Perspectives and Challenges for the “New” ACP-EU Partnership

Andrea Cofelice

The future of relations between the European Union (EU) and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of countries is finally taking shape. After more than two years of close negotiations, last December the negotiators of the two sides reached a political agreement on a new partnership agreement which, once it enters into force, will replace the Cotonou Treaty, adopted in the distant 2000. With the approach of the legal expiry date of the Treaty (initially scheduled for February 2020 and subsequently postponed to November 2021), the need was ever more felt, at the political level, to rethink and relaunch the ACP-EU partnership, to adapt it to the changes in the international system and the new interests and legitimate aspirations of the two blocs of countries.

The ACP-EU partnership has often been described as a "unique" agreement, due to the concomitance of various factors: its legally binding nature; its wide-ranging scope, both geographical (four continents involved and about 1.5 billion people represented) and thematic (a "three-pillar" structure: political dialogue, economic and trade cooperation, development aid); a management method and a joint institutional infrastructure; a constant and predictable flow of resources from the EU, mainly channeled through the European Development Fund (intergovernmental: it was the most consistent development-aid instrument compared to any other EU external instrument) and the European investments. However, the changes in the international system that have taken place in the last twenty years (the emergence of new "competing" geopolitical realities; the development of regionalization processes, especially in Africa and the Caribbean; the consequences of the EU enlargement, leading to the fact that today most member states have no significant historical ties to ACP countries) have had a profound impact on its very nature.

First, they have contributed to a gradual marginalization of the privileged relationship between the ACP and the EU, in favor of other regional organizations (above all, the African Union - AU). As a result, the Cotonou Treaty has been gradually joined by parallel continental strategies (such as the Global Strategy with Africa) and by a growing number of regional and bilateral strategic partnerships, which pose important coordination and coherence challenges.

Secondly, they caused the erosion of the three-pillar structure. The provisions relating to political dialogue (including the conditionalities in Articles 8 and 96-97 of the Cotonou Treaty) have always found a difficult implementation, due to unbalanced power relations, operational inconsistencies and a general disagreement on values and objectives at the basis of the partnership (consider, for example, the tensions over the participation of civil society, the management of migration, the role of the International Criminal Court). In the face of these difficulties, the political dialogue was de facto "regionalised" (for example, regarding the AU) or took place bilaterally, with limited influence from the ACP group. Similarly, the preferential trade system that should have supported the partnership has evolved, especially due to European desire, into a series of autonomous international agreements negotiated on a regional basis, known as the Economic Partnership Agreements, the negotiation methods of which have put a considerable strain on the ACP-EU relations. Consequently, as the trade and political dialogue components have been pushed beyond the ACP-EU framework, the partnership has been transformed in recent years into a privileged instrument of cooperation for development, the area in which the most significant results have been achieved (especially in terms of poverty reduction).

Finally, the partnership's “global” political potential has remained largely unexpressed. In theory, the 27 EU member states and the 79 ACP countries could constitute a substantial force in multilateral forums, as they account for more than half of the UN seats. In practice, however, there are few cases in which the two groups have joined forces to lead the processes of change in the context of international negotiations.

The political agreement of last December seeks to address these challenges, introducing important innovations that will characterize the new structure of ACP-EU relations in the post-Cotonou years. First of all, the unique legal nature of the partnership, which establishes priorities and shared values, and the joint institutional framework, were safeguarded. At the same time, on European impulse, a more explicit regional differentiation was promoted, through the adoption of three distinct protocols that set specific objectives, strategies and governance systems for each of the three regions of the ACP group: hence a hybrid formula “3 (partnerships) in 1”.

Furthermore, the new agreement identifies six key thematic areas, substantially coinciding with the proposals formulated by the EU in its recent Global Strategy with Africa. In terms of political dialogue, it is a question of revitalizing some issues already present in the Cotonou regime: human rights, democracy and governance; peace and security; human and social development. On the contrary, trade liberalization, the real pillar of the Lomè Conventions (which between 1975 and 2000 regulated the partnership), seems to have taken a back seat, absorbed by the more general theme of the contribution of trade to inclusive and sustainable economic growth. However, the Economic Partnership Agreements will remain in force, despite the criticalities expressed above all by the African partners. The European footprint is also evident from the emphasis given to two new priorities: environmental sustainability, which includes green transition and the fight against climate change, and migration and mobility, the latter a very sensitive issue on which a meeting point must be sought between the European agenda (which aims at the stipulation of repatriation agreements and the responsibility of the partner countries in the management of irregular migratory flows) and that of the ACP countries, whose priorities are the opening of regular migration channels and the facilitation of remittances. On these issues, the new agreement will seek to promote greater cooperation in international fora and the building of global alliances between the two blocs of countries.

A final new element concerns the issue of the financial resources intended to ensure the implementation of the agreement. The European Development Fund will in fact be absorbed by the new “Instrument for Neighborhood, Development and International Cooperation”: in this way, the main development cooperation instrument with the ACP countries will, for the first time, be removed from the purely intergovernmental framework, and inserted within the multi-annual financial framework of the Union for the period 2021-2027 (with a budget of € 70.8 billion), giving greater decision-making weight to the Community bodies (including the European Parliament).


The new text shall now be ratified by both parties before entering into force in the course of 2021. In the European context, the approval of the Council will be required, on the basis of a Commission proposal, following the approval of the European Parliament, which obtained the maintaining of the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly, having placed it as a non-negotiable condition for its assent. The implementation process will then begin: a complex challenge that will require, to be successful, huge investments in terms of creativity, openness to dialogue and political capital. Only in this way will it be possible to shape a mutually beneficial partnership, suitable for addressing the priorities of the global-development agenda for the coming decades.


This article was published on Feb. 12, 2021, in the Europea section of the site

Centro Studi sul Federalismo

© 2001 - 2021 - Centro Studi sul Federalismo - Codice Fiscale 94067130016

Credits  |  About  |  Privacy Policy  |  Cookies
Fondazione Compagnia San Paolo
The activities of the Centre for Studies on Federalism are  accomplished thanks to the support of Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo
Fondazione Collegio Carlo Alberto
Our thanks to Fondazione Collegio Carlo Alberto

This website uses cookies to manage authentication, navigation, and other functions. By using our website, you agree that we can place these types of cookies on your device.