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Brussels – A Hub for European-African Relations?

OPINION Antidius Kaitu, Karl Lindenstruth, Lena Scheibinger 29 October 2021

At the end of September members and friends of the Chair of African Legal Studies spent three days in the political capital of Europe Brussels. The purpose of the study trip was establishing closer connections with European institutions, research organisations and other bodies dealing with the Europe-Africa relationship. The intended networking was achieved through a series of presentations and discussions on the dynamic and complex relations between the European Union (EU) and its counterpart the African Union (AU).

For most of us the journey started early Monday morning by train from Bayreuth. With the expected delay we arrived in Brussels-North, where our tightly planned program started immediately.

Our headquarter for the three upcoming days was the Representation of the State of Hessen, Germany. Here we were warmly welcomed before the actual program began in the  afternoon with a meeting with Mrs. Yvette Gafinen from the European Liaison Office of the German Research Organizations. She informed us that the role of the current ten consultants in Brussels is to advise actors of the German research community on the research programmes of the EU and to offer trainings on the application for European research funds. Importantly, she brought to our attention the idea of the European Research Area in which researches, scientific knowledge and technology circulate freely. Within this scientific union the  new EU framework programme for research and innovation for 2021-2027,called Horizon Europe, is of special significance.

Our first day ended with a meeting and dinner with Mr. Frank Schwalba-Hoth. As a former Member of Parliament (MEP) and long-term networker in Brussels he presented an interesting curriculum vitae and gave us an even more remarkable and memorable evening with various guests, which probably no one will ever forget. During small group discussions, we particularly profited from their comprehensive knowledge and practical hints for entering European institutions as young students and graduates like us.

After having breakfast and coffee at our accommodation the next day, we started at our “headquarter” again. Starting off this time was a videoconference with Prof. Dr. Sven Simon. He is a current MEP and Professor for international law and as such a fascinating interlocutor. Especially his insights into the activities of the Committee for International Trade and the Committee for Constitutional Affairs as well as his experiences with the Conference of the Future of Europe proved to be a great foundation for a lively question-and-answer session.

After a short detour to the Hanns Seidel Foundation, we continued directly to the Directorate-General for International Partnerships of the European Commission. The two different presentations about the daily work of the EU in and with African states, as well as the insight into the functioning of the EU Commission were very instructive and went by surprisingly fast. Our interlocuter Mrs. Sarah Kramer explained that the Commission has refrained from continuing the usage of terms such as “development aid” and has replaced it by seemingly progressive alternatives like “international co-operation”. These acts of rebranding shall underline the shift from a donor-recipient-relationship to a partnership of equals. One of the issues discussed was the communication paper “Towards a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa”, emphasising the opportunities the young continent can draw from. In this context it must be added that our perception of the co-operative work between AU and EU is exclusively based on the perspective of Brussels.

The next meeting took place at the county’s representation once again. There we met Mrs. Karin Lukas-Eder from the Bavarian Research Alliance. Like the presentation at the Hanns Seidel Foundation this appointment was less about the African-European relationship but rather about the organization itself. It was nevertheless interesting since it greatly visualised how many different networks and organizations exist in Brussels and that even universities from Bavaria have their own lobby.

Afterwards we had a meeting with Mr. Alexander Göbel, who works at the ARD Studio Brussels. He used to be the ARD’s correspondent for North and West Africa based in Rabat for seven years and was able to tell many remarkable stories of his experiences and how he experienced the representation of African states in the European media now. Especially, as much of our knowledge about foreign countries comes from newspapers it was exiting to hear how newspapers and reporters’ views sometimes diverge and what problems news coverage can face. As an independent journalist Mr. Göbel is not affiliated with the European institutions and thereby could offer a more critical perspective challenging the official narratives of the European Commission. After that, we spent the now free evening enjoying food in a cosy restaurant, while playing games and being entirely confused by the number of beers to choose from.

Returning to our “headquarter” the next morning, we met a representative from the Africa-Europe Foundation. A newly founded think tank, evenly spread in Africa and Europe, with the ambitious goal to rethink and reconfigure the AU-EU partnership. After this informative and new-ways-showing talk, we spent the rest of the day wandering around the city, eating fries and sight-seeing, before traveling back home.

Looking back, the trip has been highly educational in many ways. We had the opportunity to receive insights into the often-confusing political life of Brussels, met interesting people and listen to different views on the AU-EU relationship. Even if some of these views collided, is it exactly this kind of discussion that we need to reframe and reinforce the African-European partnership. And of course, it was fun!

We would like to express our thanks to every institution that we had the opportunity to meet with and of course René Brosius who made this entire trip possible in the first place.

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