Ever since, in March 2020, the European Union (EU) issued its proposed African strategy with the release of the Joint Communication Towards a new Comprehensive strategy with Africa, reference has been made to the 6th European Union-African Union (EU-AU) Summit, which was to be held in Brussels in the fall of the same year, as a topical moment for the redefinition of the partnership between the two continents. Just a few weeks before, in anticipation of the work on drawing up the partnership, the European Commission had brought the largest ever delegation of Commissioners to the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa, reflecting the investment on these aspirations. Three years after the previous summit held in Abidjan, the attention shown towards the forthcoming summit signalled not only the centrality of Africa for the European Commission, but also the importance attached to this type of gathering, which brings together high-profile figures at moments of high diplomatic as well as symbolic value.
The outbreak of Covid-19 imposed a setback on this process, with the summit postponed until it was finally confirmed for February 2022, but the attention on this process remained high, as the run-up to the summit was marked by the EU-AU ministerial meeting held in Kigali, in November 2021. The Turkey-Africa summit and the Arab-Africa summit, initially scheduled to be held in 2020, had been similarly postponed because of the pandemic. These suspensions are hiccups in a scenario that in recent years has seen a rich agenda of international meetings between African countries and international partners. After a rather quiet 2020, the end of 2021 saw the summitry machinery pick up the pace with two high-profile meetings: the 8th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Dakar, in November, and the 3rd Turkey-Africa Summit in Istanbul, in December. The months ahead prospect intense diplomatic exchanges as well, as the EU-AU Summit opens a series of encounters between African heads of government and international partners, from Russia to the United States, from Japan to Saudi Arabia.
High-level summits with external partners are far from new in Africa’s external relations. The format of heads of state summits to be held regularly was inaugurated by France in 1973 with the Sommet France-Afrique, initially with francophone countries, later expanding them to the entire continent. More recently, Japan formalised the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in 1993. It was soon followed by the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000. In 2008, India and Turkey also formalised their relations with the continent through the framework of the India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) and the Turkey-Africa Summit, respectively. Two years later, a forum with the Arab states was held again in Sirte, a long time after the first edition in Cairo in 1977.
As for Europe, the EU inaugurated its first summit with Africa in 2000 in Cairo, but a number of European states also set up national initiatives. Apart from the French summit, which was renamed in 2010 as Sommet Afrique-France, in recent years more and more European countries have taken similar initiatives, although only occasionally at heads of state level. Rome hosted the Italy-Africa Ministerial Conference in 2016, 2018 and 2021, Hungary held the Budapest Africa Forum (2013, 2015, 2018), while Germany made an ad hoc Compact with Africa a central point of its G20 presidency in 2017. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of meetings involving heads of state, ministries, but also business communities and civil society. As figure 1 shows, if one considers only summits involving heads of government, seven such meetings were held in the 1990s; between 2000 and 2009, these had doubled, with the inauguration of meetings with Beijing, Brussels, Istanbul, and New Delhi. Between 2010 and 2019, the number had risen to 20, with new players entering the field: not only the resumed forum with Arab states, but also the US-Africa Leaders’ summit of 2014 and Russia’s Sochi Summit of 2019. The latter two have so far only had one edition, but they both will be repeated in 2022. In the space of three decades, ‘summitry’ events between African countries and a non-African state have almost tripled in number, and after the brief suspension of 2020, the pace seems set to get tighter than before.
While Covid-19 had a heavy impact on Africa’s economies, a glance at the calendar of upcoming events suggests that Africa is anything but isolated in the international context. The structural trends that have characterized the last decade continue to positively mark the continent's appeal, despite the uncertainties dictated by the economic shock caused by the pandemic, security issues in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, and the proliferation of coups d'état. The interest of international players towards the continent is also visible in the inauguration, or reinforcement, of their diplomatic missions on the continent. An example of this blossoming is Turkey, whose embassies have risen from 12 to 43 in the last twenty years, but numbers and coverage also went up for Gulf states (first and foremost Qatar), Japan, Brazil, India, and various European countries, while China has also consolidated its presence.
In a context of increasingly fierce competition, summits are an opportunity for the interlocutors to show their competitive advantages, clarify their priorities and the core values of their foreign policy: from the EU promoting the message of overcoming the logic of dependence towards a "partnership of equals", to China's pragmatic approach based on non-interference, through new players like Turkey, who present themselves as an alternative to the continent's traditional partners.
From an African point of view, this scenario offers new room for maneuver, allowing African governments to attract much-needed foreign investments and economic cooperation, diversify their partners and sources of financing, decrease dependence on traditional donors, and reduce risks of political neglect. This is also reflected by the ability of these international events to attract large numbers of heads of state, sometimes greater than participation in the United Nations General Assembly itself.
A timely example of how summits are catalysers of financial commitments from international partners are the pledges that have been made on vaccine donations. In a context in which only 11% of the African population is fully vaccinated, health has become a central topic in summit agendas. In the summit in Istanbul, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised the donation of 15 million doses in the coming months, calling the lack of access to vaccines in Africa "a disgrace for humanity". At the latest FOCAC, Beijing made ambitious promises on the health front, including the delivery of a further billion doses of vaccines. Health and vaccine production is high on the agenda of issues to be debated at the Brussels summit as well.
The pandemic has posed additional challenges on the agendas of countries of both continents, leading to a recalibration of the priorities of the partnership towards health, fight to poverty, and economic recovery. In a context of geopolitical competition that presents the African continent with diversified partnership opportunities, the summit therefore comes at a moment calling on Europe to reassert the added value of an alignment between the 'twin continents' on a global scale through tangible initiatives.
Before 2022 comes to an end, the EU-AU Summit will be followed by the US-Africa Leaders’ summit, which is meant to reverse the neglect of Africa that prevailed under the Trump administration, the Russian summit (possibly in October-November), for which foreign minister Sergej Lavrov promised “concrete proposals”, the TICAD in Tunisia, and a Saudi summit: this string of high profile conferences due to take place over the next few months will give us a sense of how key players position themselves with regard to Africa’s evolving scenario.