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.