Ambassador Birgitte N. Markussen

“A Strong Africa is Important for Europe.”

Ashenafi EndaleJune 15, 2021229

Ambassador Birgitte N. Markussen, is Head of the European Union Delegation to the African Union as of September 2020. She has previously worked as Director at the European External Action Service (EEAS), beginning 2016 and also as Director of the Africa Department at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Her office in Addis Ababa is currently working on a range of packages introduced to strengthen the relationship between the two neighborly continents. With pressing issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and migration, Markussen delves passionately into peace and security, investment and development, and even the future integration of the two continents. She argues a strong Africa is essential for a strong Europe. Addisu Derese, special to EBR, sat down with Ambassador Markussen. Excerpts follow.

What do you think are the major achievements of the European Union (EU) Delegation to the African Union (AU) over the past 10 years?
The EU Delegation to the AU was established towards the end of 2008, only about a year after the adoption of the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES). This was the starting point of the deepening of our neighborly continent-to-continent partnership. Our work includes both dialogue on political and policy issues, longer-term cooperation, institution building, and the sharing of our unique EU experience of integration.

We have significantly increased the exchange of students through the Erasmus+ Program, in which, by the end of 2020, more than 35,000 students were studying. The aim is to triple this by 2027. Erasmus+ firstly includes important opportunities for African researchers to go to Europe and also travel across the African continent. Secondly, it comprises joint EU-African research projects, which have significantly increased and are expected to expand further under the new Horizon Europe Research Fund. Thirdly, an AU-EU Youth Cooperation Hub has been created and an EU Innovation Fund of EUR10 million was set-up to pilot projects with and for young people from both continents. Fourthly, policy exchange is happening in the context of the AU’s work on the harmonization of higher education systems, including the recognition of qualifications and mobility of students.

We play the leading role in debt relief and rollout of the COVAX Facility. COVAX deliveries have had a good start in March/ April with 18 million doses delivered to 43 African countries. We have also launched a Team Europe (the EU and our member states) initiative to support the AU continental COVID strategy under the leadership of the Africa Centers for Disease Control (Africa CDC), which aims to assist in the crucial work of prevention, surveillance, testing, and vaccine roll out. The latest achievement is the launch of an initiative to boost vaccine manufacturing capacities in Africa.

Through the African Peace Facility, the EU has supported AU peace-keeping troops in Somalia and ECOWAS troops in The Gambia, as well as the Multinational Joint Task Force in Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, in their fight against Boko Haram.

The flagship initiative driving this strategic priority in investments and structural transformation has been the Africa-Europe Alliance for Sustainable Investments and Jobs, launched in September 2018. Under the alliance, EUR4.6 billion of EU grants leveraged, via blending, EUR44 billion of public and private investments by the end of 2020. Since the Abidjan Summit in 2017, with the rapid emergence of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the EU has been actively engaged to share some of our own experiences and has supported the negotiations and the upcoming implementation of the AfCFTA with over EUR72 million thus far.

In energy, EU-supported projects have delivered more than 5 GW of renewable energy generation capacity in Africa. This work is being accompanied by sharing EU expertise towards the creation of the African Single Electricity Market.

Overall, the EU has over the last six years allocated approximately EUR1 billion annually to support infrastructure development across Africa. Since 2014, 50,000 kilometers of roads have been constructed, rehabilitated, or maintained.

EU and AU are also working closely together in sharing experiences and building the base for the future AU single digital market. One activity is through the EU-supported Policy and Regulation Initiative for Digital Africa. Besides the policy or software work, the EU is very engaged in supporting the hardware delivery with, for instance, the “Multinational Trans-Saharan Backbone (TSB) Optical Fiber Project,” interconnecting Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad. Just to mention a few.

On migration and mobility, we have moved into constructive policy dialogue and successful joint operations in recent years. In the framework of the EU-AU-UN Libya Task Force, 100,000 people have been assisted in voluntary returns. We have also ensured evacuations from Libya and have worked 24/7 to protect vulnerable people affected by conflict and tackle irregular migration. In parallel, the Continent-to-Continent Policy Dialogue on Migration and Mobility has become regular and is making progress on joint challenges, such as combatting trafficking, improving conditions for the transfer of remittances, safe returns and reintegration.

In our globalized world it is only through multilateral action that the challenges of our times (climate change, digital transition, pandemics, migration, etc.) can be effectively addressed.

