The declining relationship between the EU and ACP states

The European Union’s 40-year partnership agreement with the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states expires in 2020. Both sides have been meeting in Namibia to renew the ties amid disagreements over key issues.

Refugees, climate change and poverty; there is no lack of issues to discuss for members of the European Parliament and representatives of 79 countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific (ACP).

They have been talking for three days in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, in a meeting that is held twice a year. Apart from the current issues on the agenda, there is another topic that’s been steadily gaining importance. The Cotonou Agreement, which currently regulates cooperation between the European Union and the ACP states, expires in 2020. What will follow is far from clear.

“The partnership between the EU and ACP states is a very special one,” Peter Katjavivi, speaker of the Namibian National Assembly and host of the meeting, said in a DW interview.” There is no comparable institution that brings so many countries together.”

There is a lot at stake for the partnership. Between 2014 and 2020, the ACP states will receive about 29 billion euros ($32.5 billion) from the EU’s Development Fund. There is also the issue of access to the European market.

Partnership without high priority

The European Union wants to keep its partnership with the three continents but Brussels no longer accords the ACP group high priority. The ACP states have been reduced from “privileged to marginal partners,” according to a recent study by the European Center for Development Policy, a political think tank.

Participants at an EU-Africa summit in Malta in 2015
Copyright: Reuters/D. Zammit Lupi The EU-Africa summit in Malta in 2015

European heads of states and government prefer to discuss pressing issues like mass migration and terrorism directly with their African colleagues at regular summit meetings. The European and African unions have had their own action plan for some time now. Additionally, the EU negotiated a separate trade deal with states in North Africa.

“The question is whether it would not be more effective to bring together the current structures within a framework which would contain both the money from the Development Fund and the financing for the partnership with northern Africa, as well as the funds which currently are part of the pan-African program of the EU budget,” says Michael Gahler, a European parliamentarian from the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and also a member of the joint committee of the European Parliament and the ACP assemblies.

ACP states are drifting apart

Looking ahead to 2020, Gahler also sees a great need for discussion about many other issues. When the EU and the ACP states sealed their partnership with the 1975 Lome Agreement, the relationship was relatively clear; almost all ACP countries were former colonies of EU member states.

But since then, the countries have moved in different directions, politically and economically. The island nation of the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean, for example, has quite different challenges compared to the landlocked African nation of Zambia.

“What does the Caribbean or the Pacific region still have in common with Africa today apart from a shared colonial past? Could we not do something more specific with individual countries?” Gahler asks.

There is also plenty for the African states to discuss with a view to future cooperation; for instance, the Economic Partnership Agreements. The Cotonou Agreement proposed free market access for produce between EU and African states. But many countries in Africa rejected this.

Dispute over EPAs

Some African states fear that an uncontrolled influx of European goods could destroy their economies. Also, the elimination of import duties means less revenue for their budgets. Nevertheless, the EU pushed for the conclusion of the agreement, much to the annoyance of many African governments.

An anti EPA protest in Kenya
(Photo:TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images) Protesters in Kenya took to the streets against the EU-backed EPAs

“The debate on the Economic Partnership Agreements has shaken up the partnership,” Namibia’s parliamentary speaker Peter Katjavivi said. Nevertheless, he wants to retain the EU-ACP ties.

There is still enough time for the necessary debates to be held. Official negotiations by both sides do not have to begin before mid-2018.