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Expectations high as AU-EU summit kicks off in Brussels

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EU and African leaders meet for a two-day summit starting Thursday, seeking to reboot ties with pledges of major investment in the face of competition from China and Russia.

Relations have been hampered by a raft of problems: from disputes over coronavirus vaccine supplies to curbing illegal migration, a wave of coups in Africa, and the growing clout of Russian mercenaries in Africa.

"Our common ambition, Africans and Europeans, for this summit, is to achieve a renewed, modernized and more action-oriented partnership," said Senegal's President Macky Sall, who currently chairs the African Union.

President Emmanuel Macron of France, whose country holds the European Union's rotating presidency, hopes the first joint summit since 2017 can burnish his grand ambition of forging an "economic and financial New Deal with Africa".

The EU is aiming to convince the 40 African leaders in Brussels that Europe is their "most reliable partner" by fleshing out an investment initiative that aims to mobilise 150 billion euros ($170 billion) of public and private funds over the next seven years.

The scheme is the first regional part of the EU's Global Gateway -- a $300-billion-euro worldwide investment blueprint meant to rival China's Belt and Road initiative.

The EU is eyeing an initial dozen ambitious projects to bolster internet access, transport links and renewable energy as it seeks to provide an alternative to cheap loans from Beijing.

But details on funding remain vague, and the projects are still to be agreed on with the African side.

African leaders are instead pushing for a far more concrete step of getting EU nations to allow the International Monetary Fund to allocate tens of billions of dollars in further aid.

- Coups, mercenaries, Mali -

The summit, involving a series of roundtable discussions, comes at a worrying time for Africa after a wave of military coups and as regional powerhouse Ethiopia is wracked by conflict.

Burkina Faso last month joined Guinea, Mali and Sudan as the fourth country frozen out by the AU after disgruntled soldiers toppled the elected president.

Those four will not be represented in Brussels.

As Europe grapples with a feared Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is also unsettled by the rising clout of Russian mercenaries in some of Africa's most volatile hotspots.

Shadowy paramilitary outfit Wagner, alleged to have close ties to the Kremlin, is accused of bolstering Moscow's geopolitical ambitions.

Western nations have condemned the reported arrival of its mercenaries in Mali's capital Bamako to help protect a junta that seized power last year. Mali's rulers deny hiring Wagner.

France announced on Thursday that it was withdrawing troops from Mali due to a breakdown in relations with the junta, after nearly 10 years of fighting a jihadist insurgency.

European governments fear turmoil in the region risks leaving a vacuum that movements tied to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group could exploit.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc was weighing up the future of its military training mission in Mali.

An EU official said that in a bid to bolster broader stability, Brussels planned to increase funding for African peacekeeping missions across the continent.

- Vaccines -

The fight against the Covid-19 pandemic is also set to be a major topic at the summit.

Africa has been angered by what it sees as the unfair distribution of coronavirus vaccines worldwide that has left it lagging woefully behind.

South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa has accused the West of giving his continent only the "crumbs from their table" as the EU has rebuffed a push for a temporary patent waiver to allow the generic production of vaccines.

The EU -- the world's biggest vaccine exporter -- points to over 400 million jabs it has contributed to the global Covax vaccine-sharing initiative and is promising to give Africa 450 million doses by mid-2022.

It says it will increase funding to help health systems on the continent get jabs into arms, and has pledged one billion euros to bolster future vaccine production in Africa.

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