Time to Reset African Union-European Union Relations

Executive Summary

African and European leaders are scheduled to meet in November for the fifth triennial African Union-European Union summit at a time when relations between the two institutions have reached a turning point. Both are in transition, undergoing internal reforms that will have serious implications for their future peace and security partnership. After significant disagreements in 2016 over European Union (EU) payments to troops in the African Union (AU) mission in Somalia, there is now considerable political will on both sides to strengthen cooperation. While collaboration has improved in some areas in recent months, deep-seated frustrations over financing and each other’s perceived deficiencies remain strong. Relations are too emotional, bound up in colonial history – a breeding ground for mistrust and resentment. If the relationship is to be deepened, both sides must deal openly with disagreements. Deliberations should be less transactional, moving away from a narrow list of African demands and negotiations over what the EU will pay for. Instead, they must be more strategic, based upon clearly articulated interests.

The AU has embarked on a potentially transformative process of institutional reform that, if implemented, will make it leaner and more efficient and should increase its financial self-sufficiency. However, there are significant challenges to the AU’s authority resulting from the changing nature of conflict in Africa, especially the spread of jihadist and other non-state armed groups, and the concomitant rise of ad hoc military coalitions to combat them, such as the Multinational Joint Task Force in the Lake Chad basin and the G5 Sahel. These changes also bring into question the suitability and sustainability of the continent’s peace and security architecture. Designed in the 2000s, it is now under strain and in need of wholesale review. The AU needs to clearly set out its strategic priorities and define its role in peace and security, deciding whether to focus on developing and harmonising policy and maintaining political oversight or becoming an implementer of projects. It also should reassess its relations with the regional economic communities, a central element of the continent’s security architecture, clarifying which organisations should take the lead in conflict situations.

With the prospect of the UK’s exit, the EU is preparing for life without one of its most influential and wealthy member states. This inevitably will impact its relations with the AU, as will renegotiation of the Cotonou Agreement, a partnership between the EU and 79 sub-Saharan Africa, Caribbean and Pacific countries which expires in 2020. The African Peace Facility, the main source of EU support for the AU’s peace and security activities, is funded through the agreement’s financial instrument, the European Development Fund.

The EU is one of the AU’s most significant peace and security partner; since 2004 it has provided more than €2 billion ($2.39 billion) in assistance. The question of financing is one of the areas of greatest tension between the two institutions. Their relationship is essentially that of donor and recipient but both are reluctant to characterise it as such, even though they actively, if inadvertently, perpetuate the dependency. The EU increasingly resents being treated like a “cash machine”, especially as it believes it does not receive due recognition. It wants the AU to pay its “fair share”. The AU claims to want this too. It wishes to reduce its reliance on external support and, as a result, member states have agreed to proposals for a 0.2 per cent levy on imports to the continent that could generate more than $1.2 billion per year. This is essential. If the suggested levy is not workable for some or all member states, alternative solutions must quickly be found.

The vexed donor-recipient dynamic is further complicated by tensions over the legacy of European colonisation, which intensified greatly during Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s tenure as AU Commission chairperson. This has a detrimental effect on trust and confidence, prevents free and frank discussions and bars progress toward an interest-based partnership.

The AU-EU summit is unlikely to be as transformational as the two institutions would wish – preparations have not progressed far enough for this. But it could still be a useful springboard for more strategic discussions and movement toward an interests-based relationship, if the following steps are implemented:

  • Pursue a pragmatic partnership based on mutual interests:assertions about an “equal partnership” in a seriously imbalanced relationship cause unnecessary tensions, irritating some AU member states and raising unachievable expectations. The notion, while remaining an aspiration, should be de-emphasised and replaced with a more pragmatic understanding of AU and EU mutual interests and the interdependent nature of their relations.

