Thursday, June 13, 2024

AU & EU: A partnership anchored on trust


The European and Africa Union’s partnership is one that over the years has been anchored by trust and propelled by the visionary success powered by common values and interest, shared by the two continents.

Africa which is the closest neighbor to Europe has through the Africa-EU partnership, benefited from several engagements in political and policy dialogues, that has well defined the continents cooperative relationship with Europe.

This solid partnership that has withstood the realities of today such as the pandemic and war is a great example that if the two continents come together and seize shared opportunities, those common challenges can indeed be tackled together, and overcome.

In light of the Africa-EU multi-actor partnership, Capital’s Metasebia Teshome, reached out to Ambassador Birgitte Markussen, head of the EU delegation to the African Union and UNECA, for in-depth insights on the flourishing partnership. Excerpts;  

Capital: What are the priorities of the two continents relationship, and how do you see the current state of relations?

Birgitte Markussen: The main objective of what we do here, as the European Union working with the African Union, is really to try to create the best possible relations between two unions. What is interesting to note is that despite our different historical backgrounds, we share a lot of issues in common.

The European Union originated from economics and trade, the coal and steel union, and there were only five or six countries then. At the time, it was to primarily cooperate on trade and economic integration. If you look at the African Union, the former Organization of African Unity was a political project and it was only later, that the whole issue of economic integration came on board with the AfCFTA.

With regards to priorities, we have seven focus areas that our large delegation works on courtesy of our many specialists in different areas. The first of the seven is our focus on climate change which is quite easily one of the big challenges of our time.

Secondly, we are keen on matters digital, and we are very active in getting digitalization and transformation, both in hardware and software running on the ground. On the third spot, but of course not in any particular order, is an investment package we call the Global Gateway, a 150 billion Euro scheme to support Africa for a strong, inclusive, green and digital recovery and transformation by accelerating; the green transition, digital transition, sustainable growth and decent job creation, strengthening health systems and improving education and training.

Our fourth, fifth and sixth focus areas are; peace and security, health and education, and migration and mobility, respectively. Last but not least we focus on multilateralism. Since we are a multilateral organization based on member states, and representing our member states and working in a multilateral forum, this brings forth international law. It brings up the whole issue of, you know, the UN Charter, which is also very important at these times. Sovereignty and climate change are also multilateral issues.

With regards to the two union’s relations, it can easily be summed up as relationship of great trust. Just the past three years alone, we have weathered through the storm of the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, which impacted both our continents.   I believe this relation will continue to flourish for years to come.

Capital: The last three years were full of global challenges: the COVID crises, the Russia-Ukraine war, political instabilities in different countries, including the war in Ethiopia, which ended on November 20, 2022, with the AU-led peace process. So how did you follow the whole AU-led process and the implementation of the agreement?

(Photo: Anteneh Aklilu)

Birgitte Markussen: Since we reside here, I have witnessed personally what it’s been like, and I empathize with Ethiopians, who were heavily affected by the conflict and hard times. I was here from the start. In 2020, the situation intensified even more in 2021, and at the time we were actually asked to relocate, that is, most of the international staff.

Over the course of that period, I and my colleagues tried the best we could to support the African Union in helping and supporting Ethiopia. To this end, I want to congratulate Ethiopia on the cessation of hostilities agreement. I followed the situation closely when they all went to South Africa with the Ethiopian team, the African Union team, the Tigray team, and the UN team. I have followed many peace processes across the world, and what I saw here was really the Ethiopian partners’ desire for that agreement.

We’ve been supporting the African Union in its role. What is important from the African Union perspective is that the monitoring and verification mechanism is now in place.

We are a supporter of any of the commission’s move for reconciliation and DDR initiatives, which are really important as well.

Capital: You came to Ethiopia at the time of the pandemic outbreak; how do you recall the challenges?

Birgitte Markussen: From a personal perspective, you cannot stay at home or in your country when you are an ambassador. We were all in isolation. At the time I arrived here, we were only allowed to have two people per floor. So I came in every morning and greeted the two colleagues. We were on each floor. And then, of course, I made sure I met all my colleagues online. So I had an interaction with everyone because we had people who, for health reasons, lived in Europe in many different places. That was a special job, arriving as a new ambassador. Because usually everybody thinks our work and network as diplomats are just a cocktail.

No, that could not be further from the truth. Our work revolves around engaging with other diplomats to find out what they are doing at the moment. How can we work better together, and so on! And that part was not there the first year, at least. So that was quite a challenge.

