ABIDJAN, COTE D' IVOIRE (POLITICO) -- To tackle some of their greatest challenges — including migration and terrorism — the African Union and the European Union need to focus on building a strategic relationship based on mutual interests rather than attempt to build an idealistic and illusionary “equal partnership.”
Equality should, of course, remain an aspiration. But the two unions are not the same. In economic terms alone, the disparity is striking: The EU’s 28 states boast a GDP of $17 trillion, seven times the $2.39 trillion generated annually by the 55 AU members.
For this week’s summit in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, to be a success, both sides will need to set aside Europe’s colonial history in Africa — the proverbial “elephant in the room” — and overcome the deep-seated frustrations that have held back closer cooperation.
When it comes to migration, the EU and its member countries have money to spend, provided they can be assured of quick wins that will calm the fears of its citizens. Demographic and economic forces are also on the AU’s side — aging workforces in Europe will increasingly rely on migrants to keep the wheels of the economy turning.
The AU and African governments should leverage continued support for border control and fighting jihadists or terrorists to win increased EU investment in better governance, education for its growing population, job creation and more equitably-distributed economic growth across Africa.
To be sure, both sides will have to overcome plenty of mutual distrust. The imbalance between the two organizations makes it difficult for the EU to escape a “paternal” attitude toward its African partners. Discussions tend to be asymmetrical, heavily focused on crises in African countries and dominated by what the EU will and will not pay.
The EU is one of the AU’s most significant peace and security partners. Since 2004, it has provided more than €2 billion in assistance to African states. But it increasingly resents being treated like a “cash machine.”
With diminishing funds at its disposal — a situation that is likely to worsen after Brexit — the bloc increasingly wants a greater say in how its money is spent. This could heighten tensions with the AU, which wants to reduce its reliance on donors and take ownership of its own peace and security.
Where the EU sees a lack of clear strategic direction, especially when it comes to security, its African partners perceive the EU as imposing its own agenda on the partnership. The AU wants to see the EU open its borders and increase legal routes for migrants in order to help reduce people-trafficking and smuggling, rather than outsource its border defense to Africa.
African officials also resent Europe’s kneejerk “whatever works” approach to dealing with the migration crisis that saw more than 1 million refugees land on its shores since 2015 and balk at the tendency in Europe — especially among populist politicians and in the media — to link the arrival of African migrants to an increase in terrorist attacks on the Continent.
And yet, despite these points of tension, more binds these two continental organizations — geography, history and economies — than drives them apart. It is in both parties’ interest to make the partnership work.
However uncomfortable the discussion may be, migration needs to take center stage in Abidjan. The disturbing images of African migrants being auctioned off as slaves in the Libyan capital of Tripoli illustrate the urgency, gravity and complexity of the issue for both Africa and Europe.
Europe’s panic over migration alienated many of its African partners, but it also offers them a rare opportunity for closer cooperation.
It’s time to move past last year’s low point in relations, when a bruising dispute over the EU’s payments to the AU’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia soured the relationship. This week’s meeting — 10 years after the signing of the Joint Africa-EU Strategy — is a chance to reset.