European Union leaders launched high-level talks Wednesday with their African counterparts on migration, seeking to portray themselves as pragmatic partners but desperate to stem the flow of thousands setting out on dangerous voyages across the Mediterranean in search of better lives in Europe.
The leaders of France, Belgium and Luxembourg - all men aged around 40 - tried to distance themselves from Europe's dark colonial past in Africa, pledging to do business and invest in development and security on the continent and tackle the root causes of migration.
Migration is a key issue at the EU-Africa summit in Ivory Coast, pushed further into the public eye after recent footage of migrants at a slave auction in Libya drew international horror and condemnation.
“It's very important that we simply support Africans to put a stop to illegal migration, so people don't have to either suffer in horrible camps in Libya or are even being traded,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the start of the two-day summit in Abidjan.
On the eve of the meeting, French President Emmanuel Macron called the trafficking of African migrants a “crime against humanity” as he made his first major address on the continent before a crowd of university students in Burkina Faso.
Macron said he wants “Africa and Europe to help populations trapped in Libya by providing massive support to the evacuation of endangered people.” He did not elaborate, saying he would formally detail his proposal during the summit.
Already Burkina Faso's foreign affairs minister has recalled his ambassador from Libya, calling it “unacceptable to have slaves in this 21st century.”
Europe has struggled to slow the flow of tens of thousands of Africans making the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean through development aid and other means, including funds to tighten border controls. But many Africans feel pressured to make the journey, risking death and abuse, saying high unemployment and climate change leave them little choice.
Around 3,000 drown or go missing annually in attempts to cross the Mediterranean in unseaworthy boats, but with Africa's population forecast to rise significantly in coming decades many more are likely to take the risk.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has urged his European counterparts to work more closely with Africa on tackling migration and security, another issue high on the agenda as the threat of extremism grows in West Africa and elsewhere.
“What counts for us is the capacity to be efficient, pragmatic, in a win-win strategy that serves our mutual interests,” Michel, 41, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
“I come from a generation that sees Africa as a partner,” said Michel, who travelled to Abidjan with his Luxembourg counterpart Xavier Bettel, seeking to portray the younger face of a pragmatic Europe. “There is no more room in our generation for nostalgia about the past or a sense of guilt.”
Macron, 39, also emphasized his youth, referring to himself as the child of “a generation that has never known Africa as a colonized continent.”