Alex Vines
Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; Head, Africa Programme

The approaching third summit of African and EU Heads of States in Tripoli should be used by the new UK coalition government to signal it takes Africa seriously. Africa is increasingly seen by European policy makers as a continent of opportunity rather than humanitarian crisis. The United Kingdom risks missing a key opportunity to show it wants to mature its relations with Africa if it fails to send Cabinet level representation to the upcoming EU-Africa summit.

These summits are becoming increasingly important. Britain plays an important role in Africa as a former colonial power and now a key development and trade partner to a number of African states. At the second EU-Africa summit in Lisbon in 2007, a Joint Africa-EU Strategy was agreed. Yet Tony Blair failed to attend the first in Cairo in 2000 and controversy over inviting Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe delayed the second summit for some years, until Tony Blair agreed to a compromise formula under which Mugabe would be invited, but the British government would stay away. His successor, Gordon Brown, dispatched Baroness Amos to the summit that December.

Yet this time, it is not fear of Mugabe that keeps senior British officials away but the shadow of the release of the Lockerbie bomber al-Megrahi by the Scottish government in August 2009. Currently it is possible that Britain will be represented by Foreign Office Minister of State, Henry Bellingham. The Minister of State has been active on Africa in his short time in office. His presence at the summit will be important, and both he and the Foreign Secretary have demonstrated a refreshing willingness to engage with African governments on equal terms. Yet status and signals are carefully scrutinised across Africa, and the failure to send cabinet level representation will not be overlooked. The UK risks again losing out as many of the UK's EU partners will be represented at senior level. Currently, sixteen heads of EU governments will be attending including from Germany, France, Italy and Spain and they will enjoy advantage over the UK in obtaining bilateral meetings with their counterparts in Tripoli with African heads.

The summit is not important for Britain just from a bilateral perspective but also because the EU-Africa relationship is increasingly important. The EU is by far the largest donor to and trade partner with Africa, dwarfing both the US and China (for now) on both counts. Working through the EU, the UK and other member states can still compete with Africa's emerging power partners even in the aftermath of deep cuts - a very good deal for UK taxpayers.

A stronger framework is therefore important and this is why the Joint Africa-EU Strategy and its efforts to overcome the traditional donor-recipient relationship is important. There has been some progress in key areas such as peace and security but less on climate change, migration, governance and human rights and on trade.

This all requires constructive and open debate, to reach common agreements on issues of common interest. Britain should be represented at senior level, to ensure that our African partners see that the new government in Britain takes the continent seriously and wishes to engage in serious multilateral and bilateral dialogue. Anything less, risks signalling that the coalition government doesn't sufficiently value the AU as an emerging institution and is unwilling to engage in the messy but essential process of making EU engagement work for Africa and the UK.