Authors: Alfonso Medinilla and Jean Bossuyt
Affiliated organization: ECDPM
Site of publication: ecdpm.org
Type of publication: Briefing note
Date of publication: March 2019
As the ACP and EU prepared for a classical round of negotiations, the African Union (AU) complicated the play. In March 2018, it called for a “single framework for cooperation from Union to Union/continent to continent, independently of the ACP-EU framework”, a position that has been reiterated by the AU leadership on several occasions. Ever since, the situation has been confusing and tense. The ACP Group and the EU initiated negotiations along the lines of their respective mandates with the support of most African members of the ACP. At the same time, the AU leadership claims it got a clear mandate at Summit level to pursue a separate continent-to-continent partnership with the EU post 2020.
- Regionalising ACP-EU relations: Process before consensus
1.1. How the ACP-EU negotiations got stuck
From a strategic perspective, few will disagree that the main interest of the EU and its member states in a Post Cotonou Agreement lies in Africa. The continent is a key focus for EU foreign policy – ranging from migration, security to economic integration and investment. The Caribbean and Pacific inevitably fall under a more peripheral section of the EU’s foreign relations. Yet at the same time, neither the EU or the ACP institutions wanted to discard the legacy of ACP-EU relations. The European Commission convinced EU member states to stand behind a ‘hybrid solution’ based on a common foundation for all the ACP supporting three regional protocols, respectively with Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. It represented a compromise between a status quo option (namely sticking to the traditional bilateral ACP-EU format) and a full-fledged regionalisation (which would mean to make separate deals with Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific without an overarching all-ACP ‘foundation’)
However, over the past two years, the AU and AU Commission’s leadership became increasingly aware of the risks a new post-Cotonou agreement could pose for the African integration process and its strategic relations with Europe.
The EU’s move to – at least partially – regionalise the partnership called into question the continued relevance of the ACP as a global ally. It amounted to a de facto recognition that the EU since long seeks to make key political deals at the bilateral, regional and continental level (e.g. with the AU) and not through the ACP. Trade relations have been regionalised, just as cooperation on peace and security in Africa. When there are major political tensions between the EU and an African country (like in the recent case of Burundi) the EU will not call upon the ACP to engage in dialogue on the matter but will proceed through the relevant regional body and the AU. On migration, during the recent crisis, the EU opted for the bilateral route to engage with Africa (through the Valetta process). Yet it increasingly realises that it will also have to pick this up with the AU. The existence of a dedicated article on migration in the Cotonou Agreement (Art. 13) hardly plays a role in these bilateral, regional and continental processes.
However, over the past two years, the AU and AU Commission’s leadership became increasingly aware of the risks a new post-Cotonou agreement could pose for the African integration process and its strategic relations with Europe
The African Union entered relatively late into the post-Cotonou debate. Initially it saw the ACP-EU partnership as a mere bureaucratic system for delivering ODA, and therefore not a strategic priority for African collective action. This was compounded by the fairly common disconnect in the foreign policy architecture of its member states between those dealing with EU ODA and those engaging in African continental integration processes. However, over the past two years, the AU and AU Commission’s leadership became increasingly aware of the risks a new post-Cotonou agreement could pose for the African integration process and its strategic relations with Europe.
The bottom line of the AU’s position is the incompatibility of the ACP-EU partnership with the ‘Joint Africa-EU Strategy’ (JAES). This political agreement was signed by 27 EU Member States and 54 African States and the Presidents of the respective Continental Institutions in Lisbon. The JAES meant to take the Africa-EU partnership beyond aid, and though this progressive document has lost some momentum in recent years, its narrative remains very relevant today, including in its recognition of a key role for the AU.
While the AU is now no longer formally opposed to the ACP sorting out a new deal with Europe, it does call for a separate negotiation process for a new continental deal directly between the AU and the EU. Crucially, the AU wants this exercise to be more than a simple update of the JAES or an endorsement of the new (unilaterally defined) Africa-Europe alliance that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker presented at his 2018 State of the Union.
1.2 What motivates the key players?
The African Union
The logic behind the AU’s assertive play on post-Cotonou reflects the gradual maturation of the pan African agenda and institutions over the past 15 years. The AU is still a young institution facing important challenges of legitimacy, relevance and effectiveness.
The EU is seeking partners and allies at the regional and bilateral level, and will engage in any which way depending on the issue at stake. When it comes to Africa, the AU has taken an increasingly important position, and EU leaders repeatedly stress the need for stronger political ties with the continent
If successful, it would be a major step towards collective action as a continental group, and a clear affirmation of the commitments and the principles underpinning the JAES. On the other hand, for the AU, accepting an African pillar under the ACP would amount to a downgrading of its previous dialogue processes with the EU. However, this is also a bold step for the AU and a delicate exercise – as it implies stepping outside its comfort zone into the bilateral foreign relations of its member states.
