The Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), The African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) and European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR), hosted a closed virtual roundtable discussion on 20 May 2020 to take stock of the short- and medium-term effects of COVID-19 and the future of the relationship between Africa and Europe in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The African response to COVID-19

Despite weak health systems and governance deficiencies, Africa has thus far shown more resilience in handling the COVID-19 pandemic than many analysts predicted. In fact, the African project may have been strengthened in some ways. The African Union’s African Centre for Diseases Control played a central role in coordinating an early African response, and the AU’s Bureau and Finance Ministers played a key role in negotiating debt relief.

However, the pandemic has also disrupted various AU initiatives including the timetable of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. COVID-19 infection rates in Africa are still lagging behind East Asia, Europe and America. Nevertheless, projections are that the number of cases will grow in Africa over the coming weeks, as it did elsewhere. At this stage, the economic impact of the containment measures has been more damaging than the public health dimension of the crisis.

Short- and long-term consequences for the Africa-Europe relationship?

The short-term consequences have been more challenging for the European project than the euro crisis or the refugee crisis – the renationalization of policy, the closing of borders, disruptions to the single market and supply chains. The question of whether the EU business model can withstand the COVID-19 crisis remains open. The future of European foreign policy in general, including vis-à-vis Africa, will depend on the resilience of the European project to survive the crisis and the way it handles the economic consequences within the EU. Can Europeans generate enough foreign policy unity at home to engage more strategically in their relationship with Africa, and prove that their undertakings to ‘restart’ the partnership are not only empty words?

The measures introduced to contain the pandemic have also disrupted the negotiation schedule leading up to the AU-EU Summit in October. The immediate focus of the relationship has now shifted to how Africa and Europe can cooperate to prevent the spread of the virus and contain its side-effects. However, specialised teams on both sides are continuing the dialogue on the longer-term strategic relationship.

The panel included Marianne Hagen, State Secretary, Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Faten Aggad, Senior Advisor to the AU High Representative on EU-AU negotiations; Vasu Gounden, Executive Director, ACCORD; Gunilla Carlsson, former Deputy Executive Director, UNAIDS and former Minister for International Development Cooperation of Sweden; Prof. Ulf Sverdrup, Director, NUPI; and Mark Leonard, Director, ECFR.

The panel was moderated by Dr. Cedric de Coning, ACCORD & NUPI and Susi Dennison, ECFR.

This roundtable meeting was funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.