The EU and the African Union have agreed on a united message on food security which places the blame for disruptions to food supply squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s shoulders amid warnings of a “catastrophic” famine.
“The key message is that we speak with one voice,” an EU source inside the summit room told EURACTIV, adding that this is essential if there is any hope of unblocking grain corridors and averting mass famine in Africa.
The key aim is to maintain the message that Russia bears sole responsibility for the current situation, rather than the sanctions imposed upon the country.
“What is important is that we are fully aligned in terms of messaging, that it’s not the sanctions, which are endangering the release of grains and cereals from Ukraine, or from the ports, such as in Odessa,” the source said.
The African Union will hold a meeting with President Putin in the coming days, the source added, meaning that it is particularly important to present a united front.
The news comes after the President of Senegal and Chair of the African Union, Macky Sall, addressed EU leaders on Tuesday (31 May) on behalf of the AU, where he was impressed by the gravity of the current situation.
While the crisis holds worldwide impact, many countries in Africa are particularly vulnerable given their reliance on Russian and Ukrainian food exports, combined with an already volatile food security situation.
Even before the conflict in Ukraine, data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization on the state of food security and nutrition in the world in 2020 indicated that 282 million people, or more than a third of the world’s undernourished people, live in Africa. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic plunged an extra 46 million Africans into risk of hunger and undernourishment.
“This means that the situation is worrying and that the worst may be yet to come if the current trend continues,” Sall warned, adding that, according to some estimates, cereal yields in Africa will fall by 20-50% this year.
Speaking during a press conference following the meeting, European Council President Charles Michel stressed that the war in Ukraine has “potentially serious ramifications” both for the EU and the African continent.
Sall urged EU leaders to do “everything possible” to free up available grain stocks and ensure transport and market access to avoid the “catastrophic scenario of shortages and widespread price hikes”.
This includes pooling means of action to “avoid overlapping and have a more significant impact”, he said.
Specifically, the President proposed that the EU and the African Development Bank (AfDB) examine how French President Emmanuel Macron’s FARM (Food & Agriculture Resilience Mission) initiative and the AfDB Emergency Plan could best support massive investment in agriculture.
The aim would be to use these tools to modernize and mechanize the sector with the latest innovative techniques to ensure appropriate fertilizer and pesticides use and improve storage capacities.
“What we lack, and what you can provide, is the financial and technological investment needed to produce more and better, and create shared prosperity,” Sall said.
For his part, Michel welcomed the idea, saying that the EU was “ready to take measures of support in the spirit of partnership” to help improve and strengthen production capacities in Africa.
EU leaders quiet on details of solidarity lanes
However, EU leaders had less to say on the practical aspects of the Commission’s proposal to create so-called ‘solidarity lanes’, which aim to establish alternative logistics routes for Ukrainian wheat using all relevant transport modes.
“It was not discussed in detail what these solidarity lanes would look like – it is up to the Commission to align messages and get the grain out,” a source said, adding this must be done in a “safe and productive way” for Ukraine .
Likewise, there was not any discussion on specific proposals, for example to create a corridor via Belarus, or Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov’s offer to use the Bulgarian Varna Sea port as an alternative route, the source confirmed.
However, he stressed that ministers were well aware that they were on a tight timeline. “If we don’t want stocks to go to waste, this has to be done urgently,” the source said.
Another EU source told EURACTIV that the issue was likely to be picked up again for the June summit, although the agenda is not yet certain.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]