EU-Africa Relations: Refocusing the Peace and Security Cooperation

15 June 2021   ·   Meressa Kahsu Dessu, Dawit Yohannes

The next EU-Africa leaders’ summit could be a turning point for EU-Africa relations – if the EU makes serious efforts for a more equal partnership. Beyond mere promises, Brussels should sustain eye-level dialogue and support building a partnership management infrastructure within the AU. Moreover, the EU should enhance its engagement in conflict prevention and mediation.

With three major events in line, the launch of the EU’s proposed new partnership, the sixth EU-Africa leaders’ summit, and the finalization of the post-Cotonou agreement, a pivotal year for EU-Africa relations lies ahead. Cooperation on peace and security challenges is an essential aspect of the two region’s relationship.  

The Next EU-Africa Leaders’ Summit Should Shape the Partnership’s Future  

The sixth leaders’ summit, postponed to 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and now moved to 2022, aims to strengthen EU-Africa relations. However, the date for the leaders’ summit has not yet been confirmed, and crucial talking points such as the EU’s proposed comprehensive strategy with Africa remain in limbo.  

Regional peace and security analysts question whether or not the summit will sufficiently embody the vested interests of both sides and address some of the thorny issues related to the current state of their peace and security cooperation. Considering some of the worrying trends of instability in Africa, among others a rise in political violence and continued threat of violent extremism, the upcoming summit offers an opportunity to create common ground on the means and ends of addressing shared peace and security challenges. Policy makers in the EU and the African Union (AU) with its Regional Economic Communities (RECs) need to recommit to prioritising timely conflict prevention, mediation, and dialogue rather than reactive and militarised responses to conflict on the continent.  

The EU’s New Strategy With Africa: From African to European Peace Facility  

The planned summit comes as the African Peace Facility (APF) – the most conspicuous form of their peace and security partnership and arguably the centrepiece of the EU’s support to the AU – is winding up. Since 2004, the EU provided 3.5 billion Euros through the APF to operationalise the Africa Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) and support the AU’s Peace Support Operations (PSOs), notably the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the Multi National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) against Boko Haram. 

The APF has given way to a new instrument called the European Peace Facility (EPF) adopted by the EU Council in March 2021. The EPF is a new funding modality with broader scope that goes beyond supporting the AU’s peace and security initiatives and allows direct support to regional and national efforts. The EPF will have a capacity of 5 billion Euros for the period 2021-2027. Some of its critics, however, allude that the EPF dilutes the AU’s strategic coordination and oversight role in matters of peace and security and reduces the institutional support to the AU Commission. 

Beyond the shift from APF to EPF, the EU is aiming for a more strategic and tailored cooperation. According to the proposed new EU strategy with Africa, this is to be achieved by further aligning the capacities and instruments of both unions and through adherence to key tenets such as mutual ownership, commitments, and accountability. In the area of peace and security, the proposal entails three specific actions focusing on (1) adapting and deepening the EU’s support to Africa through a more structured and strategic cooperation; (2) integrating good governance, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and gender equality in action and cooperation; (3) securing resilience. The new partnership strategy also seeks to give special attention to women and youth in the peace and security agenda. 

EU-Africa Relations Are Asymmetric and Restrained by Financial Dependencies  

These promises are all good on paper, but delivering on them requires addressing three existing deep-seated challenges of EU-Africa relations. Firstly, the two regions are clearly not on a par in terms of economic and political power as well as technological advancement, impacting the nature of the partnership. The ensuing ‘asymmetric partnership’ is largely characterised by a donor-recipient dependence. While such asymmetry may have several implications, the lack of adequate consultations of African counter-parts is one of the most notable. The EU’s Ambassador to the AU, Birgitte Markussen, recently reflected upon this challenge in a more diplomatic parlance as “the necessity of closer cooperation with African partners in the design phase of [the EU’s] support programmes”. 

A second and related challenge has been the AU’s capacity in managing the partnership and clearly defining its priorities and aligning them with the EU’s. While the EU created a dedicated delegation office to support implementation of the broader partnership including in the area of peace and security, the AU does not have a commensurate structure and staff that deals with this particular partnership.  

Despite some improvement in recent years, the third challenge relates to the AU’s continued dependency on financing of its peace and security activities. A 2018 report by the European Court of Auditors concluded that the APSA has been heavily dependent on the support of donors for many years. The Court also concluded that the EU’s support for APSA has had a poor effect and thus needed refocusing. 

Insufficient EU Support for Conflict Prevention Despite Rising Violence  

Further and more fundamentally, EU-Africa relations have only marginally addressed conflict prevention, dialogue, negotiation and mediation efforts on the continent. While this is a perennial challenge globally, the under-prioritisation of these tools has been more evident in Africa. Analysis of conflict trends in Africa between 1989 and 2019, which indicates a spike in state-based conflicts and political violence, attests to the under-utilization of these tools for arresting stability on the continent.

Despite these trends, the EU’s support has given less attention to preventive measures, but heavy on conflict management such as PSOs. An evaluation of the APF for the period 2014-2016 indicated about 90% of its resources had been spent on PSOs including funding of troop stipends. But not all is dark and gloomy – there are ample opportunities for redefining the EU-Africa cooperation in peace and security. 

A New Chapter in EU-African Relations? Only With Better Partnership Management  

First of all, timing matters. In this regard, the EU’s plan to better strengthen its partnership with Africa has coincided with ongoing institutionalisation of the AU’s reform agenda. Among other things, the reform is set to enhance the AU’s efficiency and implementation capacity.

The new AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security has made Inclusive and Smart Partnerships for Human Security one of his strategic priorities. This approach also includes enhancing the AU’s interconnectivity with all stakeholders and partners to promote good governance, peace, and security. If properly implemented, action steps and measures under this strategic area will enable a deeper examination of the workability of the proposed new EU strategy with Africa, including the new operations of the EPF.  

To rectify the inadequate aspects of the partnership, the AU should complete the ongoing restructuring of its Commission and increase its partnership management capacities. The reforms are needed to better implement common strategic priorities and the EU should support their realisation.  

According to Birgitte Markussen, sustained EU-Africa political dialogues could foster discussions “about shared interests and enhanced visibility among the people of both continents”. This will help remedy inadequate consultations of African stakeholders and create common understandings from the outset.  

Conflict Prevention and Mediation Measures Should Put People at the Centre  

To centre the cooperation on peoples and foster human security, the EU and African leaders should recommit to a clearly defined common strategy and implementation mechanisms that prioritise timely conflict prevention. The EU, the AU and RECs should invest more in national dialogues, negotiation, mediations as well as on instruments to enforce negotiated results. To this end, the EU should enhance its support for conflict prevention and peacebuilding in practical terms beyond the focus on reactive PSOs.

While some are sceptic if the summit could chart a new course for EU-Africa relations, concrete proposals for a better future are highlighted above. As Africa’s leading postcolonial scholar Achille Mbembe recently noted, “history was not written on the back of suspicion". Bold measures and new approaches are of the essence in trying times.

Europäische Union Conflict Prevention Africa

Meressa Kahsu Dessu

Meressa Kahsu Dessu is a Senior Researcher and Training Coordinator at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), based in the Addis Ababa office. He has worked on peace operations and peacebuilding in Africa.

Dawit Yohannes

Dr. Dawit Yohannes is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), based in the Addis Ababa office. He has worked extensively on peace and security in Africa.