With great difficulty, the European Union (EU) expanded its partnership with the African Union (AU) at a summit in Brussels in February – economy, trade, climate, health, and migration are major challenges for the relationship. Less than a week later, Russia invaded Ukraine. Both countries are important wheat suppliers for many African states, which are now threatened with high prices and shortages. Moscow is also militarily engaged in Africa to the strategic detriment of the EU. China challenges with huge investments. What the additional political and financial costs mean for the start of the new EU-AU partnership – an overview:

Africa Matters to Europe

Geographical proximity, colonial history, and the wide variety of human relations make Africa an important partner for Europe. The EU wants to benefit economically from the neighbouring continent’s riches and its great potential to produce green energy. In addition, Europe has a genuine interest in Africa’s political stability as it seeks to ward off spill-over effects resulting from forced migration, armed conflicts, and the consequences of climate change.

African societies, in turn, also have an interest in cooperating more closely with the European Union as they expect more jobs and prosperity from an upgraded partnership. However, while all of this might provide for a win-win situation in principle, there are quite some challenges.

A value below 100% means import dependency. Source: FAOSTAT

The Outfall of the Russian war in Africa – food security more affected

While, at the writing of this article, guns have yet to be silenced in Ukraine, and the fate of the country remains unclear, governments around the world are “bracing for impact.” Both Ukraine and Russia are major cereals producers, and prices for basic staple foods have been rising substantially – adding to the pandemic’s socio-economic damage.

As food expenses make up a greater percentage of household budgets in low-income countries than in high-income countries, African countries will be hit in particular.  Not the least because several states like Somalia, Botswana, and Kenya have been dealing with terrible droughts which have devastated their agricultural production.


The war will only aggravate the situation, as it is estimated that 50% of Africa’s wheat imports come from Ukraine and Russia. Africa’s domestic production is inadequate to cover consumption, especially when compared with the EU. This is partly due to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which has harmed Africa’s ability to reach food self-sufficiency. While the EU’s current agricultural policy is not as harmful as it used to be, export subsidies in the past limited Africa’s ability to develop its agriculture.

Egypt, Sudan, Tanzania, Benin, Rwanda, and Eritrea are particularly exposed since Russia and Ukraine make up more than 60% of their wheat imports. Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria are also reliant on the two warring countries for their sunflower imports. The risk of social tensions in countries like Egypt is at the highest level seen in years. On the other side, as Europe is desperately trying to decouple from Russian gas, Gas-rich African countries such as Namibia, Nigeria, and Mozambique can benefit.

A value below 100% means import dependency. Countries in Africa shown in Green Source: FAOSTAT

African perceptions of the war in Ukraine – different than Europe’s

At the UN general assembly on the 2nd of March, the Russian attack on Ukraine was condemned, with 141 countries voting in favour of the resolution, 35 abstained, and only 5 voting against it. Of those 35 countries that abstained, 17 were African, while 28 African countries voted in favor of the resolution. The fact that a disproportionally high number of African countries decided to abstain can be due to several complex geopolitical factors but is also related to public opinion in Africa.

Some Africans feel there is a double standard being applied by Europeans when they welcome refugees from Ukraine with the same skin color. Even before the war, there was distrust when it came to vaccine distribution since African countries received the least amount of vaccines, and their calls for a patent waiver have been continuously opposed by Europeans.

Trust building via vaccines and trade

EU leaders are not unaware of the trust deficit between the two continents. To rebuild trust, it was announced during the summit that the Europeans are now willing to transfer mRNA technology: funded by the EU Commission as well as Germany, France, and Belgium. mRNA vaccines will be manufactured in six African countries, from Egypt to South Africa to Tunisia. However, the issue of patent rights is not yet settled.

Another area where the EU can do more is trade. For Africa, the EU is the most important trading partner, accounting for 25% of its overall trade volume, ahead of China with 17% and the US with 5%. At the same time, in 2020, Africa accounted for just 5.9% of EU imports and 6.5% of EU exports. Europe enjoyed a positive trade balance of around €24.3 bn in 2020. Europeans primarily export industrial goods and purchase raw materials in Africa. There is potential for increasing the trade volume in every sector, from automobiles to hydrogen, which is important in light of the EU’s quest for new energy sources.