  • Focus on strategic and political interests: discussions of the minutiae of what the EU will or will not pay for tend to dominate AU-EU meetings at all levels. It will be hard to avoid financial matters, but the summit should focus on matters that are vital to the long-term interests of the two unions and address the issue of funding as part of a strategic examination of peace and security after Cotonou. Ideally, any future support should be predictable to enable the AU to do more medium-term planning, and flexible to permit adopting new initiatives and adapting the continental security architecture. It also should include an instrument for rapid reaction like the existing Early Response Mechanism. Support should focus on four key areas: early warning; preventive diplomacy and mediation; peace support operations; and capacity-building and non-lethal equipment for AU member states’ military and security forces. To encourage AU member states to increase their financial support, any future mechanism should be based on a matched funding system in which the EU’s contribution is proportionately linked to those made by African governments.

  • Put migration on the agenda: another step toward a more interests-based partnership would be the inclusion of migration and mobility on the summit agenda, a highly contentious issue that AU member states are reluctant to discuss openly. The EU’s kneejerk reaction to increasing flows of irregular migration from Africa has alienated the AU, which wants Europe to increase legal migration routes and tackle root causes rather than the seal its borders. However uncomfortable, the issue should be on the table – it will permeate the meeting regardless.


Much binds Africa and Europe together. Collectively, the EU’s 28 members are Africa’s principal trading partner, main foreign investor, chief source of remittances and largest provider of development and humanitarian assistance. The two continents are geographically close (just eight miles separate them at their nearest points) and they have a shared, if chequered, history. Security issues in one rebound on the other: for example, instability in Libya and the Sahel (in part, at least, of Europe’s own making) has contributed to rising numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

Since its inception in 1957, the EU (then the European Economic Community) has had a close association with Africa, initiated by France and later supported by the UK when it joined in 1973. Over time this has developed from a narrow focus on trade and development to encompass security, governance and the rule of law. The first formalisation of relations between the AU (then the Organisation of African Unity) and the EU was the establishment of a framework for political dialogue at a summit in Cairo in April 2000. It was cemented in 2007 with the development of the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) which sets out the shared values, interests and strategic objectives of the two institutions.

In November, leaders representing the AU’s 55 members are scheduled to join those from the EU in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire for the fifth triennial AU-EU summit. The EU has declared 2017, which also marks the tenth anniversary of the JAES, “a defining year” for its partnership with the AU and has expressed the hope that the Abidjan meeting will “reshape and deepen” relations. The AU has yet to pronounce its expectations for the summit, but there is a sense in Addis Ababa, home to the organisation’s headquarters, that relations are ripe for reinvigoration. Relations reached a low point in 2016 with a bruising dispute over the EU’s payment of stipends to troops in AMISOM, the AU’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia, but coordination and cooperation are said to have improved in recent months.

A re-evaluation of the AU-EU relationship is timely. Both unions find themselves at an institutional crossroad that will greatly impact their continued association. The AU is embarking on a potentially transformational process of reform almost as radical as the evolution from the Organisation of African Unity to the African Union in 2002. It also cautiously welcomed Morocco back into the fold at the January 2017 summit, after 33 years of self-imposed exile, and now for the very first time is a truly continental body. The EU, having weathered the worst of its existential crisis over migration, is now faced with the prospect of the UK’s exit and is preparing for life without one of its most influential and wealthy member states.

These transitions come at a time of rapidly changing international politics. The geopolitical context for multilateral diplomacy is deteriorating under the influence of U.S. President Donald Trump who prefers a bilateral, transactional approach to foreign relations and is seeking to considerably reduce U.S. financial support to the UN, in particular to peacekeeping.There is uncertainty surrounding the Trump administration’s wider Africa policies, though it will maintain and likely increase the focus on counter-terrorism, particularly in the Horn of Africa and the Lake Chad basin, bringing only short-term gains in countries like Somalia and Nigeria, while causing further civilian casualties.

China’s weight on the continent continues to grow. Beijing’s Africa policy has been shaped by economic interests, but its need to protect business investments has pushed it to engage in peacekeeping and conflict resolution in Mali and more particularly in South Sudan. The commercial, diplomatic and military presence of the Gulf states and Turkey in Africa, especially the Horn, is increasing but it is not yet clear whether it will undermine or bolster stability.

