After Cotonou: How Europe can forge new relations with Africa in 2021

A new Africa-Europe strategic partnership is on the cards. But this will only come to fruition if the European Union gets its member states on board to engage in a substantive discussion with the African Union

Image by Paul Kagame

The European Union’s actions in the last couple of years have signalled its ambitions for a renewed relationship with Africa. On taking office as European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen announced that her new “geopolitical Commission” would make the continent one of its priorities. Her first official visit outside Europe was to the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa. And the EU’s Comprehensive Strategy with Africa was released shortly afterwards, in March 2020.

In 2021, there could be at least two major inflection points in the Africa-Europe relationship: the holding of an AU-EU high-level summit, at which the EU hopes to turn the Comprehensive Strategy with Africa into a full-blown strategic partnership; and the ratification of a treaty to replace the Cotonou agreement, whose origins date back to the 1970s.

The question of when and how the EU will hold a high-level summit with the AU remains unanswered since its original postponement from October 2020. The current Portuguese presidency of the EU had embraced the chance to take an active part in preparing the summit for the first half of 2021. Portugal emphasised its credentials as traditionally playing a key role in Africa-Europe summits and being able to draw on a deep well of knowledge of African affairs. But whether the gathering takes place during its presidency is not entirely up to Portugal. The EU institutions lead on the process from the European side, and fixing a new date for the summit is in the hands of the European Council president – but that also requires alignment with interested member states like Portugal and France. Only then can the EU bundle efforts into a greater whole to achieve progress in the dialogue.

The EU could use the current uncertainty around the next AU-EU summit to develop stronger working-level relationships between the AU and EU. Regular annual AU-EU ministerial meetings are already due to take place as agreed in the AU-EU summit in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in 2017, and such a meeting is planned for 2021 in Kigali, Rwanda as well. On the EU side, this falls under the leadership of the high representative, Josep Borrell, and could be used to move forward the dialogue in terms of substance.

The EU should not yet give up on holding the AU-EU summit in 2021

Fixing a date for the summit is crucial but the EU is right to approach it cautiously. Were the summit postponed for a second time, it would send a negative message about Europe’s commitment to the relationship. The covid-19 situation is unlikely to improve enough to allow for an in-person summit in the first half of the year and AU leaders have made clear they do not want a virtual format. But with the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation already scheduled to take place in the second half of 2021 in Senegal, the AU-EU summit might need to wait until the beginning of 2022, which would mean it falls under the French EU presidency. Some MEPs are already saying the summit should take place during the Portuguese EU presidency to counter the perception of Europe losing ground to China in Africa, which risks weakening Europe’s hand.

Still, the EU should not yet give up on holding the AU-EU summit in 2021. If the European Council agreed on a date with the AU, it would create a goal to work towards. This would galvanise the further substantive work that still needs to be done to address questions held by the African partners on the existing EU strategy.

Meanwhile, the ratification now due of a treaty to replace the Cotonou agreement illustrates the challenge facing the EU in how to strike a balance with its member states in forging a new Africa-Europe relationship. The Cotonou agreement is the principal framework for aid and trade relations between the EU and African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) countries. It expired in 2020 and negotiations for its renewal culminated in a political deal in December last year. That was a significant step forward after a two-year long negotiation process, but full ratification by member states on both sides could take another three years.

The post-Cotonou agreement is an attempt to move from the donor-recipient paradigm contained in the former treaty towards a political dialogue framework guided by the AU-EU relationship. This is also reflected in the creation of three regional protocols separating the African, Caribbean, and Pacific states from one another, as requested by African leaders. The new agreement is a step towards drawing together the various strands of Africa-Europe relations under the AU-EU umbrella. But bringing so many threads together will not be easy. And the issue of migration has already proved knotty.

The EU has sought to make the future AU-EU strategic partnership the centrepiece of Africa-Europe relations, and in doing so it went beyond its negotiating mandate in the post-Cotonou deal by expanding the migration topic beyond what the Cotonou treaty enabled. That agreement had provided for a migration cooperation framework under an article of the treaty, while the new proposals envision migration becoming a title on its own, securing binding commitments for migration flows regulation. This is problematic, because migration is a shared competence between the EU and its member states, meaning that the European Commission needs to gain national capitals’ consent and address their concerns in a constructive and satisfactory way. Instead, the commission has attempted to give itself a bigger role in this domain, which has created friction with EU member states, in particular Poland and Hungary. Of course, this internal dynamic does not go unnoticed by African states as they consider what to do about concluding an overall strategic partnership.

In 2021, the EU and its member states should find a way to express and accommodate strong national views on matters important to the European relationship with Africa while not upsetting the broader relationship. If momentum is lost due to the internal EU dynamic, it is unlikely that a renewed strategic partnership between the two continents will amount to much more than political rhetoric.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Programme Coordinator, Africa programme

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