Towards a more coherent EU external action: Where does the ACP fit?

Europe’s quest for the holy grail of a global strategy. Discussing ACP-EU relations in a silo is a risky choice, Jean Bossuyt and Andrew Sherriff explain why. 

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      Europe’s global environment is evolving rapidly, as is Europe itself. The million dollar question is whether EU foreign policy can rise to meet the challenge.  Most EU capitals, EU policy makers and analysts are preoccupied with the upcoming review of the European Security Strategy and the Neighbourhood Policy. Yet there is another major plank of EU external action up for revision: the Cotonou Partnership Agreement between Europe and the ACP – a group of 79 countries from Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

      Once the flagship among Europe’s cooperation agreements, its star has gradually faded within the expanding universe of EU relations. The Lisbon Treaty contains no reference to the ACP. The partnership is hardly visible in European External Action Service (EEAS) and Development and Cooperation (DEVCO) organigrams. In EU member states, the relationship with the ACP is not a political priority, nor attracts much attention.

      In practice, however, the Cotonou Agreement remains the principal point of reference for EU Delegations and Member States in the ACP. It governs a larger share of EU financial resources than any other financial instrument for external action. The ACP is the biggest group of partner states of the EU.  The agreement is legally binding and includes economic, global governance and security aspects. The framework features the potential for more elaborate approaches to political dialogue.  Considering all this, it should not come as a surprise that the new Commission leadership included the revision of the Cotonou Agreement in its list of key priorities.

      To integrate or not to integrate… that is the question

      The critical question now is how should Europe best envisage and organise this review? Some, particularly in the EU development community, may be tempted to deal with the future of ACP-EU relations as a standalone reflection, in a silo disconnected from other aspects of EU external action. A smaller silo too, now that the trade component of the agreement has been ‘regionalised’ in Economic Partnership Agreements while political and security issues are mainly addressed in the context of the EU-Africa dialogue.

      At first sight, such a scenario may seem attractive. It could make the negotiation process more manageable by restricting it largely to the development community and the existing interests around this agreement (in particular the generously endowed European Development Fund). It could insulate the ACP relationship from pollution by wider EU political and security considerations.  It would be consistent with the current nature of the Cotonou Agreement as primarily a ‘development tool’ and channel for EU aid. Some may prefer to “keep Cotonou at all price” out of fear no better alternative will appear.

      On reflection however, adopting such a standalone approach may turn out to be an illusory path, if not an obstacle, towards effective EU external action. Ultimately, addressing the future of ACP-EU relations in a silo is unlikely to result in fruitful outcomes for states and citizens on either side of the partnership.

      Too important a battle to be addressed in splendid isolation

      A process whereby the future of ACP-EU relations would be largely discussed in a silo seems a risky choice:

      1. The growing complexity of the world requires a more explicit, integrated and coherent set of strategies for EU external action. In response, High Representative/Vice-President Mogherini has launched a strategic reflection on the European Security Strategy and the Neighbourhood Policy. In a recent speech at Chatham House she argued that this was necessary in order to give “a sense of direction, an ability to make choices and to prioritise”. It should also help “to determine how best to mobilise all our instruments and develop partnerships to serve our common goals.”In this context, it is legitimate to ask the question how these processes link up with the planned revision of the Cotonou Agreement. It makes little sense to take out this part of the jigsaw and deal with it separately. Just consider two examples. EU policy-makers are thinking about extending the geographic scope of the Neighbourhood Policy to the Sahel and Horn of Africa.And how relevant would a European Security Strategy be that does not cover the whole of Africa or deals effectively with the security and development nexus? Addressing the revision of Cotonou Agreement in a silo would also make a mockery of the new EU leadership’s promise to do away with past practices of treating difficult foreign policy issues in isolation. If an integrated approach is not possible what is the point of having a High Representative, a Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development and a costly bureaucracy in the EEAS in the first place?
      2. Another risk is to underestimate the profound impact of regionalisation dynamics both within EU’s external action and in the ACP. In the past two decades, the regional approach has become the preferred way for EU to address its global foreign policy, security, trade and development concerns. The ‘tri-continental approach’, embodied by the ACP partnership, has therefore lost much of its traction and relevance as a vehicle for dialogue and interest articulation.The emergence of the African Union as a key interlocutor of the EU is a telling example. These regional frameworks may still be fragile but that is where EU external action will increasingly be shaped and articulated with ongoing integration efforts within Africa, the Caribbean or the Pacific. It is not in the interest of the EU and Member States to maintain a tapestry of overlapping policy frameworks, co-existing alongside each other and competing for funds.
      3. Dealing with the future of ACP-EU relations in isolation seems also incompatible with a Post 2015 agenda that seeks to escape the classical North-South paradigm and the related focus on aid (on which the Cotonou Agreement is predominantly based). This new global vision proposes a ‘universal’ agenda, urges for differentiation and seeks to refocus cooperation on addressing wide range of pressing global challenges.This will require new forms of collective action and an increased use of non-financial means of implementation. All this is likely to fundamentally affect Europe’s core development policies (including the European Consensus on Development) as well as the nature, framework and modalities of Europe’s partnerships, including with the ACP. It is unlikely that this new global agenda of the 21st century can simply be ‘accommodated’ into the current Cotonou Agreement, working methods and related institutional framework on both sides.
      4. The economic downturn in Europe and the problems affecting millions of European citizens inevitably puts pressure on budgets for international cooperation – and their effective use. The EU must develop a convincing narrative to show that external action can effectively defend common interests while ensuring the effective integration of developing (ACP) countries in the global system. This will not be achieved by merely going for a ‘Cotonou Agreement bis’. That would most probably be a recipe for a further marginalisation of the whole ACP-EU relationship in the overall EU external action.Such a status quo approach is unlikely to be in the ACP’s interest either. The Group has been thinking for some time about its future and added value in a radically different world than when the partnership was forged, 40 years ago. There is growing awareness among ACP actors that the Group will have to transform itself and demonstrate how it can still generate real benefits for its members (beyond access to EU funds).

      All this suggests the future of the ACP-EU relations is too important a battle to be reserved to those with a direct interest and stake in how the scheme now functions. In order to make strategic decisions on where this partnership fits into a coherent and effective EU external action, it will be critical to also hear the voice of the foreign policy and security community. A proactive and forward-looking engagement of EU Member States is another key condition for a meaningful debate.

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

      The authors wish to thank Alfonso Medinilla, Geert Laporte and Niels Keijzer for their contributions to this article.

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