EU and African leaders meet for a two-day summit on Thursday, seeking to reboot ties with pledges of major investment in the face of competition from China and Russia.
Relations between the two continents have been hampered by a raft of problems: from disputes over coronavirus vaccines to curbing illegal migration, a wave of coups in Africa, and the growing clout of Russian mercenaries on the continent.
“Our common ambition, Africans and Europeans, for this summit, is to achieve a renewed, modernised 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 European Union’s rotating presidency, hopes the first joint summit since 2017 can burnish his grand ambition of forging an “economic and financial New Deal with Africa”.
The EU is aiming to convince the 40 African leaders in Brussels that Europe is their “most reliable partner” by fleshing out an investment initiative that aims to mobilise 150 billion euros ($170 billion) of public and private funds over the next seven years.
The scheme is the first regional part of the EU’s Global Gateway a $300-billion-euro ($340-billion) worldwide investment blueprint meant to rival China’s Belt and Road initiative.
The EU is eyeing a dozen ambitious projects to bolster internet access, transport links and renewable energy as it seeks to provide an alternative to cheap loans from Beijing.
But details on funding remain vague, and the projects are still to be agreed on with the African side.
African leaders are instead pushing for a far more concrete step of getting EU nations to allow the International Monetary Fund to allocate tens of billions of dollars in further aid.
Coups, mercenaries, Mali
The summit which will involve a series of roundtable discussions comes at a worrying time for Africa after a wave of military coups and as a regional powerhouse, Ethiopia is wracked by conflict.
Burkina Faso last month joined Guinea, Mali and Sudan as the fourth country frozen out by the AU after disgruntled soldiers toppled the elected president.
Those four will not be represented in Brussels.
As Europe grapples with a feared Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is also unsettled by the rising clout of Russian mercenaries in some of Africa’s most volatile hotspots.
Shadowy paramilitary outfit Wagner, alleged to have close ties to the Kremlin, is accused of bolstering Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions.
Western nations have condemned the reported arrival of its mercenaries in Mali’s capital Bamako to help protect a junta that seized power last year. Mali’s rulers deny hiring Wagner.
Macron is looking to redeploy France’s forces in Mali to elsewhere in the Sahel amid the breakdown in ties, ending a nine-year mission there battling jihadists.
European governments fear turmoil among the region’s rulers risks leaving a vacuum that movements tied to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group could exploit.
An EU official said the bloc would “remain engaged” in Mali, but there are still major questions over its military training mission there.
The official said that in a bid to bolster broader stability, the EU planned to increase funding for African Union peacekeeping missions across the continent.
The fight against the Covid-19 pandemic is also expected to be a major topic.
Africa has been angered by what it sees as the unfair distribution of coronavirus vaccines worldwide that has left it lagging woefully behind.
South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa has accused the West of giving his continent only the “crumbs from their table” as the EU has rebuffed a push for a temporary patent waiver to allow the generic production of vaccines.
The EU the world’s biggest vaccine exporter points to over 400 million jabs it has contributed to the global Covax vaccine-sharing initiative and is promising to give Africa 450 million doses by mid-2022.
It says it will increase funding to help health systems on the continent get jabs into arms, and has pledged one billion euros (around $1 billion) to bolster future vaccine production in Africa.