On February 17and 18, 2022, the sixth European Union—African Union summit will take place in Brussels after two years of Covid-19 related delays. The meeting between heads of state from the European Union (EU) and African Union (AU) has been branded as an opportunity to “jointly define” their relationship, including a focus on investment and trade, a “green transition,” and most importantly, democracy and governance reforms.
Since the last summit in 2020, authoritarian actors have increased the breadth and depth of their influence campaigns in African countries. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) increasingly targets African countries’ information spaces, economies, and political systems to shape narratives and facilitate the party-state’s preferred policy outcomes. Often, PRC engagements—such as political party training and state-curated propaganda creation and dissemination—have an implicit or explicit goal of promoting an illiberal system of governance.
Increasingly, democratic powers recognize the challenges PRC engagement poses to the continued democratic trajectory of both nascent and developed democracies. Despite this recognition, many have criticized the EU’s support for African democratic development as a “series of failed beginnings.” The EU should use its upcoming summit with African countries to develop a realistic strategy to follow through on its promises of equal engagement.
While the EU should expand and amplify its support for democracy in African countries, it should not abandon the meaningful in-roads made through trade and investment. China’s economic engagement with African countries does not even approach the amount the EU trades with the continent. In 2018, EU trade in goods with Africa was worth $269 billion, nearly double that of China’s trade with Africa. The EU’s financial stake in the continent is clear. However, to counter growing PRC influence and create a successful bilateral agenda emphasizing governance reforms and democracy support requires the EU to aid the “kitchen table” issues experienced by many African populaces.
Currently, PRC activities across the continent are expanding from mainly economic to other forms of influence, often described as “sharp power.” PRC state-owned media outlets are flooding local media markets to control the narrative around China’s engagement in the region and on the global stage. Simultaneously, PRC-affiliated firms make deals to upgrade countries’ telecommunications systems, often giving PRC state-owned media outlets preferential access. In further attempts to control the narrative, the PRC, through the China-Africa Think Tank Forum, is creating networks of African scholars that echo the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) talking points and promote its ideas on governance and societal control mechanisms.
The CCP is also deepening its relationship with ruling parties across the continent. From Nigeria to Kenya, it has provided training on party management and longevity to governing African parties. In Kenya, the CCP has trained Jubilee cadres in all forty-seven counties. This effort has yielded strong public praise from democratic political parties for an authoritarian party rooted in illiberal governance methods.
The EU must go beyond grand declarations of intent and simple financial support to enforce tangible changes to its long-term diplomatic partnership with the AU. The summit should focus on adhering to a values-based agenda for democracy that both the EU and AU hold to and support. Its democratic values set the EU apart from other authoritarian actors, most notably China, engaging in the region; it should remain at the core of its engagement with the continent.
The upcoming summit is an excellent platform to declare these intentions. Still, lasting support for African democracies depends on the EU establishing a true partnership with the AU, including matching the growing academic and civil society engagement of the CCP.
Gibbs McKinley is a program associate for the Center for Global Impact at the International Republican Institute. She specializes in addressing the influence of Russia, China, and other autocracies on democratic institutions and governance around the world.
Adam George is a program officer supporting the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Building Resiliency for Interconnected Democracies in Global Environments (BRIDGE) portfolio. He was previously a Boren Scholar in Tanzania.