How have Europe-Africa relations progressed over the years?
Our relations have come a long way. Just look at what we have achieved over the past 10 years. To me, how we have cooperated on fighting the COVID crisis is an important example. I am very happy to see the delivery of concrete vaccine doses, our support to Africa CDC leadership, and the vaccine roll out in Africa. Another recent example that shows how our partnership has evolved is the Quartet meetings between AU, EU, UN, and IGAD on the situation in Somalia. Here AU and EU, together with other multilateral partners, have played an important role throughout the crisis.

The US and France’s decision, for example, to militarily intervene in Libya has turned that nation from an African economic powerhouse to a breeding ground for terrorism, which now is also a security threat to Europe itself. Wasn’t your institution supposed to take the lead for conversations before such historically disastrous decisions are made?
I must make a few comments to the premise of your question. Libya was an important economic actor of the region, if not the continent, but faced serious issues related to democracy, protection of human rights, etc. Economically, more than 30Pct of the population was unemployed towards the end of the regime. When the Arab Spring spread across the region and protest broke out, we witnessed further difficulties. With the risk of chemical weapons, the situation risked turning very dark indeed. Had nobody intervened, perhaps I would be answering a question from you why the EU abandoned the Libyan people in their hour of need. It is a counterfactual, impossible to prove either way. What is important to note is that the situation was not as black and white as some may want to present. Dialogue and conversation are critical now, as ever.

The impact of the disintegration of Libya is still being felt on the continent and specifically in the Sahel. If anything, the example of Libya shows us the importance of preventive diplomacy, coherence, and consistency of the international community. Very often, in inter-state or intra-state conflicts, there is no easy answer.

On common foreign policy, since the Lisbon Treaty the EU made progress with the creation of the European External Action Service, the EEAS. This is the reason I am sitting here right now. Based on the Lisbon Treaty, the EEAS aims for further integration and coordination between our member states for the benefit of our citizens and the world at large. However, the organization is only 10 years old now, so still quite young.

Looking ahead, the Libya Quartet is an example, where our two organizations present a coordinated approach, jointly with the League of Arab States and the UN. Similarly, the AU Peace and Security Council has commended the work done by the AU-UN-EU Task Force to rescue stranded migrants and refugees in Libya, and we believe that the Task Force could be an avenue for the three organizations to also work jointly on other dimensions of the situation in Libya.

So, are you saying we hope that will never happen again?
It is very difficult in this changing world to predict the future. The EU is an institution based on multilateralism, on discussion and conversation, and on the rule of law. The EU works for non-military solutions to crises around the globe. However, not everyone around the world shares this approach, and there are regions of the world where some prefer their might to speak for them.

Europe and Africa have had quite a bad history that has left a sour taste in the mouth of many Africans. Still, some countries like France are accused of continuing colonial-era economic arrangements with a dozen of African countries. Do you think the partnership you are seeking to achieve will succeed without addressing such an elephant in the room?
In any partnership with Africa, it is essential to have an honest and sincere conversation about our past, including the most problematic aspects of our history. Specifically related to France, I suggest you ask the French ambassador here in Addis. However, you seem to refer to the “Franc Zone”, which has been reformed and many falsehoods have recently circulated about that. The countries that are currently using the CFA do so because they believe it serves their national interest, just like members of the Eurozone do.

Some of our member states have a problematic history on the continent. This cannot be denied, and is not being denied. However, while recognizing past atrocities, correcting mistakes is important. But narratives focused only on our negative history has only one goal: to divide Europe and Africa. Our fates are inextricably linked. Europe and Africa can together be a multilateral beacon for the future and the world. A strong Europe is good for Africa, just as a strong Africa is good for Europe.

In this context I feel excited by the AU’s recent steps towards economic integration, in particular the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). We know what massive benefits the EU economic integration has delivered to our own formerly war-torn continent. A flourishing integrated Africa will provide more opportunities for the EU and help the neighboring continents integrate economically as equals, including through a future continent to continent free trade agreement.

Former French President Jacques Chirac famously once said, France would have been a very poor country, had it not been for Africa. Does the issue of continued colonial-era economic arrangements surface during your summits or at other times with your African colleagues?
If these perceptions are still there let us get them on the table and discuss. Europe’s colonial past is an important issue in today’s public debate and is examined critically and very openly by European historians and the public at large.

