Tanya Cox, Director at CONCORD Europe

The EU-AU Summit is a mere three weeks away, but civil society has been shut out from having any real influence over the shape or likely outcomes of the Summit. And now, it is clearly too late. This is certainly not for want of trying. Nor is this for lack of time, since we have been urging the EU institutions to prepare for it since its postponement last year. Instead, civil society is in limbo between the institutional set-up in Brussels and which institution (or service) is open – or not – to taking on board our views.

It is President of the European Council, Charles Michel, who will officially host the EU-AU Summit and lead negotiations with African counterparts. The cabinet of President Michel at least claims to be open to civil society and to find it important that civil society can contribute to the Summit.

How, is less clear! Not least because President Michel didn’t think it was necessary to nominate a liaison person in his cabinet for civil society. There is someone dedicated to relations with the European Parliament. There is someone for communications with think tanks and academia. But no one for civil society. At least not obviously so on the cabinet’s website.

Behind the scenes, the European External Action Service (EEAS), headed by HR/VP Josep Borrell, is also important in the Summit, not least owing to its role in drawing up the outcome document – the so-called Declaration. But the EEAS is one of the least open and transparent bodies of the EU. Created in 2011 to serve as the ‘diplomatic arm’ of Brussels, it has grown in importance and power over the years and – with the renewed focus on geopolitical realities – will continue to do so. Not least because DG INTPA – now celebrating its first birthday since its make-over from DG DevCo – is becoming more like a development agency than an important policy-maker and ‘partner’ in the international arena.

So where does that leave the Commission’s DG INTPA – the one body that is willing to discuss policy, programming and diplomatic action with civil society? Unfortunately, it is in third place in the pecking order. Despite the presence of its President, Ursula von der Leyen, and Commissioner Urpilainen, at the Summit. As such, it unfortunately has little say in the discussions or the outcomes of the Summit.

That is unfortunate not just for civil society but also for the way the Summit is handled, its decisions and for the people themselves who will be on the receiving end of those decisions. Why?

Well, if policies, negotiations, declarations and investment packages are to be successful (and by that I mean, improve a country’s prosperity and people’s well-being), they clearly need to put people at their core. It is hard to imagine a single theme which would not have a bearing on people. The economy is about people (because without people there wouldn’t be one), climate change is about people (because without people, there wouldn’t be any), energy is about people (who provides it, who uses it), etc. So obviously each of the themes of the Summit is all about people!

That people-centred approach is civil society’s bread-and-butter business, but does not come naturally to the EEAS or the Council. DG INTPA, while it might not always achieve it, has at least made efforts in a number of areas to adopt a people-centred approach. But this won’t carry much weight in the upcoming Summit.

On top of the frictions and differences between EU institutions and services, going into the EU-AU Summit, one can now add the more prominent and nationalistic role of many EU Member States, which undertake foreign policy initiatives to serve their own interests. For example, France, which currently holds the Presidency of the European Council, is key among them. President Macron has put relations with Africa and reform of ‘Francafrique’ high up on their six-month agenda. How that serves to further ‘an equal and fair partnership’ between the EU and Africa is less clear.

But what is clear, is that civil society is not being taken seriously as a partner with the capacity to bring real solutions to the intersecting and compounding global challenges at hand. Civil society participation is not a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise. Nor is it a roadblock to achieving results. Civil society, from both Africa and Europe, is the driver which can bring the future partnership forward and help it to improve the lives of people.


Tanya Cox,
CONCORD Director