After seven years of advocating for full membership, the African Union (AU) will join the Group of 20 “most important industrialised and developing economies”. It becomes the second regional bloc to join the group after the 27-member European Union (EU).
The G20 was established after the 1999 Asian financial crisis as an informal grouping of ministers of finance and central bank governors. It grew out of the G7, which was formed in 1975 to deal with another complex global financial and economic crisis.
Since 2008, the G20 has met at the level of heads of state and government. Its agenda has been broadened beyond finance and economics to include, among other issues, climate change, disaster risk reduction and health.
The G20 is currently made up of 19 member states (including South Africa) plus the EU. These members collectively account for about 85% of global economic output, more than 75% of global trade and about two-thirds of the world population. The AU’s 55 member states, on the other hand, bring only about 3% of global economic output, but a population of 1.4-billion.
Based on my research on the AU, and my experience as an adviser to the African Union Commission (the AU’s secretariat) for 18 years, my view is that membership of the G20 is an important complement to the union’s existing multilateral and bilateral strategic partnerships.
The AU hopes to use its G20 membership to give member states a greater voice on key global issues and to make a stronger contribution to the ongoing renegotiation of the global order. But a major challenge will be to find a structured way to arrive at common African positions and speak on behalf of member states.
The AU has developed its external relations primarily through multilateral and bilateral strategic partnerships.
Multilaterally, strategic partnerships with the United Nations and the EU are of key importance (the League of Arab States plays less of a role). Bilaterally, China, India, Japan, South Korea and Turkey are currently considered key strategic partners. And last year, the African Union Commission participated in the United States-Africa Leaders summit.
There is no routine process through which states are categorised as strategic partners. And to date the AU has struggled to develop a coherent policy for managing these partnerships. However, being a full member of the G20 now opens up the possibility to take collective African positions on strategic questions to the global table.
The continental concerns it can raise include debt relief, trade integration, financing the management of climate change and public health management.
The African Union and the global order
However, in the major global policymaking forums, member states of the AU don’t speak with one voice. This holds true for the UN General Assembly (as the African vote on Russia’s war against Ukraine demonstrates). And often also for the so-called A3 – the three African non-permanent members of the UN Security Council (Gabon, Ghana and Mozambique).
Yet, in a limited number of policy fields, the AU has managed to come up with what it refers to as “common positions”. These have been created and legitimised in different ways, and have a mostly diffuse legal binding effect on member states.
The most prominent of these common positions is the 2005 Ezulwini consensus on reform of the UN Security Council to increase African representation in the council and provide the continent with two permanent seats with veto rights. But there are also common positions on other important global questions. These include mining, the post-2015 development agenda and asset recovery from illicit financial flows.
The African Union Commission needs a clear definition of what “common positions” are, and how they can be achieved politically and domesticated legally by member states.
To develop more common positions, the 55 AU member states would have to delegate more state sovereignty to the union. There are some lessons from the EU’s experience. The EU has developed more than 300 common positions. These have been adopted by the EU Council and approved by the EU Parliament. In these cases, the union’s member states have ceded real sovereignty to the EU Commission.
It will be interesting to see how the AU will prepare African positions to be tabled to the G20. They will likely be prepared by the continental body’s ministerial specialised technical committees. In the G20 realm, I expect the committee on finance, monetary affairs, economic planning and integration to play a strong role. This will likely be in cooperation with the technical committee on economic development, tourism, trade, industry and mining.
However, the legal way in which member states can express their agreement or disagreement with common positions needs to be defined.
Membership in the G20 represents a great opportunity. But Africa’s attempts to speak with one voice must be strengthened. And coordination processes must be created at the level of finance ministers and central bank governors, among others. These will ensure that the AU makes use of its membership in a global negotiating and decision-making platform.