The EU is seeking partners and allies at the regional and bilateral level, and will engage in any which way depending on the issue at stake. When it comes to Africa, the AU has taken an increasingly important position, and EU leaders repeatedly stress the need for stronger political ties with the continent.
The African members of the ACP
Unlike the AU, it does not have an expansive regional integration agenda, nor has it any real ambition to regulate or act on behalf of its member states. Instead, its primary function in the past has been to facilitate bilateral engagement of its member states with the EU, with the emphasis on the predictable delivery of aid directly through government structures. The choice to support an ACP-driven negotiation therefore indicates a preference for an intergovernmental approach, where member states are firmly in the lead. Another reason why African countries may prefer the ‘ACP way’ is the perception that it provides a stronger guarantee for continued access to EU bilateral aid, much like it has in past negotiations.
The European Union
The EU is seeking partners and allies at the regional and bilateral level, and will engage in any which way depending on the issue at stake. When it comes to Africa, the AU has taken an increasingly important position, and EU leaders repeatedly stress the need for stronger political ties with the continent. The 2018 Communication on a new Africa-Europe Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs exemplifies the EUs more proactive approach towards Africa. It places the AU and its direct partnership with the EU at the front.
- Reconciling opposing views on the future of Africa-EU relations
For the moment, the European Commission and ACP Group are keen to rush forward with the process as planned. The negotiations on the foundation agreement, which contains common principles and broad partnership objectives are underway, and preparations are being made to start talks on the regional protocols with the Caribbean and the Pacific. To unblock the situation regarding the African pillar, an exchange of letters has reportedly taken place between the different parties (AUC, ACP negotiators and EC) on the structure of the regional pillars and the role of the African Union in the negotiations. The idea would be to invite ‘AU mandated experts’ to the negotiations of the regional protocol. The AU is considering the proposal and by stepping into the process it would act more as a watchdog to ensure that there is no interference with its continental prerogatives.
Whichever the fate of this proposal, the process of negotiating an African protocol under the ACP-EU banner is likely to produce a fragile and contested outcome, for the following reasons:
- Limited relevance and use of a regional protocol under the ACP
- Contested rules of the game
- A regional protocol restricted to sub-Saharan Africa
- The cost of combining regionalisation with keeping an ACP overarching structure.
- Implications of a dual track approach to Africa-EU relations
For the European Commission and the ACP Secretariat the direction of travel appears to be at least partially set. However, going through with a hybrid approach with an all-ACP foundation and regional protocols is not a mere technical move. It will have significant implications for the future of EU-AU relations. Creating parallel tracks between the 48 African ACP members, on the one hand, and the AU and its 55 members, on the other hand, will have implications that last well beyond 2020:
- Fragmenting key areas of peace and security, political dialogue and international cooperation.
- Overemphasising the role of aid.
- Diluting EU and African strategic interests.
- Perpetuating unhelpful institutional dynamics in the EU.
- Weakening African Integration
- Concluding remarks: The choice in front of European and African decision makers
The EU and AU have been ‘beating around the bush’ since 2017 on how to breathe new life in their political partnership, within or outside the ACP-EU framework. Yet neither side has come up with a definitive answer on how to do so. The EU has proposed a complex hybrid formula to face up to the reality in Africa, without upsetting its own institutional interests and historical linkages with the ACP. In the meantime, African members of the ACP have been riding two horses at once, paying lip service to the AU’s call for an equal and modern partnership while willingly rushing into negotiations with the European Commission under the flag of the ACP.
Against this background, African member states may need to reconsider whether choosing the security of and ODA-driven partnership with the EU through the ACP is not ‘backing the wrong horse’. It may reduce Africa’s ability to effectively defend its own interests autonomously at continental level on a host of pressing issues such as trade, investment, migration, climate change. Modern international cooperation is a multilevel process. African states are fully entitled to pursue their own interests bilaterally or through diverse fora coalitions at various levels. Yet at the end of the day African member states stand to gain by further investing in the development of their own pan-African institutions. If properly mandated and enabled, the AU can add value as a political actor to what Member states do in pushing forward continental agendas in a volatile multipolar world. Hence the need for African states to prevent making political choices which may end up weakening the further development of pan African institutions by pursuing short-term interests through outdated institutional frameworks like the ACP-EU partnership.
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