Time for a lite and flexible ACP relationship?
On March 21, the European Commission published a summary of submissions on the future relationship between Europe and the 78-member African, Caribbean and Pacific group of nations (ACP).
Their reason for doing so was because the Cotonou Convention the treaty that links the European Union (EU) mainly to its former colonies ends in 2020, and there is uncertainty in Europe about whether there should be a successor arrangement, what its nature should be, and about the future of the ACP as a group.
Judging from a table at the end of the report, one might conclude that the Caribbean, or at least its institutions and civil society, do not care much about any of these issues, as the Eastern Caribbean (EC) received only one response from the region, and that was from Jamaica.
However, this minimal reaction should perhaps come as no surprise as the EC's original October 2015 discussion document on the subject and request for submissions was not well publicised. Moreover, most Caribbean civil-society organisations are weak in terms of capacity, and many feel marginalised by governments and regional institutions, believing that they will be ignored if they develop an alternative voice or new thinking.
Also concerning was the fact that there were only 23 responses from ACP nations, but 103 from Europe, with the majority of these coming from the UK and Belgium, largely one suspects from agencies with a vested interest.
Notwithstanding, the report focuses on the issues that will likely guide the EC's approach when later this year it publishes its future thinking on its post-Cotonou
relationship with the ACP.
In line with much of its own thinking, it observes that the respondents largely agreed that the EU's future relations should prioritise the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed on last year. It highlights global challenges such as climate change, poverty reduction, inequality, migration and security, and it observes that private-sector development, an improved business environment, business promotion, and the development of the digital economy were all seen by respondents as priorities in a future framework for ACP growth.
The report also notes that there was a large consensus on the need for a stronger and broader engagement with all types of civil-society stakeholder and for a new type of approach to enable this, including a legal framework establishing consultative mechanisms, access to information, and more transparency to ensure increased non-government participation in the relationship.
The sixteen-page paper additionally highlights responses that suggest the need to take into consideration new and evolving partnerships within ACP regions, and whether a more focused, lighter approach is now required.
"One option," the report observes, "could be that of maintaining a revised and slimmed-down EU-ACP agreement as an umbrella agreement, complemented with individual and more substantial agreements at the regional level." It also notes that some responses
suggested splitting the current ACP partnership into three specific geographical groupings and no longer considering the ACP as one, noting also an interest in expanding the partnership to neighbouring countries.
By coincidence or design, the same day that the EC was releasing the findings of its public consultation, the ACP Eminent Persons Group delivered a draft final proposal on the group's future to the ACP Committee of Ambassadors in Brussels. Although the document is primarily about the ACP itself, and as such for final consideration at an ACP summit in Papua New Guinea at the end of May, it is expected to significantly influence thinking on future ACP-EU relations.
Despite all of this expensive activity, it remains unclear what CARICOM or CARIFORUM's position on the future of the ACP relationship might be.
This is because unlike the EC, which at least has clear consultative mechanisms for civil society, and regularly publishes documents on issues that have long-term policy implications, there is little inter-regional transparency on this or any other long-term external policy issue that warrants public debate.
What little exists in the public domain on the subject of the likely or preferred options for a future relationship between the Caribbean and its ACP counterparts, or between the region and the EU, is contained in an enigmatic press statement that
followed a recently held meeting of the CARIFORUM Council of Ministers in Guyana on March 17.
This says that ministers in the context of a detailed discussion about the future of the ACP and ACP/EU relations took note of the final report of the ACP Eminent Persons' Group, adding that "ministers reviewed the options for the future of the ACP which would be most advantageous to CARIFORUM and mandated the convening of a CARIFORUM meeting on the future of the ACP preparatory to the 8th Summit of ACP Heads of State and Government. They agreed that the summary document arising from the said Meeting would be utilised to assist CARIFORUM States in their preparation for and participation in the Summit".
In other words, the Caribbean is on the cusp of agreeing its perspective on a long-term relationship with the ACP, and by extension, the framework within which it will in future work with Europe, but so far cannot make clear what this will be, or the long-term regional, hemispheric or global strategy, or the foreign or economic policy objectives that this is being positioned against.
In a world of flux and uncertainty, it is of course necessary for the Caribbean's future external relations to be rebalanced to take account of changing external political and economic forces, but this only has value if such relationships can be demonstrated to be dynamic, represent value for money, and can be made to work practically for civil society.
Few would argue against the long-term political and diplomatic value of international solidarity, or introducing into the ACP or EU relationship the importance of newer crosscutting themes such as climate change, but what more generally is less certain is where and how and when Caribbean interests might best be leveraged in the future.
The region already has a multiplicity of inter-regional and hemispheric relationships, and the sense is that in the next decade, short of a new type of Cold War, obtaining the best political and economic results will involve constantly shifting matrices of alliances on an issue-by-issue basis, suggesting at the very least, that any new arrangement with the ACP should be lite, flexible, but probably significantly heavier bi-regionally with the EU.
n David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at email@example.com