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Macron highlights new dynamic in Europe-Africa relationship?
It was almost the summit that never was. Just weeks before the fifth AU-EU summit in the Ivorian capital, Abidjan, a furious row between members of the African Union put the whole event in question.
Morocco said it would not participate if the government of Western Sahara, a disputed territory, controlled by Rabat, was invited by hosts Côte d’Ivoire.
The argument was eventually settled with some delicate diplomatic tinkering. But it is just one example of the tensions within the AU, which raises the perennial question: Can Africa speak with a united voice?
Europe and migration
Europe is facing its own problems, too. For the first time, the very existence of the EU is threatened. Brexit and the increasing popularity of anti-migration, inward-looking, nationalist parties are shaking the foundations of the continent’s liberal post-war consensus.
In public officials on both sides of the Mediterranean are quick to assure us that it is business as usual and that internal politics will not hamper intra-continental cooperation.
But privately they admit that good intentions are no longer enough.
The migration crisis has brought Europe’s resolve sharply into focus – Africa’s problems are Europe’s problems.
Over the past year Europe has aggressively pursued a policy of deterrence of migrants by either hampering NGOs carrying out search-and-rescue operations at sea or by incentivising sub-Saharan states to repatriate migrants stuck in north Africa.
Just last week Rwanda said it would take in 30,000 returning from Libya.
Europe’s policies have come under increasing pressure. When CNN aired an investigation earlier this month which revealed slave markets of young African men in Libya, private concern over the policy shift became public criticism.
Ahead of the summit the chair of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahmat, said on a working visit to Paris that it was Europe’s migration policy that was fuelling the unthinkable in Libya.
The Italian interior ministry says 5,979 migrants arrived by boat in October nearly five times fewer than a year ago. This means the number of migrants held in detention centres shot up from 7,000 to 20,000 in just a month.
France takes the lead
In the midst of these tectonic shifts, France’s President Emmanuel Macron sees an opportunity.
With the UK no longer in the picture and political stalemate in Germany, he is well on his way to claiming the mantle of the leader of the continent’s progressive, pro-business centre ground.
Outlining France’s plans for Africa in Ouagadougou on Tuesday, Macron announced that France was embarking on a new approach with the continent.
His ambition is to look beyond Paris’s traditional spheres of influence in French-speaking west Africa. He wants France – and by extension Europe – to promote more investment, education and cultural exchange.
Africa, too, wants to escape a relationship which has long been defined by aid donations and investment that sees most of the continent’s wealth shipped overseas.
The potential exists for a change in dynamic at this summit and both continents know that the world is watching.