The ACP must not let the EU determine its future

On November 29, Ministers from the 79-member African, Caribbean and Pacific group of states (the ACP) will meet in Brussels. There they are expected to agree a set of principles that will determine the ACP’s approach to negotiating a successor arrangement to the Cotonou Partnership Agreement. This is the treaty which ends in February 2020, that presently provides the legally binding basis for the ACP’s political, economic, trade and development relationship with Europe.

Speaking to me about this recently, the ACP Secretary General, Patrick Gomes, who was formerly Guyana’s Ambassador in Brussels, made clear that the meeting is intended to continue a process of renewal, enabling the ACP to become an influential global player in economic governance and policy development, and a body better suited to the world in which it now finds itself. Such an approach, he believes, will not only enhance the ACP’s value as a partner for the European Union, but will also enable it to become a voice for the Global South at a time when international relationships are changing.

The intention is, he says, to develop a much broader partnership with Europe when it comes to agreeing a new relationship with the EU. Apart from achieving a new legally binding treaty that builds on the Cotonou Agreement and all that has been achieved previously, a principal objective will be, he says, to use the recently agreed UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to provide the framework for a new ACP approach.

The aim is to create a future partnership with Europe not dominated by aid, but instead focussed on those SDG goals that the ACP group and the EU are well placed to jointly develop a common position on. Such an approach, he believes, could enable the group to place much more emphasis on the social sector in areas such as health, higher education, research and innovation, and encourage intra-ACP agro-industrial, political and development co-operation. It would do so, Ambassador Gomes says, in ways that would enable the ACP to move up the global value chain, by encouraging trade, services and investment between the countries of the south.

This would, he believes, not only increase the relevance and effectiveness of the ACP as a group but would enhance the relationship with Europe by creating a new north-south development model.

He makes the point that the previous decision by the EU to proceed with regional Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) was disruptive and took up time within the group, making it seem to many like trade was everything in the relationship. However, what is now important, he says, in developing a fresh convention, is to agree new areas of competence and a shared comparative advantage. For example, a new agreement with the EU could include provision for the development of the blue economy, migration – which he believes the ACP has not focussed enough on – as well social issues, climate change, and on conflict prevention and resolution.

He also says that it will be necessary to revise and update the Georgetown Agreement of 1975 which created the ACP so as to reflect the now more advanced socio-economic development needs of many ACP nations, with middle income status and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

That said, it is clear that the negotiations for a successor to the Cotonou Agreement will be taking place against a very different and more difficult European background than before.

For Europe, new and different priorities prevail over those that existed when the Cotonou Convention was signed in 2000. These include deep inter-European political concerns about migration, a rising tide of nationalism, major and diverting crises in the Middle East, a revanchist Russia, and the UK’s decision to leave the EU: all of which are causing some EU member states and some in the European Commission to question the relevance of a relationship with the ACP as a whole.

Although there is now backing for a legally binding future treaty relationship, a position supported by the present French government and the European Parliament, there are also many currents lines of thought as to what shape a new agreement should take.

For example, there is a preference in some EU member states for a political and development dialogue based on regional disaggregation – this would see the Latin American and Caribbean region as the vehicle for delivery – while others doubting the viability of the ACP structure, its financial sustainability, and capacity to implement, suggest a much looser portfolio of thematic relationships.

However, in a largely helpful indication of the possible shape of a future agreement, the European Parliament has just passed a non-binding resolution making clear what it expects the EU to achieve in its negotiations with the ACP for a successor agreement to the Cotonou Agreement. This includes a common framework, with regional agreements allowing the possibility that other countries might be included; the placing of UN Sustainable Development Goals at the centre of a new agreement; strong monitoring mechanisms; financing ideally being brought within the purview of the EU budget; and a central role for civil society and the private sector.

After nearly two years of soul-searching by the ACP group, a report from an eminent persons’ group, regional consultations, ambassadorial meetings and a high level debate within and beyond the ACP, the challenge now for the group is achieving a single authoritative ACP position setting out how it sees its future, and what it expects from a successor arrangement to the Cotonou Agreement.

If it fails to demonstrate solidarity and a commitment when Ministers meet, there is a real danger that the EU alone may once again set its own, possibly quite different agenda.

As the Chair of the ACP Committee of Ambassadors, Len Ishmael, who is the OECS Ambassador to the EU, notes, there is a sense that ACP solidarity has diminished.

In particularly telling remarks, she made clear recently that unless a well-crafted operational plan is developed by the Committee of Ambassadors working with the ACP Secretariat, and agreement is achieved at the Ministerial Council meeting, the space will be left open for Europe to dictate the terms of engagement.

On this Ambassador Gomes is very clear. He says that the ACP must not let this happen. He believes that it is essential that the November Council meeting agrees objectives so that the Secretariat can begin to shape the outline of a negotiating mandate to take forward to ACP Heads of Government in preparation for negotiations with the EU that are expected to begin in 2018.