EU and African leaders are meeting for a two-day summit starting Thursday to restore ties with pledges of major investment in the face of competition from China and Russia.
Relations have been hampered by a range of issues: from disputes over the supply of coronavirus vaccines to curbing illegal migration, a spate of coups in Africa and the growing influence of Russian mercenaries in Africa.
“Our common ambition, Africans and Europeans, for this summit is to forge a renewed, modernized and more action-oriented partnership,” said Senegal’s President Macky Sall, who currently chairs the African Union.
President Emmanuel Macron of France, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, hopes the first joint summit since 2017 can polish his grandiose ambition to forge an “economic and financial New Deal with Africa”.
The EU wants to convince the 40 African leaders in Brussels that Europe is their “most trusted partner” by developing an investment initiative that aims to mobilize 150 billion euros ($170 billion) in public and private funds over the next seven years.
The scheme is the first regional component of the EU’s Global Gateway – a $300 billion global investment blueprint designed to rival China’s Belt and Road initiative.
The EU is looking at a first dozen ambitious projects to strengthen internet access, transport links and renewable energy, while offering an alternative to cheap loans from Beijing.
But details on funding remain vague and the projects are yet to be agreed with the African side.
African leaders are instead pushing for a much more concrete step to get EU countries to allow the International Monetary Fund to allocate tens of billions of dollars in further aid.
Coups, mercenaries, Mali
The summit, with a series of roundtables, comes at a worrying time for Africa after a wave of military coups and as the regional powerhouse Ethiopia is ravaged by conflict.
Burkina Faso last month joined Guinea, Mali and Sudan as the fourth country to be frozen by the AU after disgruntled soldiers deposed the elected president.
Those four will not be represented in Brussels.
As Europe grapples with a feared Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is also alarmed by the rising power of Russian mercenaries in some of Africa’s most volatile hotspots.
The shadowy paramilitary group Wagner, which is said to have close ties to the Kremlin, has been accused of supporting Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions.
Western countries have condemned the arrival of their mercenaries in the Malian capital Bamako to help protect a junta that seized power last year. Mali’s rulers deny hiring Wagner.
France on Thursday announced it was withdrawing troops from Mali over a rift in relations with the junta after nearly 10 years of fighting a jihadist insurgency.
European governments fear the unrest in the region threatens to create a vacuum that could be exploited by movements linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said the bloc is weighing the future of its military training mission in Mali.
An EU official said that in an effort to bolster wider stability, Brussels planned to increase funding for African peacekeeping missions across the continent.
The fight against the Covid-19 pandemic will also be an important topic at the summit.
Africa is outraged at what it sees as the unfair distribution of coronavirus vaccines around the world, leaving it hopelessly behind.
South African Cyril Ramaphosa has accused the West of giving his continent only the “crumbs off their table” as the EU rejected a push for a temporary patent exemption to allow generic vaccine production.
The EU – the world’s largest vaccine exporter – points to more than 400 million shots it has contributed to Covax’s global vaccine-sharing initiative and pledges to give Africa 450 million doses by mid-2022.
It says it will increase funding to help health systems on the continent get weapons, and has pledged one billion euros to support future vaccine production in Africa.