Much has been written this week about Africa in celebration of Africa Day. But celebrating Africa Day, which commemorates the founding in 1963 of what we know today as the African Union (AU), is arguably as much about the continent as it is about Africa’s place in the world and its relations with its partners.
On 25 May in 1963, African leaders spoke about their vision and yearning for African unity. Similarly, some 13 years earlier, not long after World War II, the then French foreign minister Robert Schuman on 9 May 1950 laid the foundation of what we today know as the EU when he presented his vision for peace, solidarity and unity based on economic integration in Europe.
While still relatively young, both the AU and the EU have evolved considerably since they were first conceived. Both organisations share a conviction in multilateral co-operation as a key to sustainable development. Both organisations have evolved over time in a process that has not been without challenges, but nevertheless has delivered concrete achievements.
A fine example is the AU’s launch, on 1 January this year, of the African Continental Free Trade Area while South Africa chaired the organisation. The leadership by the Africa Centre for Disease Control Africa CDC in response to the Covid-19 pandemic is another. On the European side, over the past 70 years, a coal and steel industry integration project between six countries evolved into a solid political union of 27 member states built on a solid institutional framework. In 2012 the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its contribution to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.
In 2017, African and European leaders met for their fifth EU-Africa Summit in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Notably, youth was a central theme in Abidjan – youth featured prominently in the summit’s formal declaration and were able to participate through the EU-Africa Youth Summit run in parallel. Since then a number of trend-setting joint youth projects, including both young Africans and Europeans, have been initiated. They have brought together young people to translate our shared objectives into concrete action related to issues including climate change, peace, economic development and the exercising of democratic rights.
In support of democracy, the partners – the EU and the AU – work across the continent with governments and civil society. In many African countries election observation, both by the AU and the EU, has been welcomed and is part of the international electoral scene. Similarly, the Electoral Commission of South Africa was welcomed to observe the last European elections in 2019.
In the end, however, relations between our two unions are about people. People-to-people contact is a key element in mutual understanding and for international peace across borders. Art and culture are among the strongest and most beautiful tools to express humanity, unity and solidarity across nations and among people.
To celebrate the AU 2021 Year of Arts, Culture and Heritage, the EU-Africa project Street HeArt: Two continents, one beat, was launched this year in Addis Ababa, seat of the AU. Four artists – one each from Ghana, Italy, South Africa and Spain were selected from 240 applicants for an arts graffiti project. The results were four huge, vibrant and colourful street murals. The message of unity, solidarity and peace expressed through the art of South African artist Wesley van Eeden is particularly powerful, conveying a strong message of hope.
People-to-people co-operation will remain central in the EU’s engagement with the AU, and more broadly, with Africa.