History however, is never linear. It would be a mistake to assign fixed identities. Our memory should not be selective. In fact, the EU was conceived on the ruins of two World Wars. The European Union itself represents a separation from the imperial mindset of might makes right, and instead our union has unleashed a cascade of inclusive institutions that form the essence of the EU.

We represent new generations and should look to the future, learning from our past. An important message from President Charles Michel during the AU Summit last year was that the changing Europe is looking at Africa with fresh eyes—with respect, optimism, and confidence. Today we have global issues to deal with that require our partnerships.

One of the things that the EU is known for is election observing, not only in Africa but globally. Ethiopia is nearing elections. The government is promising a relatively better election than seen previously. Yet, the EU has given pre-conditions seen as unacceptable by the government. Could you have taken another more friendly and accommodative approach?
I cannot comment on the situation in Ethiopia as I am EU ambassador to the African Union – and not to Ethiopia. What I can say is that we have a large engagement with the African Union on election observation across Africa. Over the years, the EU has developed strong links with the AU Commission Electoral Division, contributing with substantial training, inviting officials to exchange programs, and providing long-term substantial funding to support AU electoral assistance and observation capacities. When being mandated to perform long-term observation missions with sufficient deployment of election observers, AU election observation missions nowadays deliver work of the highest quality.

Democratic values are the DNA of the EU. Therefore, the EU is also supporting Africa’s Governance Architecture (AGA) through continued financial and technical assistance to AGA governance and human rights organs such as the Banjul African Commission for Human and Peoples Rights, or the African Governance Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) monitoring scheme, contributing to promote, protect, and document democratic processes across the continent.

Countries with muscular economies, like China, are investing a lot on Africa’s infrastructural development. Where will that leave the economic, social, and political ties you are so keen to build with Africa?
The horizon of the EU’s partnership with the AU and Africa is measured in generations. Europe is Africa’s premier partner in terms of education, with 35,000 Erasmus+ students and, together with other EU member states’ programs, there were well over 200,000 African students in the EU in 2020.

In terms of FDI, we are at almost EUR350 billion, while China is at the level of EUR35 billion. A continent the size of Africa needs a lot of partners with a lot of investments and a more integrated economy. The big issue is to ensure credible partners, good investments, and a transparent economic integration process. Peace through economic integration that delivers prosperity to its citizens is the ultimate purpose of the EU, and it is still as relevant today for the AU and Africa as for the EU and Europe.

Access to COVID-19 vaccines has exposed the line of injustice between the rich and poor. What role is your institution playing to help Africa in this regard?
Team Europe (the EU and our member states) has mobilized a global recovery package of over EUR40 billion to help our partners across the world address the immediate health emergency and humanitarian needs, strengthen health systems, and support economic recovery and social protection.
As President von der Leyen said, “vaccination means freedom from fear.” No one will be safe until everyone is safe.

COVAX, initiated and supported by the EU, is the best vehicle for delivering on international vaccine solidarity and we welcome the first batches of deliveries. To date, Team Europe has announced over EUR2.6 billion, including EUR1 billion from the EU’s budget, for the COVAX Facility to help secure 1.3 billion doses for 92 low and lower middle-income countries by the end of the year. The EU continues to export half of its vaccine production.

COVAX deliveries have had a good start in March/ April with 18 million doses delivered to 43 African countries and the second wave of deliveries expected in June to allow for further acceleration of vaccinations around the continent. But the situation is changing as we speak. I can only say that the EU is investing as much as possible to support delivery of vaccines in Africa and around the globe.

The EU is also working on setting up an EU mechanism to facilitate the sharing of vaccines, procured by EU member states through the EU’s advanced purchase agreements, to other countries, preferably through COVAX. That is leading our efforts to ensure fair and equitable access to vaccines.

A package of EUR100 million from our European Commission Humanitarian Office (ECHO) has been allocated to support the implementation of the Africa CDC vaccination roll out strategy.

Last but not least, based on an AU, Africa CDC, and African leaders request for boosting of pharmaceutical production in Africa a Team Europe initiative on manufacturing and access to vaccines, medicines, and health technologies in Africa has been initiated at the G20 Global Health Summit in Rome on 21 May 2021. It is backed by EUR1 billion from the EU’s budget and European development finance institutions such as the European Investment Bank (EIB). This amount will be further enhanced by contributions from EU member states. This happens within the AU, Africa CDC and African leaders’ launch of the Partnership for African Vaccine Manufacturing (PAVM). EBR


9th Year • May 16 – Jun 15 2021 • No. 98

Ashenafi Endale


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