If we look at the consequences for the continent, it was economically hit hard. And that’s one of the serious things that we’re working on. I think the growth rate, which has on average been reduced across Africa, was 6%, which is a lot. So that has hit in terms of debt. So we have worked a lot as the European Union on debt recovery. With the IMF, we’ve been strong supporters of that. We need to create a financial space in the core economies to actually recover. There is what is called the European Investment Bank, the world’s largest bank. It’s bigger than the World Bank in terms of its volume of getting and giving loans, and the main thing was the understanding of creating the space in the economies to recover during the pandemic.

Capital: How is the EU working with the AU to sustain and bring peace and stability to the continent?

Birgitte Markussen: Beside the worry of economic issues, the other major, or mega, trend is the rise in conflicts on the continent. The European Union finances 90% of the projects of African-led peace support operations.

The European Union is a very close and strong supporter of African peace support operations. One prime example while I’ve been here is how we worked with the African Union and SADC, Mozambique Cabo Delgado conflict.  We are also working on issues in West Africa, Central African Republic. The European Union is very often invited to have discussions with the AU Peace and Security Council to discuss these different situations. So politically, we support a lot.

Similarly, Somalia has been a big issue where we have worked with the Somalis, the African Union, and their previous mission called AMISOM. We have been there for 16 years together with the African Union and working with the Somalis as well. AMISOM is now on a transition mission so that the Somalis in 2024 will have to take over the security of the country. So we have contributed 3.2 billion Euros in total to security and developments in Somalia. We’re supporting the transition. I think Al-Shabaab is still active and has security issues, and that’s something we are discussing with the African Union at the moment, to unburden the situation.

Also at the UN level there has been a long discussion of reforms in the UN on should Africa have a stronger voice? At the UN Security Council as the European Union, we’ve supported that. We’re also supportive of a very important discussion at the moment where we are looking for UN contributions to African led peace support operations. That’s a discussion ongoing right now.

We have been asked many times whether the war in Ukraine is affecting the level of contribution and engagement of the European Union, and the simple answer is, No! If you look at what was foreseen, we have kept our engagements.

Capital: What is the EU doing in regards to the current conflict in Sudan?

Birgitte Markussen: For the case of Sudan, on the 15th of April this year, when it all started, I was actually interviewed just one or two days after the fighting started and can confirm that the issues at stake are really serious and complex.

We have worked very closely again with the African Union, and they are taking a leading role. They have set up coordination platforms, called an expanded group. There is also a core group where we are active in three areas. One thing is certain: everybody is worried and working to get a permanent ceasefire. So far, there have been 10-15 ceasefires that have not been fully respected. And I really feel that this must be so difficult for the Sudanese people, and we are keenly following the matter.

There has been a process in Jeddah led by the US and the Saudis; this is a process we support. It’s going well with the US and Saudi Arabia, and if anybody needs us, we’re there. For us, it’s not a parallel process with other processes. It’s just a very important process altogether.

We are very active directly as the European Union in humanitarian support and working with the African Union and the UN. We have already provided 90 tons of humanitarian assistance twice through Port Sudan and Chad. And we provided 73 million euros in support. What is important politically is that we keep insisting on humanitarian access and the respect and protection of civilians.

We are also focused on bringing Sudan back to a politically civilian-led situation. We are really working with the Sudanese, with the AU, and with IGAD. I have a lot of confidence in them at the moment that they can speak to the two generals. Sudan is such a big country with such a rich history and culture, and the population is suffering at the moment. So we are working on following all three tracks.

Capital: The other main issue is economic cooperation; how do you see the current state of the two continents economic cooperation?

Birgitte Markussen: I think what should be the vision for the African continent is really to get more production, and utilize the raw materials here. I think that will add value to the economy and will be really important.

I think the ambitions are there. We work closely also on that front, if you look at the foreign direct investment 25% in Africa comes from European companies. It’s by far I ahead of others, and I think Chinese maybe have 15% and Russia is below 1% or something close to that. I think that is a signal of the trade cooperation and the direct cooperation.

As the EU ambassador, I don’t work directly with companies because you represent all. When I was the Danish ambassador, there were so many impressive cooperation’s going when you dig into it.

