The European Union and the African Union are coming together in Brussels for a two-day summit to reset relations after two turbulent years that saw accusations of "vaccine apartheid" and "discriminatory" travel bans.
A total of 40 African heads of government and state are expected to descend on the Belgian capital to meet face-to-face with the 27 EU leaders and the presidents of the EU institutions.
Established in 1999, the African Union (AU) encompasses 55 countries of the African continent, four of which -- Mali, Guinea, Sudan and Burkina Faso -- are currently suspended following military coups.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will attend the gathering in defiance of the international condemnation over the human rights abuses and atrocities committed during the Tigray War.
Like the EU, the African Union is governed by a set of collective bodies, including the Pan-African Parliament and the Court of Justice of the African Union, but it's less economically and politically integrated than Europe. For example, the AU still lacks a single market between its member states.
The joint summit is seen as an opportunity to turn the page on the last couple of years and open a new chapter to address common challenges, such as climate change, the energy transition, sustainable development and the economic recovery.
Given its geostrategic importance, Brussels is keen to strengthen ties with Africa and move past the donor-recipient dynamic that characterised the post-colonialism era and create a partnership of equals for the 21st century.
The in-person meeting will unfold in the shadow of the Ukraine-Russia border crisis. EU leaders, some of whom have recently met President Vladimir Putin in a bid to diffuse tensions, will hold an informal discussion on the subject before the official EU-AU summit kicks off.
High on the agenda will be the coronavirus pandemic and vaccine inequality. The EU has so far donated over 145 million vaccine doses to the African countries and wants to reach 450 million by the summer, according to the European Commission.
But calls for patent waivers are set to be once again dismissed by EU leaders, despite persistent pleas from their African counterparts, who argue lifting IP restrictions would ensure universal access to the vaccine.
The current gap is staggering: over 12% of the African population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as opposed to 81% of the EU population.
Brussels insists the best way forward is to increase logistic support and exchange expertise to help African countries build their local manufacturing sites and produce Africa-made vaccines. This strategy is far from new and has been touted by EU officials since at least May 2021, the same month when South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered a scathing rebuke against the West.
"A situation in which the populations of advanced, rich countries are safely inoculated while millions in poorer countries die in the queue would be tantamount to vaccine apartheid," Ramaphosa said back then.
Relations took a turn for the worse in late November, when the highly transmissible Omicron variant was detected by a group of South African scientists.
The EU, the UK and the US reacted with instantaneous travel bans against South African and neighbouring countries, measures that Ramaphosa condemned as discriminatory and damaging. Omicron rapidly became the dominant COVID variant worldwide, underscoring the futility of the travel restrictions.
A €150 billion partnership
As a way to prove their willingness to reset and improve relations, EU officials are putting the final touches to a €150 billion investment package that leaders will unveil during the summit.
The loans and grants will come from the EU budget, the European Investment Bank (EIB), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and contributions from member states and the private sector.
The funds will be mobilised over the next years and will be channeled into three main areas: infrastructure (energy, digital and transport), education and health. Possible projects could include data centres, underwater cables, railways and hydrogen production, as well as vaccine manufacturing sites.
The package is part of the Global Gateway, an ambitious €300 billion programme launched by Brussels late last year to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BIR), a massive collection of infrastructure projects that is forecast to reach $1.3 trillion in international investments by 2027.
China has been often criticised for forcing low-income countries into opaque loans that turn into crippling debt. Beijing strenuously rejects these accusations and stresses the deals are always mutually beneficial.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has described Global Gateway as a "true alternative" with a dedicated focus on environmental standards, transparency and good governance that will put participant countries on an equal footing, rather than in a subservient arrangement.
"Our two Unions share the same vision: to create a common area of stability and prosperity. At this summit we shall have to work out practical ways of achieving that goal," said von der Leyen in a recent visit to Senegal, the country that currently holds the African Union's rotating chairmanship.
For the time being, the Global Gateway remains a corporate slogan. The African €150 billion programme will be the first test for the EU to show how much money it can raise and how many benefits it can deliver on the ground.
The competition will be stiff: between 2000 and 2019, Chinese financiers signed more than 1,100 loan agreements worth $153 billion (€134 billion) with African governments and their state-owned companies, according to a database managed by the Boston University. The database shows investments levels have gradually decreased since reaching a $29.5 billion peak in 2016
In November, President Xi Jinping promised Chinese companies will invest $10 billion across Africa in the next three years and vowed to deliver one billion vaccine doses to the continent.
Beyond the economy and the pandemic, the EU-AU summit will also tackle thorny issues such as migration, mobility, security and peace, which have a particular interest for Mediterranean countries dealing with migratory influxes from the Maghreb.
EU officials hope the packed agenda will stimulate "lively debates" and result in a "tangible legacy" that will shape EU-Africa relations for the remaining years of the decade. Before the summit comes to an end of Friday afternoon, leaders are excepted to present a "joint vision for 2030".