At an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell pledged to support, on behalf of the EU, African countries’ demands for more weight and representation in multilateral discussions. 

“On Africa (…) we have been discussing the continent as a geopolitical priority, our absolute determination to increase our dialogue and cooperation,” the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Borrell said. “We will support Africa’s quest for a greater representation in multilateral fora,” he added.

Africa has become a renewed diplomatic battleground since Russia’s war against Ukraine began, with multiple countries on the continent aggressively courted by Russia and China as well as the West. Russia’s Wagner mercenary group maintains a strong military presence in Africa, where it has partnered with several nations, including Mali and the Central African Republic.

The last French troops withdrew from Niger in December, in the latest blow to more than a decade of French anti-jihadist operations in west Africa’s Sahel region. It was the third time in less than 18 months that French troops were sent packing from a Sahel nation, following military takeovers in former colonies Mali and Burkina Faso. All three nations are battling a jihadist insurgency that erupted in northern Mali in 2012.

According to Borrell, “we have to rethink our approach to Africa to offer more cooperation, and to understand that the stability of the African states is part of our security”. He added that this was not just about the Sahel region, which is spanning across the continent as the transition zone between the Sahara desert and more humid Southern countries. Borrell said this was also about other parts of Africa, such as Sudan, the Horn of Africa as a large geopolitical region in East Africa and Somalia.

Spain: The EU’s land link to Africa

Spain is the only EU country that has a land border with Africa through Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish cities located in Northern Africa and surrounded by Moroccan territory. For Spain, relations with Morocco are essential for the stability of these two enclaves and also to guarantee the control of migratory routes from sub-Saharan Africa to the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of the EU countries.

In particular, the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, José Manuel Albares, pointed to the Sahel region as “a priority area for Spain” and asked to maintain “the EU’s important presence” in that area.

“I will ask that we continue to maintain our support for ECOWAS, an indispensable regional organisation, that we maintain our humanitarian aid and our support for the democratic processes of countries as important as Mauritania and Senegal, which are strategic partners for Europe and for Spain,” Albares said. ECOWAS refers to the Economic Community of West African States.

Maintaining economic ties

German Development Minister Svenja Schulze is visiting western African leaders this week. Her trip comes around a week after the juntas that rule Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger withdrew their countries from ECOWAS. A military coup took place in Niger on July 26 last year, whereupon ECOWAS imposed sanctions and threatened military action.

The Economic Community of West African States consists of 15 member states, making it one of the largest regional economic communities in Africa. All three West African states have had their memberships suspended by ECOWAS.

Ahead of her departure, Schulze said that “free trade and visa-free travel have made life and business in West Africa much easier”. She said she regrets the decision of the three states, but added that “the decision by sovereign states must be respected, even if it will entail many economic disadvantages”. Economic integration is a key driver of development, she added, saying the international donor community is ready to continue supporting West Africa on this path.

Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have increasingly turned to Russia amid tensions with ECOWAS.

Giorgia Meloni (l), Ministerpräsidentin von Italien, begrüßt Ursula von der Leyen, Präsidentin der Europäischen Kommission, vor einem italienisch-afrikanischen Gipfeltreffen. Ministerpräsidentin Meloni eröffnete am Montag ein Gipfeltreffen afrikanischer Staats- und Regierungschefs, bei dem Italiens Entwicklungsplan für den Kontinent vorgestellt werden sollte.
Giorgia Meloni (l), Prime Minister of Italy, welcomes Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission (r), ahead of an Italian-African summit. Prime Minister Meloni opened a summit of African heads of state and government to present Italy’s development plan for the continent. Photo: Roberto Monaldo/LaPresse/AP/dpa

Targeting Russian influence, energy and migration

“We have to start asking ourselves how much we can approach cooperation with some African countries more pragmatically, because the reality is that military coups have taken place in several African countries in the last two years, Russia is gaining strength in these countries and Europe is clearing its positions,” Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský said at the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers.

Italy holds the presidency of the G7 group of nations this year and has vowed to make African development a central theme, in part to increase influence in a continent where powers such as China, Russia, India, Japan and Turkey have been expanding their political clout.

At a summit of African leaders in Italy at the end of January, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni called for a “new page” in relations with the continent, focused on energy and stopping migration across the Mediterranean. The summit came just months after Russia held its own summit with African leaders, and other countries, including China and France, have held similar initiatives.

Representatives of over 25 countries attended the summit at the Italian senate – dubbed “A Bridge for Common Growth” –  along with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and representatives of United Nations agencies and the World Bank.

Meloni wants to transform Italy into an energy gateway, capitalising on demand from fellow European countries seeking to slash their dependence on Russian gas following Moscow’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The so-called Mattei Plan hopes to position Italy as a key bridge between Africa and Europe, funnelling energy North while exchanging investment in the South for deals aimed at curbing migration. The plan intends to tackle so-called push factors and persuade origin countries to sign readmittance deals for migrants refused permission to stay in Italy.

Further calls for more engagement with Africa

Slovenian Foreign Minister Tanja Fajon called for close cooperation with Africa, which showed great confidence in Slovenia when it voted for its non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council. “This is a continent that is facing challenges ranging from poverty to climate change and rising tensions, including violence. So we need to work with the African continent, it is our strategic partner,” the minister said ahead of the Brussels meeting. 

Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mariya Gabriel said that Africa is a strategic partner for Bulgaria. “We must have a dialogue with the countries on the continent. I support the idea of giving greater visibility to European projects there,” she said. Gabriel noted that extra efforts are needed in this regard. 

Earlier in January, Gabriel met with her Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry. They discussed cooperation in innovation, renewable energy, hydrogen, food security, transport, and tourism. “Egypt is the first Arab country with which Bulgaria established diplomatic relations and the largest economic and trade partner of our country in the Middle East and Africa region. In 2026, we will mark an important anniversary: 100 years since the establishment of our diplomatic relations,” Gabriel wrote on Facebook. 

Romania recently adopted the first National Strategy for Africa aimed at relaunching ties with the African continent. This comes as part of the joint effort at the European level, in the broader context of the need to revive relations between the EU and Africa in the spirit of a new partnership. In 2024, Romania wants to intensify collaboration and continue the programs intended for African partners, with an emphasis on education and the transfer of expertise.

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