How the two institutions adjust to these external and internal challenges will have serious ramifications for their peace and security partnership. To deepen relations, they will need to tackle deep-seated frustrations that breed mistrust and resentment.

This report is based on extensive interviews with AU and EU officials and member states’ representatives in Addis Ababa, Brussels, Berlin, The Hague, Juba, London, Nairobi and Pretoria, between January and October this year. It provides a detailed analysis of the relationship between the two institutions, identifying and assessing key points of divergence, elucidating concerns and complaints, and suggesting ways to strengthen future relations by bridging the divides that currently separate them.

II.Africa and Europe at a Crossroad

A.The AU: Toward Greater Self-sufficiency and Efficiency

To lessen AU dependence on external donors, member states have committed, in principle, to significantly increase their funding, including for peace and security activities. To ensure they get value for money, they have embarked on a potentially radical reform process that, if successful, will make the AU leaner and more efficient.

1.Financial reform

In July 2015, African leaders pledged to fund 25 per cent of the AU’s budget for peace and security operations by 2020 – an acknowledgement that its over-reliance on external aid is unsustainable, compromises the AU’s ownership of its agenda and constrains its freedom of action. The strong desire by some member states for increased financial self-sufficiency can be traced back to the 2011 crisis in Libya, during which France, UK, the U.S. and their allies side-lined the AU and its road-

map for a negotiated exit for Muammar Qadhafi. This sense of powerlessness was compounded as Africa, unable to act due to internal political disagreements as well as a lack of military capacity, watched French troops stem insurgencies in Mali and Central African Republic (2012 and 2013).

Members agreed in July 2016 to a 0.2 per cent levy on “all eligible” goods imported to the continent, based on proposals from Donald Kaberuka, former African Development Bank president and now AU high representative for the Peace Fund. The tax has the potential to generate more than $1.2 billion per annum. This commitment has opened the door to more predictable and sustainable funding for AU-led peace support operations through UN-assessed contributions, but it must be transformed into ready money before these funds will be unlocked. So far, only Ghana and Rwanda have enacted the levy into national law. Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya and the Republic of Congo are the only other states known to have taken steps to implement it.

The 0.2 per cent levy is “very controversial” among some member states. Their objections are threefold. First, the levy contravenes World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and could harm bilateral trade relationships. The WTO and U.S. government have questioned the levy’s legality and some African states are using this as the basis for delaying implementation. The WTO objections are not insurmountable: the AU could establish a continental free trade area or push for a waiver. However, such measures would take considerable time to implement, making the originally proposed January 2018 start date unachievable and the new 2020 deadline a longshot.

Second, the plan was adopted hastily during a retreat of heads of state at which no technical experts, who could have flagged potential legal hurdles, were present. This objection reflects wider concerns about the decision-making process at the AU and a worrying new trend of resorting to secluded retreats (two so far) rather than AU summit plenary sessions.

Third, some member states are very uneasy about increasing spending on the AU and doubt the commission’s ability to administer additional funds. Their misgivings will be hard to overcome, but have resulted in an institutional reform process that is intended to make the organisation more efficient and cost-effective.

2.Institutional reform

January’s AU summit saw the adoption of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s radical reform agenda, developed following a request by heads of state six months earlier. Kagame’s proposals, if implemented, would reduce the AU’s focus to just four areas with continental scope: peace and security; political affairs; the establishment of a continental free trade area; and Africa’s voice and representation in global affairs. The reforms also aim to establish a clear division of labour among the AU, member states and the regional economic communities and mechanisms (RECs/RMs) – which are the building blocks of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) – in line with the AU’s principle of subsidiarity that maintains that conflict resolution is best driven by actors closest to the crisis. Part and parcel of the reform is a comprehensive overhaul of hiring procedures for AU Commission staff, a more robust, merit-based process for selecting the chairperson and competitive recruitment for the deputy chairperson and commissioners.

