On February 18, the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU) completed the sixth edition of their joint summit in Brussels. On the program: free-trade zone, fight against Covid-19, insecurity, the Global Gateway initiative… But a week later, more than 2,000 km from the Belgian capital, the launch of a Russian offensive in Ukraine came to upset the diplomatic context. During the next meeting of the AU, from July 17 in Lusaka (Zambia), the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, will speak at the opening of the summit.
Shaken by the rise of Russian influence on the continent, the European Union is today confronted with the consequences, on the African continent, of the war in Ukraine. The 46-year-old diplomat, former Prime Minister of Belgium, returned for Young Africa on this new diplomatic situation and its repercussions.
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Capcov: You are making a speech on July 17 at the opening of the African Union summit to be held in Lusaka. What will be the challenges of this summit and of cooperation with the European Union?
Charles Michel : The summit held in Brussels in February marked a turning point in the relationship between Europe and Africa. We have implemented a new paradigm with a relationship based on mutual listening. A piquant coincidence: a few days later, a war broke out on European soil. It brutally undermined international law, but also had effects in terms of food security, inflation and energy. This summit will allow us in particular to consider how to reduce together the harmful effects of this war.
What concrete projects can you highlight as part of the Global Gateway initiative?
One hundred and fifty billion euros are mobilized for Africa. We must now turn all this into real projects. We have initiated a partnership for the production of vaccines against Covid-19. A few months later, the first projects were launched in Rwanda, South Africa, Senegal and Ghana.
Why the war in Ukraine is hurting Africa so much
We are now working to ensure that the major platforms, such as Gavi or Covax, will come and buy the vaccines produced in Africa. During my discussions with [le président sénégalais] Macky Sall and [le Sud-Africain] Cyril Ramaphosa at the G7 in Germany, we agreed to build on what we had done with vaccines to fight food insecurity. It seems vital.
This desire to reshape the Europe-Africa relationship nevertheless fits into a context where African countries are increasingly turning to other partners, such as Turkey, China or Russia…
African leaders are sovereign and free to choose their partners. It is up to the Europeans to show that the project they support is attractive. A sincere dynamic of mutual respect has been established. Is everything resolved? Of course not.
Do you understand this desire to choose partners deemed less “constraining”, particularly in terms of democracy or human rights?
My purpose is not to judge the quality of the partnerships that Africa concludes with other actors, but to show that of the European Union and its added value. I observe that African countries which have entered into partnerships with other actors today seem to express regret, because they are suffering from a financial stranglehold and realize that the infrastructures do not have the quality hoped for in time of signing the contract.
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Who are you thinking of?
I think they recognize each other.
In the current context, does the growing influence of Russia on the continent threaten the relationship between the European Union and Africa?
The way in which Russia and Europe envisage their presence in Africa is based on totally antagonistic assumptions. Moscow has developed a business model aimed at capturing natural resources in exchange for a few meager security services, which prove to be extremely ineffective and even violent for the African populations.
There is a strategic interest for Russia in maintaining corruption, instability and insecurity in southern Europe. Conversely, when Africa is doing well, it is a good thing for Europe. And when it is in difficulty, this has consequences on the export of conflicts or irregular immigration, which leads to complicated debates here.
However, there is a real demand from certain African populations to strengthen cooperation with Russia…
Russia massively uses propaganda, disinformation, in a word lies, as a weapon of war. This aims to pit African youths against European countries through false and unworthy narratives. Our challenge is to restore truth and transparency.
Mali: the army and Wagner accused of having committed a “massacre” in Moura
How is the EU responding to disinformation?
Supporting a free and independent press is one way to produce the antidote to misinformation. Especially since lies are fabricated to bring serious charges against States – we have seen this for example in Mali with the Wagner group. European intelligence services were able to establish the truth, sometimes even before these operations could be carried out.
Does this represent a challenge? Yes. Is it difficult to pick up? Yes, because it is also a space where the Russians try to exploit the history between Europe and Africa, in particular colonialism, in an attempt to sow discord.
Experience has shown, on the contrary, that where Russian influences unfold, there is an impact.
Beyond the information war, how can the European Union respond?
Our best antidote is to show that our partnership is beneficial and useful for Africa. And this is the case, for example, when we manage in Rwanda, Senegal or South Africa to ensure that Africans are masters of their pharmaceutical destiny. Experience has shown, on the contrary, that where Russian influences unfold, there is and impact. In the Central African Republic and Mali, this materializes in more insecurity, instability and poverty.
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Do you consider, however, that beyond the Russian influence, there may have been errors by European countries which explain this rejection?
I don’t want to talk about error. Historians will write history, it is up to politicians to learn the necessary lessons. I fundamentally believe that there has long been a legitimate expectation on the part of African peoples and leaders for mutual respect and understanding. It is on this foundation that the paradigm that we defined at the EU-AU summit rests.
What are the consequences of the war in Ukraine on the collaboration between the EU and the AU?
In Africa, there is not the same reading of this war and probably not the same interpretation of its consequences. The best way to act is therefore to have a political dialogue to enable us Europeans to understand each other’s arguments, and for our African counterparts to understand why we think this war is very serious.
Russian ships prevent exports on the Black Sea and Russian tanks destroy fields in Ukraine
It is not because it is taking place on European soil, but because a permanent member of the Security Council, who has nuclear weapons, is questioning the sovereignty of a country of more than 40 million of inhabitants on Europe’s borders and because this war is triggering a serious food crisis. Because it is Russian ships that prevent exports on the Black Sea and Russian tanks that destroy the fields in Ukraine. Because it is Russia that has chosen to make this sea a total war zone and has decided to stop grain exports, while there is not the slightest European or G7 sanction against grain or Russian fertilizers. On all these subjects, lies are spread.
The blockage of cereals due to the Ukrainian conflict has serious consequences for food security in Africa. How do the EU and the AU intend to work on the issue?
The first priority is to ensure that the grain blocked in Ukraine can be exported. I was in Odessa a few weeks ago: it is amazing to see these millions of tons of grain in ships that cannot leave Ukraine. For this, we immediately set up alternative routes. Several million tonnes have already been exported via Poland, Romania… But it takes longer, too much time. This is why we support the efforts of the United Nations to find an agreement and open a humanitarian corridor in the Black Sea. I also welcome Turkey’s support in these negotiations.
And on the African continent?
We must structurally facilitate production capacities in Africa. This requires facilitating access to inputs, water, promoting the construction of roads. Work in this direction began in February with the African Union, it must accelerate with this new summit.
How do you understand the massive abstention of African countries during the vote of the UN resolution on Ukraine in May?
I understand that a number of African countries did not want to appear to be on one side or another. Even if these are not the same reasons that pushed some and others to abstain, I can say, having spoken about it openly with many African leaders, that there was the fear of retaliatory measures. But it should also be noted that several African countries have stood up unambiguously on the subject and some may be subject to pressure. I don’t blame anyone. I try to understand the motives of those who abstained and do not give up them convince.