David Jessop, Contributor
Few people in the Caribbean are likely to have ever heard of the Joint Caribbean EU Partnership Strategy. Agreed on November 19, it establishes a new political framework for all future cooperation between Europe and the entire Caribbean region.
The document, which has been under negotiation between Cariforum and the European Union since May 2010, follows from a decision taken more than two years ago at an EU-Cariforum Summit in Madrid to establish core areas of mutual interest, namely regional integration, the reconstruction of Haiti, climate change and natural disasters, crime and security, and joint action in multilateral fora.
This potentially far-reaching strategy which is also little known in Europe, is intended to provide a framework for a long-term political relationship between the EU and the nations of Cariforum.
The document covers not just the members of Caricom and the Dominican Republic, but also embraces the independent Caribbean's relationship with the Overseas Territories of Britain and the Netherlands and the French département d'outre-mer (the DOM).
It implies through a footnote that lists Cariforum's members that the strategy may apply to Cuba too - presumably a reflection of Europe's desire to ensure similar language in the EU Cuba agreement that the European Commission has just begun drafting a negotiating mandate for.
The process that led to the agreed document began formally in March 2010 in Kingston, Jamaica, when a small number of Cariforum and European ministers and officials agreed that there was a need to formalise exchanges between the Caribbean and Europe.
They did so in the light of an earlier European agreement with Latin America and the Caribbean on the need 'for a structured and comprehensive political dialogue'.
Since that time the text has been largely developed by Caribbean ambassadors working with European Officials with reference to ministers.
The content of the 20-page document is unusual, not least because it sets out in detail joint actions to be undertaken.
While much of what it says is to be expected, common place or simply codifies the nature of existing cooperation, it hints at longer term thinking and a changed approach.
In relation to regional development, it makes clear that a common objective for Europe and Cari-forum should, from now on, be to strengthen regional integration and cooperation with neighbouring countries in Central America and South America, as well as with the dependent territories and the DOM.
Haiti has a chapter of its own. The strategy makes clear that the objective is to advance Haiti's role in intra-regional cooperation through a range of measures relating to trade, financing and climate change. It also proposes measures facilitating cross-border trade, investment and dialogue with the Dominican Republic.
Climate change and natural disasters are another theme. Apart from proposing actions to address the more obvious concerns of small island states in relation to global warning, the document envisages positive interaction between all in the Latin American region, recognising the Caribbean Sea as a special area in the context of sustainable development.
When it comes to crime and security the document breaks new ground. Up to now cooperation with Europe has been on a bilateral and regional basis with those EU member states that have had a long-standing engagement with the region.
The strategy document makes clear that Europe is now going to develop with Cariforum on a bi-regional security policy to address criminality, the trade in weapons, narcotics trafficking, gang violence and money laundering. It also sets out areas such as maritime and airspace control, trafficking and financial compliance standards as being areas on which Europe and the countries of Caribbean will work together.
The joint strategy also makes clear that enhanced policy cooperation is anticipated in international bodies on matters of common concern such as human rights, regulation, trade and competitiveness.
Surprisingly perhaps, since it is a joint EU Cariforum document, the strategy mirrors the controversial new thinking and priorities underpinning Europe's proposed future approach to development assistance.
This proposes the graduation out of aid of countries and regions like the Caribbean and a future focus being on the same thematic areas that appear in the strategy.
The document has appeared at a time when it is far from clear how the Caribbean ought best to position itself in the world.
Global interrelationships are in flux, trading patterns are changing, new powers are emerging and individual Caribbean nations have only recently begun to consider how to rebalance their relationships between Europe, North America, China, Brazil and others.
The EU of course remains a significant trading power, a source of funding, albeit diminishing, a promoter of shared values and for most nations, a significant counter-weight to US power in the region.
However, this may now be of less relevance as new partners with significant resources, and strategies more in tune with longer-term regional thinking, move to fill the space vacated by the ending of preference.
In particular, China and Venezuela have become potent forces in the region through their investments, development assistance, concessionary mechanisms such as PetroCaribe and the new synergies that Brazil and Russia too, are creating in hemispheric and international fora.
What this may mean practically is that the new EU Cariforum strategy may be coming into force when both the region and Europe have less interest and less ability to implement it.
The development of this little known new policy initiative with Europe is worrying for exactly the same reasons that were present during the Economic Partnership Agreement negotiations.
It suggests yet again that the Caribbean is entering into a strategically important arrangement when the world around it is changing and before it has a clear future strategy of its own.
While it is to be welcomed that Europe and the Caribbean wish to deepen their many shared values and an already strong functional relationship, security apart, the implied depth of the proposed partnership may be impossible to deliver.
What is odd is that the agreement comes at a time when Caribbean governments are becoming more and more concerned about being graduated out of development assistance by Europe, are struggling to make the EPA work, are suggesting that a strengthened ACP is required that will broaden south-south relations, and more generally are opening the regional space to other nations that have the wherewithal and interest in developing a new political agenda with the region.
Put another way the agreement requires the region to make clear in its own terms how it relates to the other international relationships it is developing.
David Jessop is director of the Caribbean Council. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org