Our main focuses are, as I mentioned, the seven areas, but we work very closely on the AfCFTA. We have mobilized other EU member states to support the negotiations because trade negotiations are really technical in the sense of how do you ensure the trade of goods and what are the regulations that need to be in place? And as I said, originally, the EU came from that background. We have been working closely with the African Union and the AfCFTA Secretariat to make that happen. This could be the legacy of Moussa Faki to make the AfCFTA work; it’s within his two terms as chair; it’s within his mandate.

We also need to connect the dots of trade with the Global Gateway, which is a big infrastructure investment from the European Union. We are looking at 11 transport corridors across the African continent to complement the African Union, which has its own infrastructure investment plan. And we, of course, work closely within that plan. But the main idea is really to connect the dots so that the value chains can start to be negotiated in West Africa, Central Africa, and East Africa.

Capital: There are some rumors and concerns that western countries don’t support or don’t want to see the full implementation of the AfCFTA as it gives Africa the power to stand by itself. What is your comment on this?

Birgitte Markussen: I’m so glad you raised that. Yes, I heard that, and it’s absolutely not true. There is confusion here. We worked for many years maybe more than 10 years on something called the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). That is a way by which we have ensured that especially the least developed countries have tax-free access to the European market. 90% of what is imported from Africa comes into Europe under these trade agreements. It is totally different from the AfCFTA. This is not undermining the AfCFTA.

What we have tried to do from the European side is get better trade between the two continents. We support AfCFTA because it is important, and what’s more important is that it’s the African Union and the African member states in the lead.

Capital: The other big global issue is the Russian-Ukraine war, where all of the EU states are on the side of Ukraine and here most of African countries prefer to remain neutral and some are in the side of Russia and there is a so called African mediators, what is your reflection in all of these?

Birgitte Markussen: This has been a big issue for me as European ambassador accredited to the African Union where you have all 55 African Union member states represented. Yes all European Union member states are totally on the same line. This is illegal aggression from Russia, violating the UN Charter of national sovereignty and international law.

They have no rights to invade and to make the aggression into Ukraine. For us, that’s a very principled thing, because we stand up for Ukraine but we also stand up for the multilateral order. We stand up for the UN Charter.

When I look at the African continent, it’s the most divided continent on this issue. It was not a surprise to me, because I’m here. But I think, here numbers count. The last vote in New York we saw on the road to peace for Ukraine. You saw 30 African countries standing up what I say for the UN Charter because they voted in favor of that resolution. And then there were 22 that were not voting or abstained and then you had some countries voting against the resolution, Mali, and Eritrea particularly.

I think this is one of the challenges right now, for the African Union not to get divided over this and to stand up for their own agenda of national sovereignty.

(Photo: Anteneh Aklilu)

This is really an issue of standing up for the UN Charter and for the international law and I know that African leaders are thinking hard about it. We saw President Cyril Ramaphosa last week in the interviews he gave in the peace plan from the African leaders. There are some things that Ukraine will never accept as a starting point for a negotiation but I think it should be very clear that we as Europeans want peace. It’s also influencing us. I really think this is one of the major issues also for the African Union and member states to think about how they want to position themselves on this issue. I think this is a historic moment where we as European encourage everyone to stand up for the international law and the UN charter.

Capital: Minimizing the westerns influence in the continent was also raised as a reason for African countries to be divided on this Russia- Ukraine issue, what do you think of this?

Birgitte Markussen:  I have had a good and long discussion with many of the ambassadors here to understand a bit rationally on these key issues.

One of the arguments is that we really don’t want to have a history where it was not positive for us to take sides between one big party and one other global player. So, we would rather stay out of that.  Although other countries especially in Southern Africa, they have a history, they have seen the support of the Russia in their independence. I fully respect that history, and I know that’s also a painful history for many African countries but I think it’s a type of question where you really have to stand up for what future you want.

When I was a young girl I used to sing in a choir, and we sang the songs for freeing Nelson Mandela. If you go and look at the story of the Nordic countries, we were standing up even as teenagers singing for the freedom of Nelson Mandela. I understand their point but I think this really is a big issue for the future for all of us.

Capital: Throughout the last three years, what has the EU done in supporting the African union in promoting good governance, democracy and human rights?      

Birgitte Markussen: On government, and human rights a very concrete example is election observations. We work together with the African Union. Very often you will see European Union election observers working with African Union election observers. We have that interaction. Democracy is built between elections. But election is an important time where also problems come but we work a lot on that. We also work on something called the Africa governance architecture with the courts System in Banjul. Every year we have a dialogue on human rights and governance. We have a special representative for the EU who works on Governance and Human Rights. It’s a big issue and it’s very closely linked to many conflicts as well; because human rights are tested in conflicts.

