New EU chief pledges to back Africa on Ethiopia trip

By Agence France-Presse

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

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, her first trip outside Europe since being appointed (AFP Photo/EDUARDO SOTERAS) European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, her first trip outside Europe since being appointed (AFP Photo/EDUARDO SOTERAS)

The former German defense 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 neighbor."

Von der Leyen, who has prioritized the fight against climate change in her brief time as commission president, 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 mobilization 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, a European source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

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.

The EU is Africa's largest trading partner and the 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 signaled they want to shift away from providing stipends for troops in places such as Somalia, where the EU is the 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.

Following meetings with Faki and Abiy, von der Leyen, the commission's first woman president, plans to meet Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde, the first woman to hold that title.