Opinion April 1, 2016 | 9:39 am

Time for a lite and flexible ACP relationship?

On March 21 the European Commission published a summary ofsubmissions on the future relationship between Europe and the 78 memberAfrican, Caribbean and Pacific Group of nations (the ACP).

Their reason for doing so was because the CotonouConvention – the Treaty that links the EU mainly to its former colonies – ends in 2020, and there is uncertainty inEurope about whether there should be a successor arrangement, what its natureshould be, and about the future of the ACP as a group.

Judging from a table at the end of the report, one mightconclude that the Caribbean, or at least its institutions and civil society, donot care much about any of these issues, as the EC received only one responsefrom the region, and that was from Jamaica.

However, this minimal reaction should perhaps come as no surpriseas the EC’s original October 2015 discussion document on the subject andrequest for submissions was not well publicised. Moreover, most Caribbean civilsociety organizations are weak in terms of capacity, and many feel marginalisedby governments and regional institutions, believing that they will be ignoredif they develop an alternative voice or new thinking.

Also concerning was the fact that there were only 23responses from ACP nations, but 103 from Europe, with the majority of thesecoming from the UK and Belgium; largely one suspects from agencies with avested interest.

Notwithstanding, the report focusses on the issues thatwill likely guide the EC’s approach when later this year it publishes itsfuture thinking on its post-Cotonou relationship with the ACP.

In line with much of its own thinking, it observes that therespondents largely agreed that the EU’s future relations should prioritise theimplementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed last year.It highlights global challenges such as climate change, poverty reduction,inequality, migration, and security, and it observes that private sectordevelopment, an improved business environment, business promotion, and thedevelopment of the digital economy, were all seen by respondents as prioritiesin a future framework for ACP growth.

The report also notes that there was a large consensus onthe need for a stronger and broader engagement with all types of civil societystakeholder and for a new type of approach to enable this, including a legalframework establishing consultative mechanisms, access to information and moretransparency to ensure increased non-government participation in therelationship.

The sixteen-page paper additionally highlights responsesthat suggest the need to take into consideration new and evolving partnershipswithin ACP regions, and whether a more focused, lighter approach is nowrequired.

‘One option,’ the report observes, ‘could be that ofmaintaining a revised and slimmed-down EU-ACP agreement as an umbrellaagreement, complemented with individual and more substantial agreements at theregional level,’. It also notes that some responses suggested splitting thecurrent ACP partnership into three specific geographical groupings and nolonger considering the ACP as one, noting also an interest in expanding thepartnership to neighboring countries.

By coincidence or design, the same day that the EC wasreleasing the findings of its public consultation, the ACP Eminent PersonsGroup delivered a draft final proposal on the group’s future to the ACPCommittee of Ambassadors in Brussels. Although the document is primarily aboutthe ACP itself, and as such for final consideration at an ACP Summit in PapuaNew Guinea at the end of May, it is expected to influence significantly thinkingon future ACP-EU relations.

Despite all of this expensive activity, it remains unclearwhat CARICOM or CARIFORUM’s position on the future of the ACP relationshipmight be.

This is because unlike the EC, which at least has clearconsultative mechanisms for civil society, and regularly publishes documents onissues that have long term policy implications, there is little inter-regionaltransparency on this or any other long-term external policy issue that warrantspublic debate.

What little exists in the public domain on the subject ofthe likely or preferred options for a future relationship between the Caribbeanand its ACP counterparts, or between the region and the EU, is contained in anenigmatic press statement that followed a recently held Meeting of theCARIFORUM Council of Ministers in Guyana on March 17.

This says that ministers in the context of a detaileddiscussion about the future of the ACP and ACP/EU relations took note of thefinal report of the ACP Eminent Persons’ Group, adding ‘Ministers reviewed theoptions for the future of the ACP which would be most advantageous to CARIFORUMand mandated the convening of a CARIFORUM Meeting on the Future of the ACPpreparatory to the 8th Summit of ACP Heads of State and Government. They agreedthat the summary document arising from the said Meeting would be utilized toassist CARIFORUM States in their preparation for and participation in theSummit’.

In other words, the Caribbean is on the cusp of agreeing itperspective on a long-term relationship with the ACP, and by extension theframework within which it will in future work with Europe, but so far cannotmake clear what this will be, or the long-term regional, hemispheric, or globalstrategy, or the foreign or economic policy objectives that this is beingpositioned against.

In a world in flux and uncertainty it is of coursenecessary for the Caribbean’s future external relations to be rebalanced totake account of changing by external political and economic forces, but thisonly has value if such relationships can be demonstrated to be dynamic,represent value for money, and can be made to work practically for civilsociety.

Few would argue against the long term political anddiplomatic value of international solidarity, or introducing into the ACP or EUrelationship the importance of newer cross-cutting themes such as climatechange, but what more generally is less certain is where and how and whenCaribbean interests might best be leveraged in the future.

The region already has a multiplicity of inter-regional andhemispheric relationships and the sense is that in the next decade, short of anew type of cold war, obtaining the best political and economic results willinvolve constantly shifting matrixes of alliances on an issue by issue basis;suggesting at the very least, that any new arrangement with the ACP should belite, flexible, but probably significantly heavier bi-regionally with theEU.

David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council andcan be contacted at [email protected]

Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org

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