Capital: The other major global issue is climate change, of which Africa is a least contributor but often the most affected continent. How are you working with the AU on this front?   

Birgitte Markussen: In addition to being a diplomat, I am also a climate activist. For me, there are two key issues at the moment. One is the war that we have in Ukraine with the global impacts and the other one is climate change. It’s a real issue. It’s an issue where all of us have to stand up and change the way we’re living. I’ve been involved for many years in climate negotiations and for those who have say that it’s not manmade it is, and it is changing. Some places have droughts other places have too much rain. The ice on Greenland, the world largest island is melting. So the climate change is real.

Europeans fully know that Africa is the most affected that’s why we’ve been strong supporters. The main area for Africans is adaptation to climate change, because Africa is not a big emitter. So it’s not mitigation it is the adaptation part of the negotiations.

So as Europeans, there would have been no Paris agreement if the African and Europe had not worked together. And what you saw last time in Sharm-el-Sheikh at the COP 27, which was held on the African continent, was actually the support of the EU that made this new fund for loss and damage related to climate change.

We very much recognize these imbalances and we’re trying to support them and see how we can work together especially on the adaptation agenda, and the loss of damage.

We have now several policies and we work a lot on the continental policies and for the member states to implement and follow up, on the same. We have three climate change policies that we have worked on with the African Union. Moreover, agriculture is a key area where we also work with climate change both in getting more resilient and also in terms of influencing the green agenda.

Capital: How is the EU working with the AU with regards to the implementation of agenda 2063?

Birgitte Markussen: All the areas I mentioned are included in the agenda 2063. There are experts here at the Delegation that work round the clock on matters policies with the African Union. A lot of our job here is also combining the policies of our member states with the African Union’s policy. So agenda 2063 is our framework.

There is a 10 year implementation plan and a new one is to be agreed very soon at the AU mid-year summit in Kenya. All that we do is in alignment with 2063 agenda of delivering real changes.

Capital: In your view, what are some elements that you think these two organizations can learn from each other?

Birgitte Markussen: I think I’ll go back to what I said where we come from, because we as the European Union we have a history of starting with economic integration and then later on we had more and more political integration as well. European ministers meet once a month in Brussels. Of course, each member state has its own policies, but they coordinate and are also impacted by decisions taken in Brussels; and that’s the political integration that we have,

What we can learn from each other and I say this having had discussions with my African Union colleagues, I emphasize a lot that AfCFTA has to be a legacy. Because that is what will bring the changes I think for the African Union and for the member states. So it’s good to see the African Union Commission do so much, but it’s also the leaders, the heads of states and government that can actually implement for this to happen.

Some of the value chains that have started now, in West Africa and southern Africa, are on good tracks. This is the way forward. I know that some of the leaders both in these two regions have taken the leadership on this because this will bring changes and a better economic development to all citizens.

It really matters of course that you have a good economy to send your children to school, eat well, and have an established social security. So the AfCFTA is what we bring as European Union with a long history of economic integration leading to prosperity and peace for a long time. We won that at some point, we won the Nobel Peace Prize because of the peace that had come to the European continent. The economic integration has made it almost impossible to go into a war with each other, and I believe that will be realized by the African continent as well.

Capital: From your three years stay in this office, what successful projects can you raise as an example?

Birgitte Markussen: Despite the challenges that we have faced I am proud to say that we have had a fair share of successes, as is seen in our reports. When I came, the headline was vaccines, vaccines and vaccines, because I came under the pandemic times. So I’m very proud of that within one and a half years we also started vaccines productions and manufacturing in Africa. The EU exported a lot of vaccines; I think up to 50% of our vaccine production was sent to Africa.

We have now six countries where you have production of vaccines in Africa, not only for COVID-19 but for other diseases as well which is very important. Of course this will go a long way in setting up infrastructure for the continents health sector and support the Africa CDC.

The other thing is, of course, the AfCFTA. I really think we as the EU have worked hard on this one. I also think we made differences on peace and security. Of course, the guns are not silent on the African continent but there are many situations where I think if we had not worked together, it would have been in a different place.

Since I came, we have also worked on the people to people program which aims to bring the best of both unions and the people together through culture, music, and performance. The latest project, Europe Day, involved supporting an African European band called Masha, who played at the largest concert in Brussels. The program also encourages young musicians from Senegal to join African-inspired bands, ensuring that music in Europe is not limited to African sounds and beat.

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