Time to be honest about the ACP?

Two weeks ago, on ACP day – an event to the best of my knowledge not widely celebrated – an unusually frank and honest lecture was delivered at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM). This is the Europe based strategic think tank with a positive and long-standing reputation for being supportive of Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries.

What was said was unusually challenging and valid, in that the remarks, albeit delivered in a personal capacity, came from someone who is widely known and respected across Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific, and in EU government circles, because of his deep commitment to the importance of development policy and the nations of the ACP: Geert Laporte, the Deputy Director of ECDPM.

Mr Laporte’s approach was to ask some fundamental questions about the future validity of the ACP as an institution.

Instead of posing the usual question about the desirability of the 79 nation ACP group continuing, he asked whether there was any realistic or feasible basis on which the ACP could be considered to have a future role in relation to ACP-EU cooperation in global governance.

His question was particularly relevant as this has been the recent focus of an ACP Eminent Persons Group and an Ambassadorial Working Group trying to determine the future orientation of the ACP, which beyond its present focus on commodity matters faces an uncertain long-term future.

Why Mr Laporte’s remarks were interesting is that he asked the type of questions that are rarely mentioned in public by governments, politicians or those who are wedded to institutions that are of declining relevance to a much changed world.

Setting aside the subtleties of some of what was said*, Geert Laporte asked three fundamental questions.

Firstly, on which global issues has ACP-EU collective action had a major impact; which global issues covered in the ACP-EU partnership have moved to other fora over time; and if there had been a real convergence of interest between the ACP and the EU enabling both parties to turn global processes to their joint advantage?

Secondly, he asked whether the ACP offered added value on global themes in ways not covered by other institutions, and to what extent it was the best grouping to serve the global interests of its members.

And finally, he questioned the extent to which the ACP-EU partnership plays an important role in furthering the EU’s ambitions and strategic interests.

His response was to consider the ACP from the perspective of current reality rather than through the optic of history or the more normal subjective rhetoric of solidarity, shared interests and partnership.

Tellingly, he pointed out that in the past few years most of the ACP’s roles have been taken over by other international organisations and groupings.

‘Security, peace, migration, democracy, and human rights are no longer primarily addressed through the ACP-EU framework’. These global issues have moved elsewhere, he suggested. They were now largely dealt with through the regional or continental fora of the nations of the ACP, he said.

He noted too that the ACP’s economic and trade related roles are being gradually taken over at a regional level and that interaction between the ACP and EU at an official and parliamentary level was waning, with few European Ministers attending ACP-EU Council meetings.

He also questioned whether in comparison to the turn of the century, non-state actors still had an interest. He suggested, for example, most ACP businesses now argue that there is greater opportunity in Asia.

He also asked why it was that if the ACP had validity, it was unable to fund itself and what would happen if European Development Fund support was to disappear.

Geert Laporte’s paper, although not likely to be popular in some parts of the ACP, is above all realistic and honest.

As Suriname will discover when it takes the position of Secretary General in 2015, if the ACP is not demand led after 2020, or cannot establish a clear role that delivers positive results, then it is simply living on history and shared experience and will be able to add little if anything to its members’ desire for economic growth and political influence.

The ACP was at its zenith in the latter part of the Cold War, offering the former colonial powers and the transatlantic alliance a bulwark against Soviet communism. Its ability to deliver on its collective interests came largely in relation to negotiating arrangements with Europe that were in the broadest sense preferential. Today in a multi-polar world in which there are overlapping interests and organisations, and constantly shifting issues-based alliances, it is hard to see what practical value the body can offer its members or Europe not covered by others.

Why China, Brazil or any other emerging powers should want the ACP as an interlocutor also seems questionable when it is clear that both nations have defined approaches to Africa, the Pacific and Caribbean as separate strategic entities, and are now embedded in the G77 and other ascendant international organisations.

As Mr Laporte argues, the time has come for the group to be ‘VERY REALISTIC about its future’ (his capitalisation), what it could do and what it is better not do as a group, with the EU or with other nations.

The reality is that the ACP members now have little economic commonality in that its membership includes middle-income countries, less developed countries, and vulnerable, fragile and failed states, making collective action less likely.

Put another way the message is clear: as with a company, so with a modern state and the institutions to which it belongs. Demand, competitive advantage, a positive brand and having a unique selling point are the prerequisites for survival.

Above all, if the ACP has validity, it should be able to mobilise its own resources from its own member states. If it does not, as sad as it is to write this having lived through much of ACP history, it is an organisation past its time.

Geert Laporte suggested some alternative areas in which the ACP might reinvent itself to offer something of substance in the global arena. It is a part of an argument that seems to owe more to politeness than conviction.

David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at david.jessop@stagingcaribbean.wpengage.uk

*Mr Laporte’s remarks can be read in full at http://ecdpm.org/publications/challenges-global-governance-emerging-world-order-acp-eu-relations-2020/