The EU-ACP Partnership Agreement, signed in Cotonou in 2000, is due to expire on 29 February 2020. Since the negotiations have ground to a halt, the parties have almost agreed to transitional measures to extend the application of the current agreement. Just before passing the torch to his successor, as the new European Commission took office December 1st, commissioner Neven Mimica briefed member states' representatives on the negotiations and its current standstill. Which appears to be very much inherent to the format itself.
The partnership between the EU and the group of African, Caribbean and Pacific States has its origin in the "special relations" envisaged by the Treaty of Rome between the member states and their (then) colonies or former colonies, and has developed, with significant changes, thanks to the Youndé Agreement (1965 to 1975) and the Lomé Conventions (1975 to 2000). The agreement currently brings together more than half of UN member states, representing a population of more than one and half billion people.
The results of this very long-standing partnership are of course quite mixed with regards to each of its three pillars: development, trade and "political dialogue". Despite setbacks in key objectives, the partnership has recently achieved success in less-anticipated areas, such as international cooperation (for example, in the adoption of the Paris Agreement on climate change). Cotonou's framework and its acquis are indeed considered valuable by all concerned. Vested interests on both sides are deeply rooted in the partnership, in the private sector, in NGO's and at the institutional level as well. For ACP countries, moreover, the financial flow is clearly welcome.
Consequently, despite current difficulties and delays, during 2020 an agreement to continue the partnership will likely be found. Nevertheless, critical issues that have long accompanied the EU/ACP relations are re-emerging. Even before formal talks started, the post-Cotonou debate was haunted by an existential question: is a "post Cotonou" really necessary? Is an agreement between the EU and the member states’ former colonies (actually only a few member states) still relevant at all? Are not the three regional components (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific) perhaps too divergent to be effectively addressed through the same framework?
To group in a broad and ambitious cooperation framework countries as diverse as Ethiopia and the Cook Islands, Niger and Belize, Sudan and Tuvalu is not, in fact, an easy task. From an EU perspective, the format has its weaknesses. The loose homogeneity of the ACP group increasingly contrasts with the new rationale of EU external action, as envisaged in the EU Global Strategy, and subsequent documents. Moreover, the Eastern Europe countries that joined the "club" in 2004 (when Cotonou was already in force) do not seem very interested in a partnership that may be seen as a historic relic. Germany and the Scandinavian countries also appear to be rather sceptical, albeit for different reasons, as they traditionally support the idea that dealing with Africa as a whole is a better way to address development cooperation.
There is little doubt that Africa is more than ever at the centre of the European political debate. Paradoxically enough, this is happening just when the EU’s role in the continent is notably declining, both politically and economically. Brexit has certainly contributed to the loss of appeal of the EU, especially in Commonwealth Africa. Meanwhile, other actors are emerging or re-emerging on the stage (such as China and, more recently, Russia), offering African countries different models of partnership and new leverage when dealing with the EU. Moreover, for Brussels and especially the national capitals, the priorities for partnering with Africa are quite different from the past. Peace, security and above all migration are now at the top of the agenda for Africa, being, as it were, “the lens through which the EU looks south”. This re-balancing of the EU's perspective may or may not be fair, necessary, or even beneficial. The point is that, with regard to these issues, the EU is not focusing primarily on the Cotonou Partnership. Numerous other initiatives promise better opportunities, such as the European Agenda on Migration, the Joint Africa-EU Strategy, the Valletta Action Plan, the African Peace Facility or the EU's Emergency Trust for Africa.
From the African perspective, the ACP format is also under fire, as it is often perceived as being an obstacle to the bolstering of regional integration. North African countries are not part of the accord, nor do they appear to be very interested in joining it, as they already interact with Bruxelles through more profitable and comprehensive agreements. The African Union (AU), as the main supporter of the “One Africa Policy”, is witnessing a phase of increased activism, too. Its role has notably become stronger in the last few years, due to its commitment to peace operations and conflict resolutions, Morocco's renewed membership and the initiatives of the Rwandan presidency. Consequently, tensions between the Africa Union and the ACP Group are increasing, especially after the former, driven by a powerful minority in its leadership (particularly Rwanda, Ciad and South Africa), proposed in March 2018 to abolish the EU-ACP framework completely. Moreover, the AU's decision to create an African Continental Free Trade Area poses one of the major challenges for Africa's future, and is possibly at odds with the Economic Partnership Agreements agreed (rather reluctantly) under Cotonou.
To address some of these criticisms, the EU has proposed to drastically change the architecture of the partnership. According to its negotiation mandate, the post Cotonou agreement would be constituted by two interlinking components: a "common foundation agreement", containing values, principles and objectives common to the entire area and three differentiated protocols (EU-Africa; EU Caribbean and EU-Pacific), which would take into account the different region's priorities and needs, establishing a more "region-tailored" partnership. The institutional architecture – according to the EU proposal – would also reflect "the shift of the centre of gravity to three regional partnerships", with a regional ministerial Council and a parliamentary dimension at the level of each regional partnership.
Initially received with a certain amount of scepticism by the ACP Group and criticized within the EU as well (the European Parliament insisting on a Joint Parliamentary Assembly with proper agenda setting prerogatives), this proposal has finally been accepted, with minor modifications, as the frame of the new agreement.
Other stumbling blocks are certainly not lacking, such as, not surprisingly, migration. Just to mention a single crucial issue: the return of irregular migrants. The wording of Cotonou on this point is twofold. On one hand (art.13) the parties agree that all states shall accept, "without further formalities", the return and readmission of any of its nationals who have illegally emigrated. On the other hand, the same article states that, at the request of a party, “negotiations shall be initiated with ACP States aiming at concluding [...] bilateral agreements governing specific obligations for the readmission and return of their nationals”. As a result, to date, the EU has not succeeded in rendering readmission binding and effective. Which is exactly what the EU, pressured by some member states, is eager to achieve in the current negotiations, by adding detailed procedures and timing for return in the draft agreement. ACP states, as a group, have formally indicated that they are not willing to include the topic in the new agreement, and insist that returns must take place on a "voluntary basis". Indeed, non-African ACP countries are not defending these points strenuously. Accordingly, they are discretely attempting to convince their African colleagues to soften their position, so the new agreement may be delivered as smoothly and as quickly as possible.
Consequently, five out of the six "strategic priorities" that comprise the umbrella agreement are almost completed and agreed to (in diplomatic terms, "few brackets" and "the final wording" remaining). The sixth priority is "migration and mobility". Which, on the contrary, has not been almost completed and agreed to. As for regional agreements, the situation is similar. The EU-Pacific and the EU-Caribbean partnerships have nearly been drafted (especially the former). Conversely, progress on the EU-Africa agreement is much slower.
In the background, the upcoming Multiannual Financial Framework is looming. The EDF, now a dedicated financial tool, will likely be included in the general budget. In which case, another unique feature of the Cotonou system will vanish and one can't help but wonder: is the EU/ACP Partnership still suitable for Africa?
Statements of fact and opinions reflect the personal view of the author and do not represent the views of the Italian Senate in any way