By Mert Can Yazıcı
Since the new European Commission took the office, Africa has been a high priority in the European Union (EU)’s political and diplomatic agenda. This became clear with Ursula von der Leyen’s decision to make her first official visit outside Europe to the African Union (AU) Headquarters in Addis Ababa, which was followed by an AU-EU Commission-to-Commission meeting in February 2019.  However, despite expectations that 2020 would be a “pivotal year” to develop a strategic partnership, the past year has been seen as a “lost year” in the relationship between the two continents. Although the European Commission published its long-awaited and ambitious “Towards a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa” document in March of 2020, the postponement of the 6th AU-EU Summit due to COVID-19, among other problems, has created a major setback in relations. As a result, the future of the EU’s efforts to reshape its relations with its closest continental neighbour remains unclear.
The EU’s renewed interest in Africa closely relates to its geopolitical considerations. For European leaders, Africa’s potential has become difficult to ignore, considering its young and dynamic population, growing middle class as well as steady economic growth. The EU sees Africa as a crucial ally in its efforts to strengthen rule-based multilateralism in the international system, as well as the key policy priorities of the Von der Leyen Commission. Therefore, the EU’s recent efforts reflect its ambition to reshape its deep-rooted relationship with the African continent in the context of its broader objectives, including its green and digital transformation agenda. The EU’s strategy focuses on 5 key areas: green transition, digital transformation, sustainable growth and jobs, peace and governance, and migration and mobility.  This, at least on paper, can be viewed as the EU’s intention to reset its relations with African countries that have been dominated by the EU’s interest to curb migration since the beginning of the so-called “migration crisis”.
However, the EU is far from the only geopolitical actor in Africa. Many other actors such as China, Russia, India, Turkey, and the Gulf States have been actively seeking closer economic, political, and diplomatic ties with African countries. While Chinese engagement with African countries has been the most impressive with vast investment and infrastructure projects, other new actors such as Turkey have been increasingly raising their profile in the continent with soft power outreach and an anti-colonial narrative.Although the degree of involvement and influence of these actors in the continent vary, the geopolitical competition in Africa poses new challenges for the EU, the traditional partner trying to “reset” its relations. In this sense, Africa’s growing geopolitical significance pushes the EU’s “geopolitical Commission” to redouble its efforts in its relations with Africa and emphasises the need for a paradigm change in EU-Africa relations.
In connection with Africa’s growing geopolitical significance, another aspect that signals that the EU-Africa relations cannot continue to be business-as-usual is Africa’s increasing assertiveness. Over the last years, African leaders have shown more willingness to reduce their countries’ dependence on a single external power.  This is not to say, however, that African countries have a common approach in their relationship with the EU. As a complex continent that consists of 54 countries with diverse needs and interests, Africa is far from being a homogeneous entity. Nevertheless, what is clear is that African countries are no longer interested in a traditional “donor-recipient relationship” that does not put Africa on an equal footing. 
While it is a positive sign that the European Commission’s communication in 2020 is titled “Strategy with Africa” instead of “Strategy for Africa”, much work needs to be done. A true partnership requires a real negotiation process that includes compromises from both sides of the two continents.  In a political conjuncture where the geopolitical competition gives Africa more policy space and the ability to act proactively in its relations with external actors, it is essential for the EU to understand the changing dynamics and build its partnership strategy with Africa accordingly. Instead of worrying about Africa’s increasing room for manoeuvre in its relations with the EU, European leaders should focus on how to reach concretely the “partnership of equals” they have promised over the years, working on exploring the mutual interests in even the most complicated issues such as trade, debt relief and migration with their African counterparts.
(Image credit to: Newsletter of the European Union)
*Mert Can Yazıcı is a guest contributor at Unfiltered Voices. He holds a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Ege University and recently graduated from the Advanced Master of European Politics and Policies programme at KU Leuven. For his master’s studies, he was awarded a Jean Monnet scholarship offered by the European Commission. His research interests include European affairs, EU foreign policy, migration & human rights, and rising powers in Africa.
