After more than two years of negotiations, only in part affected by the outbreak of Covid-19, on 3 December 2020 the chief negotiators from the European Union (EU) and the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) reached a political deal on a new partnership to succeed the Cotonou Agreement for (at least) the next twenty years. This lengthy negotiation period was preceded by an equally long and contentious preparation process leading to the adoption of the two negotiation mandates. On the EU side, the traditional divide between regionalists and globalists on the continuous relevance of the EU-ACP framework was further complicated by the stance of a few EU member states, most notably Hungary, in relation to the challenges posed by migration. The negotiating mandate adopted by the EU Council in June 2018 largely endorsed the novel cooperation framework proposed by the European Commission: preserving the ACP-EU partnership but shifting the centre of gravity to three regional protocols. The EU position on migration, by contrast, was modified, significantly tempering the positive language on migration development while stressing the threats to security posed by increased migration flows.
The ACP Group, on its part, had on numerous occasions and in various documents reiterated the general aims and principles for the post-2020 partnership with the EU: maintaining the existing ACP geographical configuration and building on the priorities of the existing Cotonou Agreement for a less asymmetrical partnership. These hopes were derailed by a decision agreed upon by the African Union (AU) in March 2018 in Kigali, stipulating that Africa’s relations with the EU should be governed by “a single framework for cooperation from Union to Union/continent to continent, independently of the ACP-EU framework”. The Kigali decision, and the unpublished common African position, rested on three interlinked assumptions: 1) the ACP Group has managed to advance human, social and economic development in Africa to a marginal extent; 2) the EU, by artificially separating North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa, has contributed to slowing down the integration process in Africa; 3) the AU is the only true voice that could legitimately and effectively promote Africa’s interests vis-à-vis the EU and other international actors. The AU’s decision was shrewdly orchestrated by the AU Commission and its Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, the then AU Chairperson Paul Kagame, and a rather vocal minority of AU states, notably Rwanda, South Africa and Zimbabwe. It was, however, contested by most states in West Africa and several states in East and Central Africa, and was reluctantly accepted by states in North Africa, not least because it proposed to maintain their association agreements with the EU. A state of uncertainty characterised the ACP Council of Ministers held in Lomé in May 2018, yet the ACP negotiating mandate was still adopted – and with Faki Mahamat subsequently lamenting how African states acted “in a tacit challenge to the principles contained in the African Common Position”.
Undoubtedly, this was an unprecedented situation: two groups of ministers representing the same states (that is, ministers of foreign affairs in the AU context and ministers of finance or development in the ACP context) had made two decisions which seemed difficult to reconcile. Incidentally, in terms of substance the AU’s common African position and the ACP mandate largely overlapped or were complementary. The solution to the ACP-AU impasse, after an inconclusive meeting of the AU Assembly in Mauritania in July 2018, was found in a joint meeting of ministers in charge of EU and ACP matters in September 2018, which proposed a two-track process for Africa’s relations with the EU: one through the AU, focusing on continent-to-continent issues, the other through the ACP Group, targeting the national level. The EU, in public, maintained a rather low profile, avoiding interfering with an African internal process, yet Koen Doens, the head of the EU negotiating team at the senior official level, maintained that “there is no choice to be made. It is possible to construct EU-Africa relations within the ACP framework” (The Africa Report, 7 October 2019). Still, Carlos Lopes, who had been appointed as the AU Commission’s High Representative for the post-2020 agreement with the EU seemed eager to blame the EU: “My view is that the Africans got confused because they were taking the European mandate as the basis for discussion […] The moment this was clarified there was no problem. There is consensus” (Euractiv, 21 December 2018). In fact, the EU was not a winner, in that the AU’s new compromise ran counter to the “one-Africa approach” that was one of the EU’s ultimate aims.
The current negotiations were affected by this tense preparatory process. The first stage concentrated on the General Part of the post-Cotonou Agreement, with the two sides easily agreeing upon most issues, with some notable exceptions: the meaning and implications of external interference; gender-related issues; the role of the International Criminal Court in the gravest international crimes; commitments on the death penalty; emphasis on demand- and supply-side constraints to economic growth; the balance between legal and irregular migration. The second stage focused on regional protocols. In the case of the EU-Africa Protocol, the two sides had registered a broad convergence of their positions in a meeting in eSwatini in May 2019, essentially because they had decided to build on the November 2017 Abidjan Declaration and other EU-AU initiatives, all in alignment with the AU’s Agenda 2063. Nevertheless, negotiations did not start until December 2019, largely because of the delays of the African side to spell out its negotiation positions across all sectors, as well as the inability of the AU to provide technical support to the African ambassadors in Brussels. Once started, negotiations proceeded at a relatively fast pace, except for the issues linked to the cluster of unresolved issues in the General Part of the Agreement. The third stage focused on all outstanding issues. Divisions persisted over the references to sexual rights – in the context of broader discussions on sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) and on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) – and the sections on irregular migration, as the EU sought to introduce detailed procedures for the return and readmission of irregular migrants, whereas the ACP Group was not willing to include such specific provisions and instead maintained that returns must be voluntary.
Looking back, it is curious how the three main actors involved in the discussions on the post-Cotonou process backtracked from their initial positions. The ACP Group accepted the logic of strong regional protocols, which could undermine unity and solidarity between its 79 members. The AU accepted the existence of the ACP-EU framework and the role of the ACP Group as negotiator on behalf of 48 African states. The EU suffered an important blow to its ambition to finally arrive at “one-Africa” policy – yet, and for many surprisingly, in March 2020 the European Commission unveiled a proposal for a new comprehensive strategy for the whole of Africa, the discussion of which ran in parallel with the post-Cotonou Agreement. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that, except for a number of cultural and emotional matters and the thorny issue of readmission of migrants, the real divide throughout the negotiations was about form more than substance, the institutional architecture rather than the strategic priorities. This may be a slight exaggeration, yet there are no doubts that the sequence of events certainly compromised the EU’s ambition to streamline its relations with Africa, but at the same time it showed how Africa’s future was dangerously caught between the OACPS’s resistance to survival threats and the AU’s quest for assertiveness in international affairs.
 Carbone, M. (2018). ‘Caught between the ACP and the AU: Africa’s relations with the European Union in a post-Cotonou Agreement context’, South African Journal of International Affairs, 25 (4), 481-496.