Source: eurostat

Competing with Russia – the Wagner Group

Russia, beyond its importance as a wheat supplier, is not as economically intertwined in Africa as China or the EU. Moscow seeks to increase influence through its disproportionate military might, especially through weapon sales and military agreements with, for example, Egypt and Algeria. Russia is also using the infamous mercenary Wagner group, which is tied to the Kremlin, to win clout and extract concessions from African governments. The group is mainly engaged in the Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Sudan.

In Libya, the Wagner group has been engaged in fighting on General Haftar’s side, deepening the divide of the country against the EU’s interest. In Mali, the mercenary group is set to be the partner of choice of the Military Junta, as France is withdrawing its troops. Both Mali and Libya are important to Europe, given their significance as migrant routes.

Competing with China – the Belt and Road Initiative

China’s increasing engagement in Africa has received a lot of attention, especially the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). With Global Gateway, the EU can somewhat assert its interests vis-à-vis China. However, Beijing’s Silk Road Initiative remains a major challenge. In the last eight years, China has already invested around €180 bn in 46 African nations.

It is in Europe’s favour that Africa’s rulers and governments do not want to be dependent on China or Russia either but prefer to rely on several partners rather than just one. Moreover, the EU benefits from the fact that many African decision-makers have a European passport as a second passport, own real estate in Europe, and like to send their children to study there. In addition, important business and remittance relationships have grown through the African diaspora in Europe.

Long term challenges of Africa matter for Europe too

Africa, already negatively affected by the pandemic and the droughts, will have to deal with the immediate ramifications of the war for the time being. In the long term, even more demanding issues will arise. Africa will face a major demographic challenge. 16% of the world population, i.e., 1.3 bn people, currently live in Africa – a figure expected to double by 2050.

On the one hand, this demographic trend promises a young population that wants to shape its own future. On the other hand, it can also mean a significant potential for migration and protest if governments do not create adequate living and working conditions. The negative scenario is reinforced by the ever-worsening climate change crisis.

A Way Forward: More Investment

At the EU-AU summit, the heads of state of the 27 EU member states and 51 countries of the African Union agreed to work against this negative scenario with a new and bold investment strategy. The need for investment in Africa is huge, not only in climate protection but also in digitalisation, infrastructure, agriculture, and health. The African Development Bank estimates the need at €150 bn per year and marks an annual gap of €90 bn.

With its “Global Gateway” investment initiative, which aims to mobilise €300 bn between 2021 and 2027, the EU wants to finance infrastructure development around the world. EU Commission President von der Leyen announced that €150 bn of the initiative’s total of €300 bn will go to Africa in the form of annual payments of €20 bn. These €20 bn consist of €6 bn from EU funds. The rest comes from public money from EU member states and private investors.

This would still mean a substantial annual funding requirement of around €70 bn. Although this is a huge amount of money, it is not enough to cover Africa’s total demand for annual investment. The situation is further exacerbated by the retreat of democratic governance and functional institutions in Africa, which are essential for the investment to bear fruits. According to the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI), in 2019, half of all African states were democratically governed, while in 2022, the BTI classifies more than two-thirds of the 50 countries surveyed as autocracies.

Another way forward: Stick to the commitment

As Europe’s full diplomatic and economic focus has been re-directed to deal with the ramifications of the war in Ukraine, Africans are starting to doubt the EU’s commitments will be fulfilled. Already, most EU states have announced major increases in their military budgets, are scrambling to diversify their energy sources, and are dealing with an ever-worsening refugee crisis. Under these circumstances, it is possible that Africa may once again take a back seat in Europe’s priorities.

After the diplomatic highlights, the EU should stick to some important commitments given to the Africans. First is the implementation of the mRNA vaccine technology transfer. Second, review trade relations while building on functioning intraregional trade structures in Africa like the African Free trade Area (AfCFTA). Third, keep the investment promise made which must be underpinned by balanced but decisive political action as well as long breath.

About the author

Vasileios Chronas is an economist, currently working as an intern at the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe team.

Christian Hanelt is a Senior Expert for the EU Neighbourhood and the Middle East, working in the Program “Europe’s Future.” His areas of expertise include the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, the Israeli-Arab conflict, the EU’s relations with the Gulf region, economic developments in the Arab world, and the causes of flight and migration.  

Get Global Europe blog posts in your inbox. Sign up to receive our newsletter here.

Read More:

The EU and the Middle East: Exploring alternatives to Russian Energy

Putin’s War Raises Europe’s Costs in its Southern Neighbourhood

How the War Against Ukraine can Change the Global Economy

The international order in transition – How could the world look like tomorrow? Conclusion