Universities a key part of the EU’s Global Gateway

Exactly one week after coming into office, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen went on her first foreign trip to Addis Ababa, signalling that a strategic partnership with the African Union (AU), based in the Ethiopian capital, was a key priority.

The COVID-19 pandemic only strengthened the European Union’s geopolitical priorities, notably its concerns for Europe’s ‘strategic autonomy’ in relation, especially, to China. Thus, Von der Leyen marked the second anniversary of her taking office by announcing, on 1 December 2021, the Global Gateway strategy.

An alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (sometimes dubbed the Modern Silk Road initiative), the Global Gateway was to be a ‘template for how Europe can build more resilient connections with the world’, with a promise to mobilise up to €300 billion (about US$323.8 billion) between 2021 and 2027. Of this sum, half has been earmarked for African partners, and €45 billion for Latin American and Caribbean countries.

The Global Gateway has been criticised for being far less impressive than meets the eye. Rather than raising a lot of new cash for international partnerships, it repackaged many funding streams that already existed in the EU budget.

Nonetheless, it set a strategic frame for international partnerships, including a clear commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. It also committed the EU to developing the Global Gateway through equal partnerships, taking into account both the EU’s strategic priorities and the needs of partner countries.

If there is one actor for whom the Global Gateway is of acute concern in all its dimensions, it is universities.

Not only do ‘education and research’ constitute a distinct pillar of the Global Gateway, but its other four pillars (digital sector, climate and energy, transport, and health) crucially rely on university education and research for the sustainability of investment.

What came out of the first Global Gateway Forum?

So, when the first Global Gateway Forum was held in late October 2023, what were the take-home messages for universities?

The two-day forum was attended by an extraordinary array of around 30 leaders from key strategic geographies, led by the Chairman of the African Union, Azali Assoumani, also the president of the Comoros.

A clear focus on Africa was complemented by leaders from Albania, Armenia and other countries from the Western Balkans and the Caucasus, while leaders from Asia and Latin America ensured that this was a genuinely global event.

At its inception, the Global Gateway may have been belittled by critics. But, at the forum, support by those for whom it was intended was clear.

As important were the unambivalent expressions of support given by European heads of government, including the prime ministers of Spain and Belgium – the countries that hold the current and future presidency of the EU Council (of member states).

The endorsements by the EU’s national leaders signalled that the Global Gateway is likely to stay beyond the end of the current commission’s mandate in late 2024. We can, therefore, expect the Global Gateway to shape the EU’s policies (and financing) for international partnerships to 2027 and beyond.

Emphasis on education

In discussing the Gateway’s ‘education and research’ pillar, the forum placed a heavy emphasis on education. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the president of Somalia, urged investment in – and access to – schools, while Prime Minister Édouard Ngirente from Rwanda concurred that investment in education ‘is not a choice, it is a necessity’. Both underlined also the importance of investing in research to allow Africa to become less reliant on the agendas of private international donors.

Still, the urgency of boosting access to education was underlined most, with Jutta Urpilainen, the EU commissioner for international partnerships (and, herself, a former teacher), announcing a new Regional Teachers’ Facility to boost the professional development of teachers in Africa.

It was not until the forum discussed the Global Gateway’s health focus that the importance of higher education – through research, higher education and innovation – became clear.

The noise about vaccine inequality?

Back in her State of the Union address of September 2022, European Commission President Von der Leyen had announced the construction of vaccine centres in Africa as the first tangible outcomes of the Global Gateway.

Clearly, the protests about global vaccine inequality during the pandemic, which had also overshadowed the AU-EU Summit earlier that year, had been heard.

And so, it was scarcely surprising that Von der Leyen opened the forum with underlining the EU’s investment in vaccine centres in Africa, a theme featuring strongly also in the contribution of Senegal’s President Macky Sall.

Positioning Senegal as a continental leader investing in biosciences, he noted that vaccines centres, by themselves, were not enough, pointing to three core challenges around human resources, regulations and collaborative platforms to ensure vaccines were competitive in the market.

The World Health Organization’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus agreed.

Indeed, the need for international collaboration emerged strongly in his and other speakers’ contributions, relating to regulation, research, collaboration with private companies and investors, and to ensuring the viability of products in the market.

Taking these contributions together, it is extremely difficult to see how Africa can advance in overcoming vaccine inequality without research and education.

This is not only to ensure that outstanding scientists can support the necessary transformation of the biotechnology sector in all its dimensions.

Africa also needs the research – and the research facilities – to ensure that, in its attempt to overcome present inequalities, future health inequities in other areas where the Global North advances quickly (such as precision medicine) do not widen.

Creating the knowledge society of the future

If Africa’s transformation to a knowledge society by 2063 is to be sustainable, the Global Gateway – and Africa’s own resources – need to aim at creating the knowledge society of the future, not at creating today’s knowledge society in 40 years’ time.

This, then, is the key lesson of the Global Gateway Forum. Of course, we need the physical, digital and environmental infrastructure projects financed by the Global Gateway. We also need more investment in education, at all levels.

But if the EU is to develop a sustainable partnership with Africa and the rest of the world across all of the Gateway’s pillars, this investment must be sustainable. It must focus less on one-off projects and more on the creation of long-term societal and economic opportunities.

This is precisely why universities are so important for the Global Gateway’s success. They are critical to providing the new knowledge that will enable companies to develop cutting-edge medicines and technology that Africa and the rest of the world need in the future.

They are essential in providing the graduates to strengthen the knowledge, regulatory and economic ecosystem catalysed by new investment, graduates that are flexible and innovative.

And universities are crucial in generating innovation, driven by researchers, students and spin-offs, overcoming the constraints of the present to address the needs of the future.

Research and higher education were not central to the Global Gateway Forum’s discussions – but they underpinned almost all the points made.

This means that universities have a massive opportunity to benefit from their central role in the emerging relations between the EU and its neighbours, but they cannot count on their role being self-evident to global policymakers.

They need to make the argument loud and clear, to their governments, and to their supranational blocs, starting with the EU and AU.

A beginning has been made. European and African universities and other research performing organisations have united in calling for an integrated funding instrument to support European and African research collaboration.

We need an instrument that brings together investment in African research infrastructure, and excellence-based funding for collaborative research between Africa and Europe.

A potential blueprint for how the Global Gateway supports universities globally, the call is essential for strengthening the science capacities across Europe and Africa.

What is at stake is not simply a much-needed uplift of global science capacities. At stake is nothing less than the vision and promise of the Global Gateway itself.

Jan Palmowski is The Guild lead on Africa-Europe Clusters of Research Excellence, and the secretary-general of The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities (on sabbatical leave 2023-24).