The African Union chief on Thursday highlighted “differences” over topics such as international justice and gay rights at a meeting with the European Union intended to deepen the partnership between the two continents.
Thursday’s talks marked the second visit by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to AU headquarters in the Ethiopian capital in less than three months.
“Certainly, we have our differences. International criminal justice, sexual orientation and identity, the death penalty, the centrality of the African Union in certain crises, etcetera,” Moussa Faki Mahamat, chair of the African Union Commission, said in remarks opening a meeting between AU and EU leaders.
Calling these differences “normal”, Faki said they could be overcome only with “recognition and acceptance”.
In December von der Leyen chose to visit the AU on her first trip outside Europe after taking her post, a decision she said at the time was intended to send a “strong political message” about Europe’s partnership with Africa.
Von der Leyen is in the process of preparing a new “Africa Strategy” for the EU, due to be unveiled in early March.
In her own remarks Thursday, she said the two continents were “natural partners” and stressed areas of cooperation like trade and the fight against climate change.
Later at a press conference she said she believed the two blocs could work through the disagreements Faki had pointed out.
“This is what the essence of a good partnership and a good friendship is. You build on a solid foundation with common projects you can work on, and you’re able to mark very clearly where differences are,” she said. “We try to convince but we acknowledge that there are different positions.”
“We should not follow the notion of expecting the African Union to adapt to the European Union,” she added.
The majority of African countries criminalise same-sex sexual acts.
Various African countries have resisted efforts to try African leaders at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. In 2017, Burundi became the first country to pull out of the court altogether.
-Contrasts with China-
Europe was expected to use Thursday’s talks to promote trade and economic cooperation in response to “the flood of Chinese investment in the continent”, said Mikaela Gavas, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, an international non-profit foundation.
But the question of human rights remains a major potential barrier to deeper cooperation, Gavas said.
“African countries will not want to be lectured on governance and human rights,” she said.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs minister, drew a distinction between European and Chinese engagement in Africa, saying that China “gives nothing” while Europe is “a big donor”.
“We have a development vision that’s different from the Chinese vision,” he told AFP, adding that EU leaders stressed political freedoms, human rights and other topics to which the Chinese are “not as attentive”.
Borrell was set to stay on in Ethiopia Friday to meet with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is trying to steer the country toward landmark elections in August.
He will then head to Sudan, which is going through its own transition after longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir was toppled last year.
“Ethiopia and Sudan are two big lights of hope” for Europe, Borrell said. “We have a great interest that the Ethiopian and Sudanese experiences do not shatter.”