After years of preparation and posturing, negotiations on the new relationship between the European Union and 79 African, Caribbean, and Pacific states are finally underway.
The talks come as ACP-EU Partnership Agreement — signed in Cotonou in 2000, which has set the legal framework for trade, dialogue, and development cooperation between the two groups of the region countries — heads toward its expiry date in February 2020.
The EU is portraying the talks on a new 20-year agreement as a defense of multilateralism in uncertain times. However, critics say the ACP Group — an organization created in 1975 to oversee Europe’s partnership with its former colonies — is too diverse to remain lumped together.
Three separate regional pillars for Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific will be negotiated, with a common foundation containing “general objectives, principles and priorities.”
Both groups are coming to the table with prepared negotiating positions, developed in partnership with their member states. But given the EU’s determination to use development assistance as “leverage” to stem irregular migration, and tensions between the ACP Group and African Union over who represents the voice of Africa in Europe, it promises to be an interesting few months.
The EU’s negotiating mandate was delayed earlier this year after Hungary insisted on tougher language on the need to stop irregular migration. The EU’s position — proposed by the European Commission and finalized by member states — acknowledges the possible “dividends of safe, orderly and regular migration and mobility” while emphasizing the need to “create and apply the necessary leverage, by using all relevant policies, instruments and tools, including development, trade and visa, to achieve measurable results in terms of stemming illegal migration and returning irregular migrants.”
ACP chief negotiator and Togolese foreign minister, Robert Dussey, wrote in a recent op-ed that migration will likely be a key point in the EU-Africa pillar, “but it must not circumvent the relevance of the debate or negatively impact the terms of our future cooperation agreement.”
One change since the Cotonou Agreement of 2000 has been the growing influence of the African Union, which this year agreed to create an African Continental Free Trade Area and last year hosted a major summit with the EU in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. The AU’s rise has further called into question the necessity of ACP. Although ACP is represented in Brussels by a secretariat, it reported feeling sidelined by the EU’s recent pledging of a new “alliance” with Africa, announced without their consultation.
“The African Union have the power, political traction, and they have their strategy, their agenda, while the ACP is quite weak from that point of view,” said Karine Sohet from ACT Alliance EU, a network of faith-based development agencies.
In July, the AU called for a delay in negotiations with the EU to allow a common African position to be reached, and appointed Carlos Lopes as the AU’s high representative in the talks. ACP’s Dussey told reporters recently that negotiations could now begin, after it was agreed that the AU would send its experts to work with ACP officials during discussions on the African pillar of the agreement.
“Some argue the African Union is a giant on its own that doesn’t need the ACP,” said Maurizio Carbone, an adviser to the EU’s post-Cotonou Agreement taskforce. However, Carbone argued the AU could strengthen its voice internationally by teaming with ACP countries.
The European Commission this year proposed bringing the €30 billion European Development Fund — an aid instrument focused on ACP countries, which currently sits outside the official budget — inside the EU’s 2021-2027 financial framework. If confirmed in negotiations with EU member states, the move could improve transparency, but is a major concern for ACP countries who worry they will now have to compete with other priorities for annual budget allocations.
“Would there be an ACP without quite considerable European development funding?” asked Geert Laporte, deputy director of the European Centre for Development Policy Management, at a recent panel discussion in Brussels. “The European Development Fund is the glue that keeps the group together.”
ACP Secretary-General Patrick Gomes told reporters in Brussels recently that the new agreement must still provide for long-term funding to ensure predictability. The ACP negotiating mandate has as one of its objectives a “dedicated multiannual financial mechanism available to all ACP states.” Gomes questioned the commission’s idea of assigning funds to the Pacific, Caribbean, and Africa from different geographical allocations under its new budget instrument, saying decisions on how money is spent in ACP countries must be jointly agreed with the group, and not imposed by Brussels. “That needs a lot of thinking through and that will be an area for negotiations when we come to that,” Gomes added.
However, with the commission keen to reach a conclusion on budget negotiations with EU member states by spring, ACP may not have a choice. “If the decision about [budgetizing the EDF] is made early by the EU institutions, the ACP countries feel that they may not have enough leverage in the negotiations,” Carbone said, pointing out that “that’s an internal EU discussion.”
The current Cotonou Agreement allows for aid to be suspended if a state breaches “essential elements” regarding human rights, democratic principles, and the rule of law. The EU wanted to add “good governance” to that list during negotiations on the Cotonou Agreement, but ACP resisted, believing it was too vague. As a result, good governance was only deemed capable of prompting a suspension in cases of “serious corruption”.
The issue has long been a sore point in the EU-ACP relationship. At a panel event in June, Gomes cited the low tax paid by European firms in Africa to argue that “good governance” is a two-way street.
“The ACP never accepted the fact of being lectured by the EU on this aspect,” Carbone said. “Another point that the ACP have in the back of their mind is that the EU lectures on this, China doesn’t. So they try to use the Chinese as a sort of leverage” against the EU’s position, he said.