For African states, the key challenges have been deciding on whether to maintain the framework of the ACP Group or to engage in negotiations within the framework of the AU – a choice with deep structural implications, notably as to whether northern African countries should join those of sub-Saharan Africa in a continent-to-continent partnership, or remain as part of the EU’s Southern Neighbourhood (and thus separate from sub-Saharan Africa). The latter option was selected, which safeguarded the existence of the ACP Group. Other sensitive areas, as noted by those interviewed for this paper, relate to the role of civil society, human rights, and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), as well as migration. While these areas are unlikely to block the progress of the post-Cotonou negotiations (although that possibility does exist), they are expected to be among the last aspects to be agreed at the highest political level; or to be omitted from the eventual agreement and instead resolved at bilateral level.
The perception among African states is that the EU is pushing for a set of agreements that do not sufficiently address their interests.
A further complicating factor is going to be the closure of the European Development Fund (EDF, the development assistance budget provided directly by EU member states and managed by the European Commission: see Box 1) and its replacement by the Neighbourhood, Development, and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) of the next MFF, which will be in force for the period 2021–27. In practice, this means that the post-Cotonou agreement will be left without a self-financing mechanism, reducing incentives for ACP states to fully engage while increasing the decision-making role of the European institutions.
In addition, the post-Cotonou negotiation process overlaps with the parallel negotiations of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) that define terms of trade between the EU and African regional blocs. The latter have been delayed by diverging interests between African states, lack of clarity on the trade benefits for African partners, and the perception among African states that the EU is pushing for a set of agreements that do not sufficiently address their interests.
The EU Strategy with Africa
2020 is also the year in which the EU Strategy for Africa became the EU Strategy with Africa, signalling efforts by the EU and its member states to engage differently with their African counterparts in developing the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES). The emphasis on a different kind of partnership was also reflected in the replacement of the European Commission’s International Cooperation and Development portfolio with the office of European Commissioner for International Partnerships, to which role Jutta Urpilainen was appointed in late 2019.
The first draft of the new EU Strategy with Africa was published in March 2020. It highlights the EU’s perspective on key areas of engagement with Africa, notably green transition and energy access, digital transformation, sustainable growth and jobs, peace and governance, and migration and mobility. The launch of the document followed the 10th AU-EU Commission-to-Commission Meeting, which took place in Addis Ababa in February 2020, with the participation of 22 EU Commissioners and nine from the AU. It marked the first external visit of the new EU College of Commissioners, demonstrating a strong commitment on the part of Ursula von der Leyen, the new president of the EU Commission, to the EU’s partnership with Africa. Visiting Addis Ababa in December 2019, shortly after taking up her new EU post, von der Leyen had stated: ‘I have chosen Africa for my very first visit outside of Europe. I hope my presence at the African Union can send a strong political message. Because the African continent and the African Union matter to the European Union and to the European Commission.’
Although the EU’s efforts to generate a strategic document emphasize its commitment to this process, it has not succeeded in generating broad buy-in. Most of the newer member states did not contribute to the development of the document, and it was received with mixed feelings by African observers, many of whom perceived it as incomplete, insufficiently in line with African aspirations, and lacking a financial commitment. It is also unclear how the strategy document will relate to the post-Cotonou process, and how they both fit with the EU’s new financing arrangements for development.
While the newer EU member states did not play a key role in shaping the strategy, digitalization is a key area of interest for Estonia, as well as for Lithuania and Slovenia. In addition, Slovenia – which is likely to see the organization of the sixth AU-EU Summit in 2021, during its presidency of the Council of the EU – has expressed a key interest in supporting the development of small and medium-sized enterprises and civil society groups. Peace and security comprise a key area of interest for the newer member states in general, while migration and mobility are priority concerns for Hungary, Poland and several other EU member states.
The impact of COVID-19
As 2020 has progressed, the COVID-19 pandemic is taking a great toll on the countries of the EU. It is expected to have an even greater impact on developing countries, including most countries in Africa, not least through multiple economic consequences. These might include the further decline of commodity prices and of the overall volumes of trade and investment; potential increases in debt in the middle term; a reduction in global remittances; economic recession; and an increase in poverty and food insecurity, putting further pressure on conflict-affected regions.
The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to have an even greater impact on developing countries, including most countries in Africa, not least through multiple economic consequences.
At the same time, the COVID-19 context offers a window of opportunity for the EU and African countries to build a ‘partnership of equals’ and show genuine commitment to mutual solidarity. After a slow start, EU institutions are taking steps to articulate an approach to supporting EU member states and their external partners. The budgets put forward by the EU for mitigating the impact of the pandemic suggest that the EU aims to step up its multilateral engagement, in terms of both showing solidarity in the context of the pandemic and asserting a greater measure of leadership at multilateral level.
However, the pandemic is expected to have a deep impact on political openness, as well as on African states’ capacity for collaborative engagement. For example, while South Africa put forward an ambitious plan for its leadership of the AU (which began in February 2020), the pandemic has significantly affected the agenda. Furthermore, while the EU has pressed for quicker progress in the post-Cotonou negotiations, African countries have been less keen to advance quickly, and the deadlines have once again been pushed back.
There is a risk, too, in the context of the pandemic, that ties between African states and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe will weaken unless they are able to use the current window of opportunity to forge partnerships that can establish new supply chains for commodities needed in the immediate COVID-19 context or as part of the recovery from the pandemic. A further concern, in both regions, is that governments that tend towards authoritarianism may exploit the potential, through restrictions related to the fight against the coronavirus, to consolidate their grip on power.