Hungary digs in against Europe’s Africa-Caribbean-Pacific deal
Devex | 27th March 2023
By Vince Chadwick
Something has to give, and it’s either Hungary, the European Union, or a decadeslong partnership between the EU and 79 African, Caribbean, and Pacific states that many say has had its day.
A top Hungarian official told reporters Thursday that it has no intention of lifting its opposition to the still-unsigned post-Cotonou Agreement between the EU and the Organisation of African, Caribbean, Pacific States, or OACPS, unless the deal is altered to address Budapest’s concerns about migration and sexual education.
Speaking on the margins of a meeting of EU national leaders, Balázs Orbán, a member of parliament and political director for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (no relation), said that the Hungarian government had told the European Commission for years that it had won office thanks to a conservative electorate which did not support “gender education to minors” or the promotion of migration.
But a spokesperson for the European Commission — the EU’s executive body that spent two and a half years negotiating the wide-ranging agreement with the OACPS under a mandate from EU countries, including Hungary — emailed Devex Friday that it “has no intention to reopen the negotiations.”
The question now is who will blink first, and how will the political choreography be arranged to try and turn what is currently a slow-motion diplomatic car crash into the semblance of a new beginning.
Budapest’s bad books
Post-Cotonou is meant to replace the 2000 Cotonou Agreement. It covers broad-stroke topics like good governance and multilateralism, as well as migration and the need for “universal access to quality and affordable comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and education.”
The commission and sympathetic EU member states say the language on sexual education, which refers to international guidance from the likes of UNESCO, is standard for such agreements. And they say the sections on migration strike the right balance between offering legal pathways to Europe while also bolstering procedures on the return and readmission of failed migrants back to their countries of origin.
As a result, many in Brussels believe that Hungary’s opposition to the post-Cotonou Agreement is not about the agreement at all, but rather an attempt to keep leverage over the commission in a separate battle over access to EU funds — currently frozen due to concerns about democratic backsliding in Hungary.
Unlike its predecessor, the post-Cotonou Agreement has no bearing on how EU development assistance is doled out. So when Hungary first began blocking the deal from entering into provisional application, few paid much attention. That allowed the commission to quietly keep rolling over the existing Cotonou Agreement — a process that could technically continue indefinitely.
The problem now is that if Hungary still cannot be brought on board by the latest deadline of June 30 — or slightly before in order for the necessary formalities to take place — then a fourth extension could amplify questions about whether to keep the EU-OACPS format at all.
For its supporters at the commission, the relationship allows Brussels to build alliances in international fora. For its detractors, however, the EU-OACPS dynamic is a post-colonial relic, a sideshow to the burgeoning political partnership between the EU and African Union, and a waste of millions in EU taxpayer money each year spent co-financing a roughly 50-person OACPS secretariat in Brussels that the commission and EU states themselves then largely ignore.
South Africa recently left the OACPS on the grounds that it is superfluous to its relationship with the EU. And even French President Emmanuel Macron appears to have doubts about the relevance of the format. Asked by Devex in February whether it was time to ditch the post-Cotonou Agreement, he said “I share your point. I think that certain frameworks are a bit worn out today and so we must go beyond.”
Privately, many observers welcomed Macron’s candid assessment.
“I’m not surprised,” a former member of the OACPS Committee of Ambassadors told Devex at the time. “He just articulated publicly what many are quietly discussing.”
Any way out?
Members of the European Parliament and the OACPS secretariat in Brussels are making increasingly frantic appeals to EU states to tackle Hungary’s opposition and get the post-Cotonou Agreement signed. Though the issue has so far failed to capture the attention of European leaders. The prime ministers of Luxembourg and Portugal appeared to have only a faint grasp of the subject when questioned by Devex in recent days.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, told member states earlier this month that the issue should now be discussed by EU national leaders. But Charles Michel, the president of the European Council and a former Belgian development minister, is yet to put post-Cotonou on the agenda at a meeting of EU heads of government.
One useful argument for those at the commission and council trying to get the deal across the line is the fact that the post-Cotonou Agreement provides the legal basis for the European Investment Bank to lend in the 79 African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries. Without that, EIB lawyers could curtail the bank’s operations outside the bloc — the last thing Europe needs as it tries to sell its Global Gateway infrastructure investment plan to rival China’s Belt and Road initiative.
But even if Hungary and the commission can resolve their larger battle over access to EU funds, they still need to find a face-saving way for Budapest to then suddenly throw its support behind the same post-Cotonou deal it has been opposing for the past two years.
That is the delicate tango currently being danced behind closed doors. Macron’s apparent jab did not help, but EU officials can at least take heart from the words of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday in Brussels.
Asked by Devex whether the post-Cotonou Agreement was sufficiently on leaders’ radar, why it is still worth fighting for, and how, Scholz replied: “I have heard about it and can reassure you: many other European heads of state and government know what this is about. I hope that the document will get ratified after all, since it is a good basis for our cooperation with these countries.”