BRUSSELS — European officials knew the European Union was not a household name in Africa, but it was only after commissioning a thorough poll that they learned the bloc was at best just a afterthought, while China and the United States were cited as the best partners.
To begin to address this problem, they launched a slick multimillion-euro advertising campaign in several African countries touting how ordinary young Africans have benefited from EU largesse.
In meetings in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, the leaders of the 27 EU nations roll out the red carpet for 40 of their 55 African Union counterparts, at a major summit – their sixth – which Europeans hope will back the message that the relationship between the two continents is now a partnership of equals.
Less discussed, but impossible to ignore, are the obstacles in this relationship.
The most important are the European Union’s emphasis on stopping the migration of Africans to Europe and its reluctance to support African applications for the publication of vaccine patents to combat the spread of Covid-19, while promises of new investments are vague and ambitious.
A draft joint statement by the African Union and the European Union, which has been seen by The New York Times, shows in editing where each delegation changed the proposed wording, highlighting exactly where the lines of fracture.
The draft document shows that African Union members want the joint statement to record their support for waiving patents on Covid-19 vaccines, which African leaders would prefer to do themselves. The European Union, which has long rejected these calls, suggests that they settle for more innocuous language — to “commit to engage constructively in support of a comprehensive response on trade and health”.
The European Union has so far donated 148 million vaccine doses to African countries and promises to reach 450 million by summer this year. Some investments in vaccine manufacturing in Africa are slowly taking shape, but it will be years before they can be delivered.
In the meantime, most EU citizens are on their third dose of the vaccine, while less than 10% of Africans are fully vaccinated.
Yet the European Union is attempting a campaign of hearts and minds in Africa. The bloc is painfully aware that despite being Africa’s largest trading partner (more than a quarter of Africa’s exports and imports were with the bloc in 2020), few in Africa regard it as a important interlocutor.
The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, hired Kantar, a major branding firm, to collect data on the issue and was appalled when its poll showed Africans citing China, the United States and, more bottom, France, as main partners.
The awareness, officials said, led the European Commission to contract Ogilvy, a global advertising giant, for a 6.5 million euro ($7.4 million) campaign to raise awareness of what what the EU is doing for Africans.
The glossy campaign, which included videos promoted primarily on social media, as well as billboards, featured recipients of EU funding in seven countries and conveyed the message that they were thriving at home.
Five other African countries will be honored this year in a new episode of the campaign, presented under the title “Africa and the European Union: together. Tomorrow. Today.”
The unmistakable subtext of the campaign was that there was no need to migrate to Europe. Migration, in fact, is the most difficult aspect of the relationship to overcome when trying to revive it as an equal partnership.
“Every penny spent in Africa should be linked to migration,” said Mehari Taddele Maru of the European University Institute in Florence, who served as director of the African Union’s Migration Program in the late 2000s.
He said that after the arrival in 2015 of nearly one million Syrian refugees and the profound impact this had on European politics by strengthening far-right parties, the Africa-Europe relationship has deepened. largely defined by efforts to “contain Africans in Africa”.
“Almost all EU instruments have become subordinate to the migration agenda,” he added.
Nick Westcott, a former senior British and European Union diplomat who is now a director of the Royal African Society, said the European Union has failed to deliver on its promises to African countries in the area of migration.
The two sides previously agreed at a summit in 2015 to arrest smugglers, invest more to improve conditions in Africa and provide legal pathways for immigration.
“The African Union and the European Union have bought into it,” said Westcott, who at the time of the 2015 summit was the head of the EU’s external service for Africa. “The European Union has not fully respected its end of the bargain,” he added.
The bloc has become increasingly brutal in preventing African asylum seekers and economic migrants from reaching its shores, and thousands of Africans die trying every year or disappear in Libya waiting to attempt the desperate crossing of the central Mediterranean.
The European Union has not only failed to open meaningful pathways to legal migration for African workers and highly skilled workers, but is now considering deploying border guards and drones to Africa to stop people leaving. .
Remittances from migrant workers are vital to African economies, and African leaders would like to see these issues addressed in Brussels; the draft document seen by The Times indicated that the European Union delegation had deleted this part of its joint statement.
In fact, the subject of migration was formally downgraded at the summit, appearing only incidentally on the agenda, but for some European leaders, it was the priority.
The coronavirus pandemic: essential things to know
“Prosperity and peace in Africa are also our tasks,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said as he traveled to the summit with African leaders. “We know perfectly well that one wave after another, waves of migration have been destabilizing Europe since 2015.”
“Creating opportunities for young people, so many in Africa, is the guarantee of a stable Europe for decades to come,” he added.
Still, the presence of 40 of the 55 African Union leaders in Brussels on Thursday shows that the bond between the two blocs is important, if difficult, Westcott said. “There is a great amount of substance in the relationship,” he added.
The European Union tries to emphasize investments and financial links between the two continents. The Netherlands, which will chair the private sector roundtables at the summit, is an example of an EU member state that has supported its private sector by investing in Africa, particularly in the area of renewable energy.
“This is where there is a win-win opportunity for Europe, as it can make a big impact and develop a positive relationship in line with European standards and priorities,” said Associate Principal Researcher Professor Michael Tanchum in politics in the Africa program of the European Council on External Relations.
At the summit, the European Union will announce that it is putting 150 billion euros, 170 billion dollars, of investments in Africa on the table for the next few years, a dizzying figure that eclipses China’s flagship investments in the belt and road in Africa.
But pressed to find out how that figure breaks down and whether it corresponds to cash or expected co-investments from the private sector and leveraged loans and grants, it became clear that the figure was ambitious.
A senior EU official briefing the press on condition of anonymity called the breakdown of the 150 billion headline figure “magical engineering”.
Yet it may be the economy where African countries have the most power vis-à-vis European investors, courted as they are by China, Russia, the United States and a range of powers. from the Middle-East.
“At the end of the day, it’s good for Africans to have options,” Prof Tanchum said. “Europe realizes that it has to bring its best game to Africa. The proof is in the action. »