Brussels Behind the Scenes: No longer at ease

Brussels Behind the Scenes: No longer at ease
Credit: European Council


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No longer at ease

Forty African leaders were in Brussels this week to meet with their European counterparts. But beyond all the big talk about hands across the Mediterranean and building bridges, in what kind of health is the Africa-EU relationship?

Covid delayed the 2020 Africa-EU summit and attempts to hold the meeting in some sort of virtual format were not successful, meaning this week’s 2022 edition came nearly five long years after the last one in Côte d’Ivoire.

This is the sixth meeting of the two blocs since the partnership was first formalised all the way back in 2000 and it appears to have followed exactly the same script as all of the other summits.

Nice words but little else tangible.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

Journalists and officials that attended the two-day-long meeting report back with reheated speeches, the same talking points leaders were making twenty years ago and pointless interludes, such as a musical performance that cut into valuable discussion time.

There is clearly a tremendous amount of appetite and willingness in Brussels to make it a true ‘partnership of equals’, as many of the press materials and social media posts say. But as should be clear by now: the EU is not just the officials that work in the Belgian capital.

It is mostly the 27 member states that make up the bloc. Therein – as is always the case – is the problem. Governments have different priorities, people have different values, making an agreement on external issues difficult to broker.

The partnership has suffered from a perceived sense of ‘all talk, no action’. Nowhere is that more true than on the issue of vaccines. Just 11% of African people are vaccinated against Covid-19, while millions of Europeans are already on to their boosters.

There have been some successes: the EU has donated €1 billion to ramp up vaccine production in Africa and the COVAX donation scheme has shipped millions of jabs to the countries that need them.

Meanwhile, China – Europe’s great rival in the great game of influence-brokering – has already sent African countries hundreds of millions of doses of its home-grown vaccine, with plans to provide 1 billion more. Most of them are donations.

There are long-term plans in the works on the EU side that cannot be discounted: at the summit, a vaccine tech-transfer deal was finalised and hundreds of millions of euros are now earmarked to set up an African Medicines Agency.

BioNTech, the firm that teamed up with Pfizer to develop its vaccine, is also working on a mobile production facility that fits in a shipping container. As a capacity-building measure, it’s an impressive concept.

Covid is not the only worry in town. Malawi reported this week a case of wild polio, the first seen in more than five years. If another health crisis is on the horizon, the EU’s brand of small baby steps here and there might be a winning tactic. Eventually.

Africa needed more help earlier on in the pandemic that Europe could have and should have provided. Trigger-happy officials willing to ban flights when variants were detected and hoarding of personal protection equipment were bad policy choices.

Trust has not completely fallen apart but it is clear the partnership is no longer at ease, if it ever were. Other issues such as migration also breeds disappointment on the other side of the Med.

But progress is slowly happening. Whether African leaders appreciate the EU’s tactic of using a 'magic money tree' to attract private investment, more than the hammer blows of cheap loans and immediate supply satisfaction struck by China, is a difficult question to answer.

Knock-on effect

In other areas, EU policy fudges are having a real-world impact that will likely harm Africa in the long-run. Take energy as one prime example.

The continent’s less developed status actually affords it a golden opportunity to ditch its reliance on outdated and extremely polluting energy sources, such as oil and gas, and skip straight to renewable energy.

Europe has not been able to do that because of reliance on cleaner fossil gas and the far greater energy demand placed upon the bloc’s energy systems compared to Africa, whose share of global greenhouse gas emissions is far smaller.

But the EU has potentially botched its chance to help African countries make that supercharged green transition by granting gas a green label under its sustainable investment rulebook, the taxonomy.

During the lead-up to the summit this week, Sierra Leonean politician Kandeh Yumkella – a former UN under-secretary – told the EU’s energy chief that thanks to the taxonomy decision Africa can finally start talking about gas as a transition fuel.

That is arguably a premature policy decision, given that the taxonomy is not sailing on calm seas and global energy markets mean gas prices are volatile, thanks to the geopolitical actions of Russia, China and other big powers.

Instead of helping to spark a clean energy revolution in Africa and the job creation potential that would offer to young people – one of the partnership’s primary goals – Brussels’ actions may facilitate increased fossil fuel production.

It appears to already be happening. The energy ministers of Algeria, Niger and Nigeria have agreed to restart work on a mega-pipeline across the Sahara desert to link the gas fields of the latter two nations with the gas hub of the former.

If the 4,000km-long pipe can attract the estimated $13 billion needed to build it and overcome the small matter of crossing a region where terrorist incidents are routine, more African gas could be making its way into Europe’s networks.

EU countries could instead be increasing their investments into clean energy sources and – more importantly - investing in programmes that facilitate knowledge and technology transfers.

Another telling signal of that direction came in the final declaration at the end of the summit: “We recognise the importance of making use of available natural resources within that energy transition process.”

It is clear that this is not referring just to minerals and metals needed to make electric vehicle batteries or wind turbines and solar panels.

Africa is not a feeble-minded continent, despite what some would still have you believe. Europe is struggling to crack issues like small modular nuclear reactors and even fundamentally important things like running electricity grids purely on renewables.

Expanding the knowledge pool and creating a partnership that produces more experts and resources can only be a good thing. But that is long-term policy-making, something that the EU unfortunately continues to prove it is poorly equipped to do.

Ultimately, the EU’s gradual capacity-building tactics and slow-burn policies – which it deploys domestically to try and bridge the gap between poorer and richer member states – just might not be a good fit for Africa.

Twenty years of the partnership seems to suggest that.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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