New EU chief pledges to back Africa on Ethiopia trip

Robbie BOULET
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European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, her first trip outside Europe since being appointed

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen assured Africa of the EU's strong support during a visit to Ethiopia on Saturday, her first trip outside Europe since assuming her post.

The former German defence minister, who took office on December 1, landed in the capital Addis Ababa in the morning and headed to the African Union headquarters for talks with AU chief Moussa Faki Mahamat.

"I hope my presence at the African Union can send a strong political message because the African continent and the African Union matter to the European Union and to the European Commission," she said after the meeting.

"For us, for the European Union, you are more than just a neighbour."

Von der Leyen, who has prioritised the fight against climate chang, said the EU and AU could collaborate on the issue.

"You here on the African continent understand climate change better than anyone else," she said.

She and Faki also discussed migration and security issues.

"Honestly I don't have all the answers to these challenges but I am convinced that together we can find answers," she said.

Faki for his part called for greater international mobilisation to counter security threats, including terrorism.

- 'We are at your side' -

Von der Leyen also met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, congratulating him on winning this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

"I think that Ethiopia has given hope to the whole continent," she said, adding that "I want you to know that we are at your side".

Abiy thanked her for the EU's support but said he hoped for more funding to spur economic reforms.

"We're still demanding more financial support because we are ambitious. As Madam President mentioned, when you are a young prime minister you are also more ambitious and you want to deliver more," said Abiy, who will receive his Nobel in Oslo on Tuesday.

The EU and Ethiopia also signed agreements worth 170 million euros ($188 million) on Saturday.

Of that sum, 100 million euros will go towards transport and infrastructure in the East African country, 50 million for the health sector, 10 million for job creation and 10 million for elections ahead of landmark polls next year.

Saturday's agenda also included a sit-down between von der Leyen, the commission's first woman president, and Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde, the first woman to hold that title.

Speaking to journalists after her meetings, von der Leyen said it was "important" for the EU to continue to support Abiy's ambitious reform agenda.

"They have started but we need a long breath to see the effects that these reforms are bringing along," she said.

- Migration and security -

The EU is Africa's largest trading partner and biggest source of foreign investment and development aid.

But the two blocs have struggled in recent years to find ways to curb the number of African migrants heading north to Europe using perilous sea routes.

Just this week at least 62 migrants died when a boat capsized off the coast of Mauritania.

Both African and European officials are keen to address the root causes of migration like poverty.

The EU has also been a strong supporter of the AU's peace and security efforts.

Its African Peace Facility, a mechanism established in 2004, has allocated more than 2.7 billion euros for peace and security operations, targeting 14 African-led operations in 18 countries.

Yet European officials have signalled they want to shift away from providing stipends for troops in places such as Somalia, where the EU is a main backer of the regional peacekeeping force known as AMISOM.

The AU has struggled to get member states to impose a 0.2 percent levy on eligible imports so the body can provide more of its own financing -- an initiative the EU supports.

So far just 17 African countries have followed through on that commitment.