Barigazzi, Jacopo, Davıd M Herszenhorn, and Simon Marks. “In search of allies, EU turns to Africa”. POLITICO. February 26, 2020. https://www.politico.eu/article/in-search-of-allies-eu-turns-to-africa-trade-african-union/
Di Carlo, Ivano, Elem Eyrice Tepeciklioğlu, Amanda Paul and Yu-Shan Wu. Eurasia Goes to Africa. European Policy Center, 2020. https://wms.flexious.be/editor/plugins/imagemanager/content/2140/PDF/2020/Eurasia_goes_to_Africa_WEB.pdf
European Commission, “Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council: Towards a comprehensive Strategy with Africa”. March 9, 2020. https://ec.europa.eu/international-partnerships/system/files/communication-eu-africa-strategy-join-2020-4-final_en.pdf
Fox, Benjamin. “EU-Africa: in search of a genuine partnership”. EURACTIV. Video. 3:46. March 3, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_f6VLHGlTg&ab_channel=EURACTIV
Herszenhorn, David M. “Von der Leyen ventures to the heart of Africa”. POLITICO. December 8, 2019. https://www.politico.eu/article/european-commission-president-ursula-von-der-leyen-ventures-to-the-heart-of-africa-ethiopia-african-union/
Pelz, Daniel. “Africa-Europe relations: 2020 was a lost year”. Deutsche Welle. November 20, 2020. https://www.dw.com/en/africa-europe-relations-2020-was-a-lost-year/a-55652720
Rosa, Domenico. “EU-Africa relations: Changing the paradigm”. Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI). December 21, 2020. https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/eu-africa-relations-changing-paradigm-28665
Von der Leyen, Ursula. “Opening statement by President von der Leyen at the 10th EU-AU Commission-to-Commission meeting plenary session”. European Commission. February 20, 2020. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/speech_20_342
Zeiss, Marco. “Europe’s pivot to Africa: Shaping the future of the strategic partnership”. European Policy Center. October 16, 2020. https://www.epc.eu/en/publications/Europes-pivot-to-Africa-Shaping-the-future-of-the-strategic-partners~381954
 David M. Herszenhorn, “Von der Leyen ventures to the heart of Africa”, POLITICO, December 8, 2019, https://www.politico.eu/article/european-commission-president-ursula-von-der-leyen-ventures-to-the-heart-of-africa-ethiopia-african-union/
 Ursula Von der Leyen, “Opening statement by President von der Leyen at the 10th EU-AU Commission-to-Commission meeting plenary session”, European Commission, February 20, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/speech_20_342
 Daniel Pelz, “Africa-Europe relations: 2020 was a lost year”, Deutsche Welle, November 20, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/africa-europe-relations-2020-was-a-lost-year/a-55652720
 European Commission, “Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council: Towards a comprehensive Strategy with Africa”, March 9, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/international-partnerships/system/files/communication-eu-africa-strategy-join-2020-4-final_en.pdf
 Pelz, “Africa-Europe relations: 2020 was a lost year”
 Jacopo Barigazzi, Davıd M. Herszenhorn and Simon Marks, “In search of allies, EU turns to Africa”, POLITICO, February 26, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/in-search-of-allies-eu-turns-to-africa-trade-african-union/
 Ivana di Carlo and Amanda Paul, “Introduction” in Eurasia Goes to Africa (European Policy Center, 2020), 12-17, https://wms.flexious.be/editor/plugins/imagemanager/content/2140/PDF/2020/Eurasia_goes_to_Africa_WEB.pdf
 Barigazzi et al., “In search of allies, EU turns to Africa”
 European Commission, “Joint Communicatıon to the European Parliament and the Council: Towards a comprehensive Strategy with Africa”
 Marco Zeiss, “Europe’s pivot to Africa: Shaping the future of the strategic partnership”, European Policy Center, October 16, 2020, https://www.epc.eu/en/publications/Europes-pivot-to-Africa-Shaping-the-future-of-the-strategic-partners~381954
 Ivano di Carlo, Elem Eyrice Tepeciklioğlu, Amanda Paul and Yu-Shan Wu, Eurasia Goes to Africa (European Policy Center, 2020) https://wms.flexious.be/editor/plugins/imagemanager/content/2140/PDF/2020/Eurasia_goes_to_Africa_WEB.pdf
 Domenico Rosa, “EU-Africa relations: Changing the paradigm”, Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), December 21, 2020, https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/eu-africa-relations-changing-paradigm-28665
 Zeiss, “Europe’s pivot to Africa: Shaping the future of the strategic partnership”
 Benjamin Fox, “EU-Africa: in search of a genuine partnership”, EURACTIV, Video, 3:46, March 3, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_f6VLHGlTg&ab_channel=EURACTIV