The African Union has ambitious plans to reconfigure its continent’s relations with the European Union. In 2018, led by Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and the Chadian chair of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, the Addis Ababa-based AU moved closer towards establishing a continent-wide free trade zone, and is gradually moving towards becoming fully self-financing. It also wants the AU to be able to deliver a coherent and united message on behalf of Africa in international forums.
The re-negotiation of the Cotonou Agreement which expires in May 2020, between the EU and 79 countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP), was seen as a key test for the AU’s new role.
That ambition appeared to suffer a major setback in September. Having adopted plans for a Common African position in April, African foreign ministers performed a sudden U-turn and chose the secretariat of the African, Caribbean and Pacific community, which excludes North Africa, to lead the talks with Brussels. The post-Cotonou process officially started days later, on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York.
But that was not the end of the matter. At their fourth and final AU summit of 2018 in Addis, African leaders agreed that the talks should follow a ‘two-track process’ within the framework of the AU-EU agreement adopted in Abidjan in November 2017.
Carlos Lopes, the AU’s chief negotiator on the post-Cotonou process, tells EURACTIV that there should be no confusion over the mandate.
“As far as Africa is concerned we have two processes; we have the ACP and the continent to continent. Our resolution calls for co-ordination between the two institutions on behalf of Africans.”
A well-respected economist and former UN official from Guinea Bissau, Lopes says that Africa’s position is “crystal clear”. The ACP process must exist alongside continent-to-continent talks between the EU and AU.
“If we are going to discuss anything on continent to continent relations, be it on peace and security, trade or climate change, that must be done by the AU,” he says.
So what happened to prompt the U-turn, especially as most African countries are known to have been deeply unhappy with what the ACP secured for them on trade relations with the EU in the original Cotonou accord?
“My view is that the Africans got confused because they were taking the European mandate as the basis for discussion,” says Lopes.
“The moment this was clarified there was no problem. There is consensus,” he states.
The EU’s plan is to negotiate three regional compacts between the EU and Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, of which the EU-Africa deal, covering trade, aid and broad political relations, would be comfortably the most important, and controversial.
The AU wants to keep control of policy on migration, climate change, and the development of an African Continent Free Trade Area for themselves, and leave aid and the delivery of aid to the ACP. That would make sense since the Caribbean and Pacific countries have little to offer the EU on migration and trade. On migration, the key countries for the EU include Morocco and Egypt, neither of whom are members of the ACP. The ACP secretariat, meanwhile, based in Brussels, is far better equipped to deal with aid and aid programmes.
The European Commission is understood to be anxious that Cotonou’s successor could lack credibility if they don’t the AU is shut out from the talks. The question, however, still exists over whether the ACP will agree to share the workload.
Lopes tells EURACTIV that he is ‘puzzled’ by the mixed messages coming from the EU.
“I am a bit puzzled by the European Commission because they understand the need for a continent-to-continent agreement, but then there is a convoluted explanation of why it should be conducted under the ACP. I don’t understand it. We cannot play a lead role as AU under the ACP,” he told EURACTIV.
“The Europeans will have to decide for themselves on how they want to engage…and they have to give prominence to the AU when doing so.”
But he insists that there should not be any conflict between the AU and ACP.
“As far as I’m concerned there is no battle with anybody…it is normal that people start from different angles and with different goals. We must make clear that there is a distinction between the ACP umbrella with the continent-to-continent pillar – we are not interested in the aid envelope, or the European Neighbourhood Policy with North Africa.”
I’m in constant contact with the ACP’s chief negotiator (Togo’s foreign minister Robert Dussey). He and I have the same understanding.”
Lopes says that it’s time for the EU to back up its recent rhetoric on deepening trade and political relations with Africa on the basis of the oft-repeated promise of a ‘partnership of equals’. Outgoing Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker held out the promise of an EU-Africa trade agreement in his last ‘State of the Union’ speech in September, alongside the private sector investment vehicles, such as the External Investment Plan, that the EU is creating.
The rhetoric is “all very nice and welcome”, says Lopes, “but these promises are not grounded in a continent-continent instrument.”
“I believe that the AU will have to insist on such an instrument,” he adds.