Reform proposals have been drawn up and dropped before – the findings of a 2007 high-level panel were shelved, and a plan to transform the AU into the African Union Authority was quietly put aside following the demise of its chief proponent, Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi. However, this time could be different because three sitting heads of state – Presidents Kagame, Idriss Déby of Chad and Alpha Condé of Guinea – have been charged with driving the process.

Even so, securing member states’ political support is unlikely to be straightforward. The Pan-African fervour that drove the AU’s establishment in 2002 has waned. Some heavy hitters, Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Africa and Libya (coincidentally the AU’s architects) are focused on troubles at home or in their regions. Some of the smaller countries, such as Tanzania and Zambia, historically champions of Pan-Africanism, are similarly distracted, while Kenya is disillusioned with the AU following the defeat of its candidate for commission chairperson.

There is also unease about Kagame’s style. His authoritarian leadership is not winning friends, although, following member states’ complaints, he has dropped proposals that only heads of state or their deputies be allowed to participate in meetings of the Assembly, the AU’s supreme decision-making body. To succeed, Kagame needs to build a coalition of continentally minded leaders. He also needs to bring along all the AU’s constituencies, particularly the commission and the regional economic communities – which have yet to be properly consulted – and the member states, especially the current big five budget contributors (Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa).

Central to Kagame’s plans are Kaberuka’s financial reforms. “These measures are the nerve centre of everything else we are doing”, Kagame told AU leaders at the summit in July. “The independence and self-reliance of the African Union is an existential question for our continent”.Without significant additional member states’ financing, the AU will find it increasingly difficult to fulfil its security mandate and AU-led peace support operations will remain blocked from accessing UN-assessed contributions. Increasingly, other partners – including the EU – will be looking for more significant AU funding before committing their own resources.

B.The EU: A Breakup and a Breakdown

The UK’s unexpected decision to withdraw from the EU and the continuing fallout from the 2015 migration crisis have placed enormous strain on the union, for a time calling into question its very existence. Its kneejerk response to migration has imperilled its relationship with the AU and threatens to overshadow the AU-EU summit.


The UK’s decision to leave the EU will have serious implications for EU-AU relations. The UK provides almost 15 per cent (€4.478 billion or $5.36 billion in 2014-16) of the budget for the European Development Fund (EDF), through which the African Peace Facility, the financial mechanism for AU peace and security activities, is funded. The UK will continue to fund its own aid programs in Africa, and may even keep channelling support through EU mechanisms like the EDF. Either way, it seems unlikely that current levels of spending on the AU will be maintained.

In recent years, the EU’s Africa policy has been finely counterpoised between French and UK interests. Both countries have used the EU’s financial instruments to further their own national interests in the continent.Brexit will likely result in a rebalancing away from the Horn of Africa (in particular Somalia, which has received by far the most African Peace Facility funding) to the Sahel and West Africa. This change will be driven not only by France but also by AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat – his native Chad is central to efforts to combat Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin and jihadist groups in Mali. It already is noticeable: France was behind an EU decision in June to award €50 million ($59.8 million) to the G5 Sahel force charged with combatting terrorism and organised crime in the region.

By chance, Brexit coincides with increased German interest in Africa. Partly because of the European migration crisis, Germany has recognised that instability in Africa affects its national interests and is making its engagement increasingly visible. In January 2017, the government unveiled its “Marshall Plan with Africa”, which aims to promote fair trade, increased private investment, bottom-up economic development, entrepreneurship, jobs and employment opportunities. The continent was the focus of Germany’s 2016/2017 G20 presidency, resulting in the launch of the Compact with Africa – country-specific agreements aimed at promoting private investment and increasing infrastructure provision.Germany also raised its troop ceiling for MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, from 650 to 1,000, making it Berlin’s largest deployment, exceeding Afghanistan and Iraq.

