Negotiating a new agreement with the ACP post-2020: What is at stake in the coming months

On 12 December 2017, the European Commission presented its recommendation to the Council for opening negotiations with the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of states (ACP). In the first semester of 2018, EU member states will need to chew over this proposal and agree on a suitable mandate for the EU to engage talks with the ACP as of September. This internal EU process merits special attention.

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    In the past two decades, ACP-EU cooperation lost its flagship status in favour of new partnership structures with the African Union and other regional organisations. This explains the limited interest in the debate on the future of this relationship beyond the narrow circle of officials in Brussels and in some European capitals. Yet this is a worrying trend, as the renewal of ACP-EU cooperation is in many ways a test case for the overall capacity of the EU to adapt its external action to the reality of today. EU member states should use the coming months to further refine the Commission proposal, make the link with other key policy processes (such as the new post-2020 Multiannual Financial Framework) and ensure a realistic, coherent and workable mandate for the negotiations.

    So what are the ‘battles’ still worth fighting for in the limited time available?

    In spite of major doubts expressed by several member states, the broad lines of the European Commission’s preferred scenario will be taken as a basis for the discussion. This would maintain the ACP-EU construct as a foundation while strengthening existing regional partnerships with Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific through separate regional compacts. This hybrid formula reflects a political compromise between those who sought to maintain the longstanding relations with the ACP Group and those in favour of a regionalisation of EU external action.

    Hence, the debate in the Council will mainly focus on how to make this hybrid scenario work in practice. We see three major challenges.

    One: Living up to the ambition of a modern partnership with Africa adapted to new realities

    The European Commission proposal clearly states that the “centre of gravity” of the future ACP-EU partnership should lie with the regions. It suggests merging the partnership with the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) and other existing regional strategies. This is a break with the past and an opportunity to revitalise the relationship between the EU and Africa – a key political priority for most EU member states. To do so, the EU must demonstrate that it is really prepared to ‘go regional’.

    The current proposal contains a long list of possible strategic priorities for cooperation, yet this is the easy bit. A meaningful regional compact with Africa means putting the AU and relevant regional bodies in the driving seat. It requires changes in the governance structures, decision-making processes and financial flows – all of which are now dominated by the ACP institutions. It, inevitably, also implies that African continental and regional actors should be involved upfront in the negotiation process of a new agreement. This will not be easy.

    The ACP Group and Secretariat are preparing for a ‘traditional’ negotiating format with a central negotiating group and three technical ones. This is similar to what was used in the late 1990s to conclude the Cotonou Agreement and risks diluting the regional dimension. The Commission proposal envisions a “prominent role [for] relevant regional organisations”, and the African Union is preparing a position on the future partnership. The ambition of regional ownership should therefore also be reflected in the negotiation format.

    Two: Respecting the principle of subsidiarity and finding an adequate role division

    The effective co-existence of the ACP-EU construct with deepened regional partnerships requires a clearer division of labour. This is critical when the purpose of future cooperation beyond 2020 is not simply to manage development resources (in a donor-recipient mode) but to move towards a genuine political partnership to address global agendas and mutual interests. Also here the centre of gravity should unambiguously move to the regional level. The EU already seeks to address a range of urgent and high profile global challenges such as peace and security or migration at regional (continental), sub-regional and bilateral level – without going through the ACP Group. This political reality will now need to be recognised in the institutional set-up of a future ACP-EU agreement.

    In this logic, it makes little sense to give a broad mandate to the ACP-EU framework in dealing with global affairs – as the current European Commission proposal does. Even more so when evidence suggests the ACP-EU partnership has seldom been used to broker deals in the multilateral sphere. This is just one illustration that without a clear delineation of who does what, the all-ACP and regional frameworks will quickly enter into competition and possibly conflict. Another negative effect would be a proliferation of (joint) councils and committees at an all-ACP and regional level (for which the EU may end up paying a large part of the bill, as is now the case).

    Three: Moving from centralised aid management to genuine multi-actor partnerships

    One of the innovations of the Cotonou Agreement (2000), which underpins the current ACP-EU Partnership, was the opening-up of cooperation to a wider range of actors, including civil society, the private sector and local authorities. Yet abundant evidence suggests this attempt to broaden participation largely failed. ACP-EU cooperation remains rooted in a state-driven, bureaucratic aid model through the principle of joint management and the role of ‘National Authorising Officers’. This is increasingly at odds with the multi-actor nature of development, and the transformative ambitions of the 2030 Agenda and the EU Global Strategy.

    A future-proof implementation model requires a diversified toolbox covering interest-driven cooperation, multi-stakeholder partnerships, and a much more coherent and flexible approach to funding (towards Africa for example). The final mandate of the EU should ideally include clear strategies to make this transition a reality and address the trade-off between a legally binding international agreement and the need to move beyond state-to-state cooperation.

    Will it be possible to break with the past?

    The silver thread that runs through each of these three challenges is clear: the political decision to keep the ACP-EU construct in place should not hamper the much-needed modernisation of EU External Action partnerships (particularly with Africa), approaches and financing instruments (such as the European Development Fund). The draft mandate indicates a commitment to change in theory, but remains vague on what all this will mean in practice. The final mandate should unambiguously specify the concrete changes that are required to move the “centre of gravity” to the regional level and update the approach to managing EU external action in line with the new global and European agendas. This will be the huge task for the EU and the stakeholders in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific in the coming months.

    The authors are grateful to Andrew Sherriff (ECDPM), Niels Keijzer (DIE), Geert Laporte and Marc de Tollenaere (ECDPM) for their feedback.

    At the end of this week, we will share with you our new publication on the future of ACP-EU relations beyond 2020. 

    The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

    In addition to structural support by ECDPM’s institutional partners: The Netherlands, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark and Austria, this publication also benefits from funding by UK aid from the Department for International Development (DFID), United Kingdom.

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