The ACP group and the African Union in the post-Cotonou negotiations: Survival of the fittest?

The great celebration over last month’s adoption by the ACP of their negotiating mandate hides what is actually a conservative document, unfit for a world post-2020. And certainly, it did not manage to reduce the intra-African tensions over who should represent the continent’s interests at the negotiating table with the EU at the end of August. The outcome of next week’s African Union summit in Mauritania could turn out to be another spoilsport.

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      A confusing state of affairs

      The negotiations for a new ACP-EU agreement should start after the summer break. The African, Caribbean and Pacific group of countries was the first to adopt its negotiating mandate on 30 May, during the ACP Council of Ministers in Lomé. The EU mandate has been approved on 22 June, with limited substantial changes to the Commission’s proposal from December 2017.

      In spite of several analyses pointing to the contrary, both negotiating mandates still assume that the ACP-EU framework – which is now more than 40 years old – provides a good basis for a strong and renewed political partnership in the current volatile and multipolar world.

      In its negotiating mandate, the EU wants to preserve a prominent role for the ACP. At the same time, it also recognises the growing importance of the African Union and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs). The EU therefore proposes a hybrid formula, with an ACP foundation that applies to all EU and ACP countries (with common provisions, strategic priorities and strategic alliances for global action) complemented with three regional partnerships with Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific that should be the centre of gravity in the post-Cotonou arrangement.

      On paper it looks like the perfect compromise but, in practice, it remains to be seen whether it will be possible to combine the ‘best of these two worlds’.

      Yet this scenario has been, rather unexpectedly, disturbed by political developments within Africa. Last March, the AU Executive Council in Kigali sent out a clear message. It is time for Africa to take its destiny into its own hands by engaging directly in a continent-to-continent negotiation with Europe outside the ACP-EU partnership.

      Both the ACP and EU institutions are now anxiously waiting for the outcomes of the upcoming AU Summit on 1-2 July in Nouakchott, where African heads of state could confirm the decision to negotiate with the EU outside the ACP-EU framework.

      The ACP institutions have been feeling the heat. This is likely why they have opted for a rush forward at their Council meeting last month. The ACP group has invested a lot in making this May gathering a success to ensure its own survival. They communicated the event more widely than ever before and managed to create a feel-good atmosphere for all the 78 ACP country delegations .

      But did the careful packaging of the message result in an innovative and credible mandate for a solid and future-proof partnership?

      The key elements of the ACP mandate

      The negotiating mandate of the ACP group begins with a promising recognition of major transformations in the world which should form the basis to reassessing the successor agreement. Sustainable development in all of the ACP countries, in line with 2030 Agenda is the proclaimed goal. At the same time, the premise of the mandate is that the overall objectives and intergovernmental mode of ACP-EU cooperation remain relevant today and should be the basis of the future partnership.

      In addition to fairly traditional cross-cutting issues, the mandate identifies three strategic thematic pillars:

      1. Trade, investment, industrialisation and services;
      2. Development cooperation, technology, science, innovation and research; and
      3. Political dialogue and advocacy.

      An important focus is the issue of vulnerability and particularly of the mainly middle and high income Caribbean and Pacific states. The mandate argues that “development finance cooperation should not be seen to penalise countries that graduate from low to middle-income country status but should, on the other hand, take account of their continued vulnerabilities.”

      The ACP Group does not hide its ambition to become, as they put it: “the leading transcontinental organisation (…) through South-South and North-South cooperation.”

      There is some recognition of the African continental and regional integration process that is taking place and the mandate calls for “respect for the principles of subsidiarity, complementarity and proportionality”. The ACP group also wants a single legally binding agreement with the EU, building on the Cotonou acquis, and based on the principles of equality, mutual respect, inclusiveness, ownership, political and economic dialogue. Overall, the mandate seeks to preserve flexible and predictable aid through the European Development Fund (EDF), including the intra-ACP programmes.

      Innovation or status quo?

      Reading this mandate brings a strong feeling of déjà vu that reminds us of the late 90s, with the negotiations for the Cotonou Partnership. The ACP repeatedly stresses that status quo is not an option – but this mandate comes very close to it.

      The ACP group still favours a rather traditional aid driven north-south partnership. They mention domestic resource mobilisation but the main plea is for continued access to “adequate and predictable resources”, including for its middle-income ACP members.

      It is quite remarkable that an organisation that aims to become an influential global player still asks the EU to “supporting the ACP Secretariat’s operating costs”. This lack of self-financing mechanisms and ownership of its institutions won’t help the ACP in raising the legitimacy and credibility of the Group.

      The ACP mandate pleads to keep and even strengthen the existing institutions (the Joint ACP-EU Council and the Joint ACP-EP Parliamentary Assembly). Yet, in the past years, critical questions have been raised over the political relevance and impact of these institutions.

      There is some timid recognition of regional integration dynamics and related need to consider “continental and regional bodies”. Yet,the ACP does not seem to have a concrete role in mind for the African Union in a post-Cotonou scenario. What seems to drive the ACP is first and foremost its own survival. This explains the limited openings that are made towards the new actors and institutions in Africa, including in the negotiating process.

      In spite of many years of dedicated funding for intra-ACP cooperation, there is hardly any structured type of trade, political partnership or other types of exchanges beyond the Brussels institutions between the African, Caribbean and Pacific regions.

      The mandate recognises the dynamic force of civil society and private sector, at the same time it largely reconfirms the state-driven model of cooperation. The part in the mandate that deals with ‘parties and actors’ is less than 100 words.

      While vulnerability should rightfully be seen as a major issue, some might ask why there is so little creative thinking on building solid relations with the middle-income countries that go beyond aid. Relatively poor EU member states will continue to ask why their tax payers should provide aid to certain ACP countries which have a higher standard of living.

      Mandates are compromises that need to satisfy the different parties and players. A rather conservative attitude that aims to keep as much as possible the status quo is probably the only way to build a minimal level of consensus within a group of 78 countries that are as diverse as the Bahamas and Burkina Faso.

      But, in that sense, the ACP’s negotiating mandate is a missed opportunity. It gives a strange impression that the ACP group recognises that the world has changed but still asks to continue with the same old recipes that did not work in the past. Similarly the ACP acknowledges that the group has not been a strong global player in the past, yet it assumes that they will become one very soon. As Albert Einstein said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

      As the deadline to open negotiations approaches, clear answers are urgently needed. The ACP and EU have stacked the cards in favour of continuity. Now it is time for Africa to show its hand. Much depends on the outcome of the African Union’s heads of state summit at the beginning of next month.

      Do the African leaders still see an added value in building a new interest driven partnership with the EU through the ACP? Are they sufficiently united to collectively claim the leadership on behalf of Africa in the negotiations with the EU? Come and see next week in Nouakchott.

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

      The blog was also published on the website of the European Think Tanks Group.

      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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