It remains to be seen whether Germany’s greater military and economic presence will translate into more political power in Africa – it still does not have the confidence that France and the UK exude in this arena. There seems to be little appetite to assume the UK’s mantle: “Germany is very hesitant in taking a leading role”, explained one government official. “The UK and German approaches are very different: the UK takes a military approach and Germany a civilian approach”. Germany’s more assertive foreign policy could reflect its increased economic strength within the union following the economic crisis. The recently launched Alliance for the Sahel, a joint German, French and EU initiative intended to improve coordination of development assistance to the region, could be a sign of this and an illustration of how a Franco-German partnership could be used effectively in the future.

2.Migration and terrorism

Two issues – migration and terrorism, interlinked in Europe’s imagination but not in Africa’s – have brought home to the EU just how close the two continents are. They simultaneously represent one of the largest sources of tension and the greatest opportunity for cooperation between the two institutions.

Terrorism is an area where the AU and the EU in theory should find common ground. “[It] has become a unifying factor for the AU and EU. It weakens African countries and has an effect on European countries in terms of refugee flows”, one AU official told Crisis Group. So far, much of the EU and its member states’ engagement has been with AU member states, not the commission, including support for the G5 Sahel force and the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in the Lake Chad basin, which are coalitions of directly affected states combatting cross-border jihadist and criminal threats in the two regions. This is largely because the AU lacks a coherent plan to combat terrorism, but also because member states are reluctant to cede sovereignty on what they see as an issue of domestic security, and because EU member states prefer to deal directly with militaries they know well (for example, France and Chad). However, the AU could play an important role, especially in terms of enforcing continental agreements and authorising and coordinating ad-hoc forces like the G5 and MNJTF.

One area on which the AU and the EU do not see eye-to-eye is the intersection between terrorism and migration. There is some disquiet at persistent attempts in Europe, especially in the media, to link African migrants to increased terrorist attacks. This and other aspects of the EU’s response to migration have strained relations with the AU.

In 2015, more than one million refugees and migrants fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East and Africa crossed into Europe. EU member states struggled to find an equitable means of accommodating this sudden influx of people. Deep divisions emerged, raising questions about the EU’s commitment to open borders and threatening the viability of the union itself. Its chaotic response drew unfavourable comparisons with developing countries, like Lebanon, Ethiopia and Uganda, that have long been host to millions of displaced persons. The crisis provoked a backlash against migrants and was marked by an increase in support for right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam political parties and movements across the continent, contributing to the UK’s 2016 decision to leave the EU and seriously impacting elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Europe has taken a two-pronged approach to African migration and what it sees as the concomitant danger of terrorism. First, through the Partnership Framework and the EU External Investment Plan, the EU is trying to address the root causes of instability, forced displacement and irregular migration. External observers have criticised deals made under the framework for offering incentives for curbing migrant flows to repressive governments, such as Sudan and Eritrea, whose own domestic policies fuel the exodus to Europe. Some EU member states also have questioned the ethics of this program. Second, in an attempt to seal its southern border, the EU and its member states have increased their military presence and counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel and Lake Chad basin, key transit points and sources of irregular African migrants. This has included providing support to the G5.

This “fortress approach” coupled with ham-fisted diplomacy, epitomised by the botched Valletta Summit, has alienated Africa. Following the drowning of 800 migrants crossing from Libya in April 2015, the EU drew together leaders from both continents in Valletta, Malta, in November that year. The seeds of failure were sown before the meeting had even begun: critics said the EU had failed to consult the AU or its member states sufficiently and had cherry picked those leaders with whom it wanted to work. Despite the EU’s pledge to spend $1.9 billion on the root causes of migration through the Emergency Trust Fund, the Africans left feeling frustrated and insulted by what they saw as the EU’s “discriminatory approach” (accepting Syrians fleeing conflict but turning away Africans escaping poverty) and its attempts to bully them into automatically receiving deported migrants. The assistance offered was not nearly enough to override concerns about potential lost remittances valued at more than $32 billion per year.

