EU summit aims to counter China, Russia influence in Africa

European Union leaders are hosting their African counterparts during a two day-meeting in Brussels starting Thursday

EU African Union Summit Preview
EU African Union Summit Preview

European Union leaders want to re-engage with African nations and counter the growing influence from China and Russia across the continent during a two-day summit in Brussels.

The EU-African Union gathering starting Thursday was initially planned for 2020 but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic and agenda issues. It will be the first time EU and African Union leaders meet in that format since 2017.

The aim for the EU is clear: to remain Africa's partner of choice.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Senegal last week to meet with President Macky Sall, who also chairs the African Union. She announced a 150-billion euro ($170 billion) investment plan in Africa as part of the EU’s so-called Global Gateway project, which is widely seen as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

China’s program aims to develop markets and new trade routes connecting China with the rest of the world by weaving a network of ports, bridges and power plants that will yield diplomatic clout and global power.

The EU's project is expected to mobilize, in total, up to 300 billion euros ($341 billion) in public and private funds by 2027.

“We will demonstrate that the European Union is Africa’s most trusted partner,” said Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, ahead of the summit. “We will thereby also counter negative narratives and disinformation about what Europeans are and what Europeans are doing for, and with, the African people.”

In 2020, the EU was Africa's largest single trade partner, and China was its second largest.

The EU said that its investment package for Africa is meant to bolster a green and digital transition, accelerate sustainable growth and job creation, and strengthen education and health systems.

In addition to China, the EU also needs to deal with Russia's growing influence, notably via a group of private military contractors known as the Wagner Group that the bloc accuses of fomenting violence and committing human rights abuses in Central Africa and the Sahel region.

Despite Moscow's denial of the links between the Wagner Group and Russian authorities, a EU top official speaking ahead of the summit said that “nobody could seriously believe that." The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly in accordance with EU practice, said the topic will be discussed in Brussels.

The EU-Africa summit takes place as France considers withdrawing its troops from Mali amid growing tensions between the junta in power in the West Africa country, its neighbors and European partners. In December, France and 15 European countries condemned the Malian transitional authorities’ decision to allow the deployment of the Wagner Group.

Mali has struggled to contain an extremist insurgency since 2012. Rebels were forced from power in northern cities with the help of a French-led military operation, but they regrouped in the desert and began attacking the Malian army and its allies. Insecurity has worsened with attacks on civilians and United Nations peacekeepers.

The EU has been training the Mali armed forces since 2013 and Borrell told France Inter radio on Wednesday that it does not want to leave the country.

During discussions in Brussels that will be held through a series of roundtables, leaders are also expected to discuss returns and readmissions of migrants, and the coronavirus crisis. Ahead of the summit, a coalition of nearly 100 organizations including Human Rights Watch and Oxfam demanding that COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and tests be freely available to everyone, accused the EU of having “betrayed Africa."

The group is blaming the EU for opposing proposals supported by the African Union for a temporary intellectual property waiver that would allow more manufacturers to produce the life-saving COVID-19 vaccines.

In addition, it accused the 27-nation bloc of prioritizing “selling vaccines made on EU soil for eye-watering prices to rich nations and just eight per cent of its vaccine exports have gone to the African continent." According to WHO figures, only 11% of the population in Africa is fully vaccinated

The EU is the largest exporter of COVID-19 vaccines and said it has shared almost 145 million doses with Africa, with the goal to reach a total of at least 450 million shots by the summer.

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