The EU will welcome more than 40 African leaders to Brussels on Thursday in an effort to reassert its influence on a continent where China and Russia have made hefty investment inroads, and where many felt let down by Europe’s COVID-19 vaccines rollout.
The European Union will offer several packages of support at the summit to bolster health, education and stability in Africa, and will pledge half of a new 300 billion euro investment drive launched to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
But the meeting also takes place just as France and its allies fighting Islamist militants in Mali said on Thursday they would begin their military withdrawal from the country.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said ahead of the two-day meeting – postponed from 2020 because of the pandemic – that the two continents were closely interlinked.
“African problems are our problems,” he told the European Parliament on Tuesday. “When we work to try to solve these problems, we work for ourselves as well.”
European and other wealthy nations were heavily criticised for hoarding protective equipment and later vaccines during the pandemic, with some African leaders saying the slow pace of donations could lead to “vaccine apartheid”.
There was also dismay over Europe’s travel bans on South Africa after the Omicron variant was detected there late last year.
Tensions run deeper on other issues between two continents with colonial ties, including over migration flows and the erosion of democracy in several African countries, some of which have recently seen coups d’etat including Mali.
Although France and its allies said they are starting their military withdrawal from that country, French President Emmanuel Macron insisted the pullback did not constitute a failure of its nine-year mission, adding that neighbouring Niger had agreed to host European forces fighting Islamists in the region.
Ties have worsened since Mali’s military junta went back on an agreement to organise elections in February and proposed holding power until 2025.
Frank Mattheis, an expert in regional studies at the United Nations University, said the summit would seek to highlight areas where cooperation is promising and avoid thorny issues such as the EU’s relations with Ethiopia, which has cooled over the conduct of pro-government forces in the Tigray conflict.
The European Commission announced this week that the EU and the Gates Foundation would invest over 100 million euros in the next five years to help set up an African medicines regulator to boost the continent’s drugs and vaccine production.
The race to establish the African Medicines Agency (AMA) comes after the pandemic exposed the region’s dependence on imported vaccines.
Africa initially struggled to get COVID vaccines as rich countries snapped up limited supplies. Deliveries later picked up, but just 10% of Africans are fully vaccinated.
Just over 5% of medicines, and 1% of vaccines, consumed by Africa’s population of 1.2 billion people are produced locally. The EU says it will provide support to help Africa produce 60%of the vaccines it needs by 2040.
Part of the funding for the AMA will come from 150 billion euros to be mobilised for Africa over the next seven years under the EU’s Global Gateway scheme.
Separately, the European Investment Bank announced on Thursday it would make available 500 million euros in cheap loans to African countries to strengthen healthcare systems. That credit line is expected to mobilise a total of 1 billion euros in private and public investments, the bank said.
The initiative was launched in December to strengthen Europe’s supply chains and fighting climate change in sectors including health and energy, priorities that Mattheis said don’t necessarily align with those of African countries.
“The main objectives are set by the ambitions of the EU’s own agenda, such as diversifying its energy sources, achieving its climate goals, impeding migration and curbing the global influence of China and its Belt and Road Initiative,” he said.