There is also some disappointment with the Emergency Trust Fund, especially among the regional economic communities (RECs): “It’s failed”, said one REC official. They feel the money has been spent on securing borders rather than migration’s root causes, as promised, and some regional bodies believe they have been short-changed as resources previously earmarked for their programs have been transferred to the trust fund. There is also a sense that the projects are not well-run, with contracts being awarded to EU member states’ aid agencies, some of which lack the requisite expertise or local knowledge. Some are concerned that the competition for resources is “dividing the continent” with many countries of origin believing their needs are not being met. Additionally, there is resentment regarding the amount of money made available to Africa, especially when compared to what is seen as the comparatively lucrative deal received by Turkey.

African and European views on the issue are fundamentally at odds: the EU is doggedly focused on trying to prevent irregular migration whereas the AU is looking for ways to increase legal flows. These two positions need to be reconciled. The EU should concede ground on finding routes for skilled workers, which are essential given Europe’s aging population. In turn, AU member states should cooperate more on returnees; for example, there is much frustration among EU member states that Ethiopia is balking at the readmission of just 32 migrants from Europe while planning to facilitate the return of hundreds of thousands of its citizens being expelled from Saudi Arabia. The AU and the EU also should look for common ground outside the question of flows to and from Europe, for example by focusing more on the root causes of migration, something in which both institutions profess an interest.

Scarred by Valletta, Africa is opposed to any serious discussion of migration at the upcoming AU-EU summit. The EU would like to have an open deliberation at the AU-EU summit, but is hesitant to put migration on the agenda. Instead, it hopes to use the central theme of “youth” to introduce the issue through the backdoor.

C.Reshaping AU-EU Relations

The Cotonou Agreement, a partnership between the EU and 79 countries from sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP), expires in 2020 and will be renegotiated over the next two years. Development assistance under the Cotonou Agreement is channelled through the European Development Fund. The fund also finances the African Peace Facility, the main source of EU support for the AU’s peace and security activities and its regional economic communities. It is not yet clear what shape the post-Cotonou settlement will take – neither the EU nor ACP states has defined its position – but significant change is possible and will reshape relations between the two unions.

One major uncertainty is whether the ACP model will continue. Largely comprising the former colonies of France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the UK, it is considered by some to be a colonial construct. Beyond a shared history of colonialism, there is little that binds the group except climate change and some aspects of development. Certainly, the peace and security challenges faced by Caribbean and Pacific countries are very different from those confronting Africa. Some EU member states, the Netherlands and Germany in particular, would like to see an overhaul of the ACP system. One possibility would be for the EU to broaden Cotonou to include all developing countries, making Africa as a whole, not just sub-Saharan Africa, a separate pillar. However, some North African countries are against this and are sceptical of the EU’s motives, preferring to maintain their current treaty arrangements with the EU under the European Neighbourhood Policy.

The re-entry of Morocco to the AU in January 2017 after an absence of 33 years also changes the EU’s relationship with the AU. Previously, the partnership was between Africa and the EU with a more ambiguous role for the AU. Now that the AU encompasses all 54 African states, plus Western Sahara, the process has begun to put the AU more firmly at the centre of the partnership, starting with the renaming of the summit from Africa-EU to AU-EU.

Another question surrounding the post-Cotonou settlement is the future of the European Development Fund and, within it, the African Peace Facility, specifically whether it will be subsumed into the EU budget and its scope will remain the same. This feeds into a wider debate around the mid-term review of the EU’s financial instruments and budget. It also is connected to an ongoing discussion on whether the EU should finance security (including military) capacity building in African and other partner countries, either through existing mechanisms or the establishment of new ones post-2020. While the security-development nexus is well established in EU policy documents, its practical implications, especially on funding, remain a divisive issue within and between EU member states. The core of the debate is the extent to which development assistance should be used to finance peace and security activities, particularly the military component.

III.What Role for the AU in Peace and Security?