Exclusive: European Commission battles to sell post-Cotonou deal at home

European Commission headquarters in Brussels. Photo by: Thijs ter Haar / CC BY

After last month’s long-awaited “political deal” on a new agreement with 79 African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries, the European Commission is now facing another hurdle: its own member states.

The announcement of a deal in early December from the European Union executive and the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States followed more than two years of negotiations over the successor to the 2000 Cotonou Agreement, which governs relations on key areas between the two sides.

Not yet public but obtained by Devex, the draft text runs to over 170 pages, touching on cooperation in areas from outer space, debt sustainability, and climate change to gender equality, statistics, and personal data. Eking out the language on sensitive topics, such as the return of migrants from Europe and nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, took months.

Most of the 27 EU countries back the compromise, which is yet to be formally signed by the chief negotiators from either side. But Poland and Hungary still want changes, arguing the December text strays too far from the negotiating mandate EU states gave the commission back in 2018.

Deal on EU-ACP accord expected

After more than two years of talks, the successor to the Cotonou Agreement on trade and development is almost done.

A Polish diplomat told Devex on Wednesday their country had “some reservations,” despite a positive overall view of the proposed text. “We need to continue discussions and make some adjustments to the draft text,” they emailed, citing “sexual education issues” and “migration and mobility” among the topics that require “further work.”

But the commission and OACPS say the negotiations on these points are done.

“It looks like a desire to reopen the text,” a senior OACPS official — who, like other sources close to the negotiations, spoke on condition of anonymity — told Devex of the Polish position. “Be assured the OACPS will take a dim view of any such attempt.”

Migration, again

Hungary did not immediately respond to request for comment, though a second diplomat said Budapest was particularly opposed to references to legal migration pathways in the new agreement — a stance the diplomat described as “tactically unwise.”

“What we have in the post-Cotonou Agreement is not only in line with the [negotiating] mandate but by far more ambitious than we could expect considering the initial ACP [African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States] position and also what we couldn’t get in the Cotonou Agreement,” the second diplomat told Devex on Thursday.

“Bear in mind, what Hungary is asking — for example, to suppress some references to legal migration — would implode the whole political deal. So I think they may insist for a while. But at the end, they need to wait to consider whether it is worth it.”

Migration was among the most difficult topics in the talks. Whereas the Cotonou Agreement included only one largely ineffective article on migration, the new text is far more detailed, including an annex with timelines for sending unsuccessful migrants back to their home countries.

At the same time, the new agreement’s language on legal migration is also more comprehensive, covering issues such as legal pathways, visas, circular migration, and family reunification, according to Sergo Mananashvili, a senior expert at the International Centre for Migration Policy Development.

Canvassed by Devex, more than half a dozen states wrote back to broadly defend the December text presented by the commission as a good compromise that they could live with.

“We feel that it won’t be appropriate to reopen the negotiations,” a Belgian spokesperson emailed, “as this could lead to a lesser text on certain dimensions.”

A commission spokesperson told Devex that EU and OACPS negotiators are now finalizing the agreement and that an internal commission consultation is needed before the chief negotiators can initial the final text in the coming weeks. “The Commission will then adopt proposals for Council Decisions on signature and conclusion of the Agreement and will transmit them to the Council in early 2021,” the spokesperson wrote.

Mixed messages

That step could herald another, even bigger battle, however, as lawyers in the EU institutions and national governments debate the nature of the agreement itself.

EU states kick the tires of Team Europe plans

The European Commission wants to do things differently in its 2021-2027 development work. Member states want to see the fine print.

EU member states are urging the commission to treat the agreement, like its predecessor, as a “mixed agreement,” meaning that some topics fall under the competency of member states. Jean-Claude Boidin, a former EU ambassador and official in the commission’s development department, predicted in a recent analysis for the European Centre for Development Policy Management think tank that the deal will “most certainly” remain mixed due to its broad scope.

However, the commission is pushing for an EU-only agreement, the second diplomat told Devex, partly over concerns that some member states’ parliaments may block the ratification that is required for mixed agreements to enter fully into force.

A mixed agreement also requires the consensus of all member states in the Council of the EU, meaning Hungary and Poland could continue to raise objections in Brussels. The second diplomat predicted that those two countries would eventually come to see the advantages of the deal reached in December but that the dispute with the commission over the nature of the agreement risked taking more time.

Member states would see an EU-only agreement as sending a weaker political signal, the second diplomat said, as well as contradicting the commission’s recent efforts to champion a “Team Europe” approach from all EU countries to international development.

“For now I don’t see any flexibility from the Council [member states’] side,” the second diplomat added, raising the prospect of further delays should member states “need to ask the Commission to change the text of the agreement and go back and negotiate with the ACP a text that reflects a mixed agreement.”

The European Parliament is unable to add amendments, but it must also vote to approve or reject the final deal. At least on the last point, the commission can now rest easier. After members of the European Parliament threatened to withhold their support over the curtailed role of the Joint Parliamentary Assembly, where deputies meet with counterparts from parliaments in OACPS countries, the commission won EU states’ backing to strengthen this aspect of the deal.

Those amendments, designed to enhance the democratic bona fides of the partnership, are yet to be made public.

About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.