultaneously addressed. Several AU and EU member states representatives clearly attended the Summit with the aim of obtaining a strong and fast commitment from Africa to accept the return of economic migrants.

Need for long-term strategies

Stakeholders missed a valuable opportunity for renewing and tightening the cooperation between the two continents. Attendants failed to address the most dysfunctional aspects of the relationship, as no substantial decisions were taken on the future of ACP-EU relations and Africa-EU relations. The most complicated negotiations still are still ahead of us and long-term initiatives have yet to be taken.

Even though both sides agreed that EU-Africa cooperation must be increased in education, employment and integration of youth, discussions failed to find common ground between European leaders, who wanted to see more progress on border security and AU states accepting people deported from the EU and African leaders who expect more legal pathways for people seeking short-term stays in Europe. The key topic of the Summit, “Investing in youth for a sustainable future” was a timely and major issue, in the light of demographic trends in Africa and the urgent need for jobs and measures to tackle growing insecurity and migration. Only a strategic long-term vision and initiatives such as the EU’s External Investment Plan (EIP) for Africa will enable us to fight effectively against the root causes of precarious migration and ensure a better future for African and European generations. Even though

Europe is a key partner for Africa – currently contributing more than one-third of the overall foreign direct investment in the continent, with 32 billion euros invested in Africa by EU companies in 2015 –, the Summit failed to launch of a structured dialogue with European and African private sector under a Sustainable Business for Africa platform. There also seem to be little agreement over what the root causes of migration are, and that it is unclear what definition is being used to guide policy. The implementation of initiatives has been worryingly slow, as EU leaders had committed to “conduct a joint EU-Africa analysis of the root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement to improve the evidence base of public policies”, but this analysis has yet to materialize more than two years later.

Hope for the future

The change of tone and power dynamics demonstrated during the Summit is a welcome development for Africa, and the Africa-EU framework seems to be genuinely evolving towards a real partnership. Yet, this constructive attitude will have to transform into concrete actions. In a speech in September, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, said that “the time when we had the illusion of managing migration flows only through border management is gone.” European commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said for its part that it was “essential” to “open real alternatives to taking perilous irregular journeys. Investing in more legal pathways, both for protection but also for study or work.”

Africa also has work to do. Rwanda President Paul Kagame Kagame, who is spearheading the AU reform process, described the AU reform as urgent and a necessity as the continent’s economic and security environment depends on the quality of its cooperation. In this view, the African Union institutional reform will create a self-sufficient Union and lead to more reliable external partnerships, including with the EU. To do so, AU Member States should strive to increase their ownership by implementing the Agenda 2063.

The years ahead of the 6th AU-EU Summit, that will take place in 2022 in the EU, will be key to see if this vision can actually turn into reality. ■