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Grand partnership falters on rows over vaccine nationalism and migration

Bold promises about trade and investment belie critical policy disagreements worsened by the pandemic

After almost two years of delays, the European Union-African Union summit is scheduled for 17-18 February (AC Vol 60 No 5, Newish but not radical). It was originally meant to be a grand signing ceremony for the European Commission's blueprint for a 'strategic partnership' with Africa published in 2019.

Since then, relations have frayed on both sides. The bold talk in Brussels about Europe being Africa's natural ally and offering more than China hasn't translated into new policies or funding.

The pandemic has shifted the policy goalposts for both sides. Cooperation on healthcare was barely mentioned in early 2020. Now it will be the main theme although the EU still wants to push the export of its Green New Deal (AC Dispatches, 21/9/21, Brussels moves from rhetoric to policy on climate and vaccines).

The Commission also wants its newly-launched Global Gateway, an ill-disguised and under-financed imitation of China's Belt and Road plan, to be centre-stage. Officials say it is at the heart of what they describe as 'innovative financing solutions for the EU-AU partnership, economic recovery and the twin digital and green transitions.'

European Council President Charles Michel is leading the EU's diplomatic effort.  On 19 December, he hosted a preparatory meeting with AU Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat and three African Presidents: Félix Tshisekedi (Congo-Kinshasa); Macky Sall (Senegal); Paul Kagame (Rwanda).

Officials expect that vaccine hoarding and vaccine production in Africa will dominate the summit. When he addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg in the week-ending 18 December, Ghana's President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo said that Africa had fallen victim to 'vicious vaccine politics'.

Ghana aims to offer the vaccine to all adults that want it by the end of the year, said Akufo-Addo. But he warned that the 'unsavoury politics of vaccine nationalism' had outweighed gains from vaccine donations through the international Covax initiative. He was amplifying similar critiques from Sall and South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Brussels is on the defensive when it comes to countering vaccine nationalism. It is giving little ground on calls for a patents waiver to boost vaccine production in Africa. And the EU has refused, along with other members of the G20, to sign up to the $45 billion plan for international vaccine distribution drawn up by the International Monetary Fund and the World Health Organization.

Instead, the EU, according to a Council statement issued by Michel, supports 'a holistic approach to strengthen African health systems and vaccine production'.

That vague language suggests that the EU won't rescind its opposition to an intellectual property waiver on vaccine patents. Negotiations on this issue have been stuck at the World Trade Organization for months with EU states, along with Britain and Switzerland, being the main hold-outs.

EU officials are pushing their alternative: investment in production sites and supply chains modelled on its support for BioNTech's vaccine facilities in Rwanda and Senegal (AC Vol 62 No 11, Parting on patents).

The EU's eastern member states, who complain that Brussels is weak on migration, may also try to dominate the agenda. At a meeting of EU Foreign Affairs ministers in mid-December, Hungary's Péter Szijjártó reiterated that his government's priority was that the EU should help African states cut migration (AC Vol 60 No 24, Seeking special status).

That points to a widening rift between Brussels and some member states on migration and other policy priorities. Brussels is trying to lift what it calls an 'inefficient travel ban' on seven Southern African states, imposed in the wake of South Africa's discovery of the Omicron variant, but several EU states are blocking any relaxation of the restrictions.

EU Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders said there were better tools, such as quarantines and more testing, to manage the wave of Omicron cases. This week, Denmark and the Netherlands have announced new local restrictions. South Africa has been exerting 'huge pressure' on Brussels to lift the travel restrictions, added Reynders.

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