Mark Fischer, Flickr: Lagoon of Cotonou (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Mark Fischer, Flickr: Lagoon of Cotonou (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Negotiating a Common Future

Arndt Hopfmann

The European Union and the AKP-Countries struggle to re-balance their relationship


Throughout its 70 years of existence the European Economic Community (EEC, today’s EU) has always cultivated a “special relationship” with the former colonies of the EEC member-states, known as the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States (ACP). This began with the Treaties of Yaoundé (I+II) and continued after Great Britain’s accession to the European Community with the Lomé Agreements (I–IV). While these pacts (until 1995) focused primarily on maintaining a special political and economic (trade) relationship, the first major changes occurred as a consequence of two decisive developments in the 1990s: the creation of the European Union (by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992) and the establishment of the World Trade Organization (1995). Both organizations are based on a set of rules designed to promote and strengthen a process of neoliberal globalization by all available means. In this new constellation commitments to “free trade” and “liberal democracy” were seen as indispensable pillars of the international political and economic order. This resulted in a whole set of new elements in the Cotonou Agreement signed in 2000 and entering into force 2002, with a life span until 2020. The two most important new elements were firstly an explicit political conditionality (commitment to a liberal democracy with “free and fair” elections within a multi-party political system), and secondly the understanding that economic relations between the EU and the ACP countries would be based on WTO-compatible rules.


To achieve the latter the contracting parties agreed to negotiate “Economic Partnership Agreements” (EPA) by 2007. However, it soon became obvious that these EPAs were full-blown Free Trade Agreements that aimed to include far-reaching provisions well beyond WTO requirements (so-called “WTO+ Standards”). After it became clear that these agreements would largely be to the disadvantage of the ACP countries, they began to encounter serious resistance from the ACP side. Negotiations could only be concluded in 2014 (seven years behind schedule) and with the scrupulous use of blatant political blackmail.

So far most of the negotiated EPAs are still in the ratification process and not yet in force. Thus, their implementation will probably only begin after the Cotonou Treaty has elapsed—certainly having an impact on the negotiations of a Post-Cotonou-Agreement that began in September 2018. Most importantly, the EU may become more relaxed concerning the implementation of the often and heavily criticized EPA.

By hoping that the controversies around trade and investment will take a constructive turn the EU obviously intends to “smuggle” some contested provisions of the EPAs into the Post-Cotonou-Treaty. The sometimes fierce dispute particularly between Africa and the EU concerning their negative impacts may thus become a thing of the past. However, it is far too early to believe that the resistance to EPAs will soon be over. If the post-Cotonou talks were to place the EPA issue back onto the table, it could bring about important changes in the agreements—if not lead to their complete abolition.

Two other major changes that occurred between 2000 and 2020 will also strongly influence the EU-ACP negotiations. Firstly, the EU’s expansion into Eastern and Southeastern Europe altered the balance between countries with a “colonial past” and EU members that never had colonies in Africa, Asia, or the Pacific. Since the latter now command a majority, they will certainly influence the post-Cotonou negotiations by demanding an approach more strictly guided by the economic and political interests of the EU as a whole. Secondly, Brexit will certainly impact the European Development Fund (EDF) and (indirectly) push towards its dissolution in the new 2021–2027 EU Budget. Indeed, the European Commission has already proposed a new “Neighbourhood, Development, and International Cooperation Instrument” (NDICI) to replace the old EDF and serve as a facility firmly included in the overall EU budget. This will change the rules of access considerably. While the old EDF was a special fund based on voluntarily financial contributions from “willing” EU member-states (of which the UK contributed 14 percent), the new “instrument” will be controlled by all EU members and the European Parliament via standard budgetary procedures and will no longer solely focus on international development cooperation.

State of Play

In May and June 2018 the two groups (EU and ACP) elaborated their negotiating mandates. On the general level a joint commitment to multilateralism, equal partnership, and the Sustainable Development Goals provides a rather unproblematic common ground. But the rest of their current positions are in some respects quite controversial. The ACP Group basically wants to preserve the status quo and seems particularly concerned with maintaining access to development funds. Despite its remaining priority interest in using the ACP states as reliable sources of primary commodities, the EU nevertheless envisages some major adjustments. First of all, it plans to split the ACP Group into three regions with different agreements (called “compacts”) accompanied by an overarching EU-ACP Declaration on basic principles of cooperation.

The regional compacts should reflect the EU’s different regional interests of cooperation. With regard to Africa the EU aims on a “whole Africa approach” which would bring together the “traditional” ACP-Countries and North Africa as well as the Republic of South Africa. This would bring inline the ACP-African Compact with the Joint EU-Africa Strategy and would make the AU-bodies the “natural” negotiating partner. This however will not do a lot in order to solve one serious issue that is ranging on top of the EU’s agenda – regulating migration. This subject is not mentioned in the ACP-Mandate even once. Here the EU will certainly try to achieve a general agreement in which the African states concede to take back their citizens that are deemed by the EU as “illegal migrants”. In a countermove the African ACP members may demand more opportunities for a “regular” migration of Africans to the EU.

Currently, it is impossible to predict the final outcome of the post-Cotonou talks. One thing, however, seems clear: the original schedule that aimed to conclude the negotiations by July–August 2019 is no longer realistic. Given the current state of play and the upcoming EU elections followed by the fresh appointment of the European Commission and reconstitution of the European Parliament, no substantial progress can be expected within the next six months.

About the author:

Arndt Hopfmann holds a PhD in development economics and works currently with the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in the position of a Senior Advisor on economic and trade policy. He is based in Brussels (Belgium) and can be contacted via