Is there a future for the ACP?
Has the African Caribbean and Pacific Group of nations, the ACP, a future beyond 2020, the date that the Cotonou Convention expires?
Judging from the responses to this and related questions at a recent European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) conference in Maastricht, finding a consensus may be far from easy.
At the start of the month, ECDPM brought together 70 ACP and EU participants from a wide range of government, public, and private entities to initiate a debate that has significant implications for future global relationships.
The meeting, held to celebrate the development think tank's 25th anniversary, illustrated a clear difference of opinion between many of those who came from EU member states and those who were associated with ACP nations.
Also of note was a presentation by the European Commission offering a range of options that seemed designed to sustain a structured bureaucratic inter-relationship, and another from China that provided fresh air in a debate that at times struggled to identify what was special about the ACP.
By the end of the meeting, there seemed to be an informal recognition that before many of the challenging questions posed by the conference organisers could be considered, much was up to the ACP and its regions, first to determine the nature and extent of its future role.
There was also a sense that the body could not continue as it was.
It would need to be able to finance itself rather than have its moral integrity weakened by continuing EU support, and would have to make itself relevant and proactive by developing the technical capacity to address the new issues that faced the world such as climate change, food and energy security, and migration.
Europe was still important, but there was a need for the ACP to recognise the way the world had changed. All of its regions needed to enquire beyond government whether the disparate grouping still had relevance in a multipolar world in which relationships overlap.
There was now a case for considering whether greater value might lie in establishing new development, investment, institutional and political arrangements with neighbours in the regions in which ACP countries were located, or in establishing development agreements with China, India, Brazil, and South Africa (the BRICS).
As for Europe, there was a sense that at the level of the member states, most had moved on. The Lisbon Treaty, the move to budgetisation, the increased role of the European Parliament in decision-making had all changed thinking. Moreover, the absence of understanding among electorates of the reasons for sustaining a privileged relationship with former colonies at the same time as there were rising domestic concerns about austerity and migration had changed the political dynamics in the relationship.
As a consequence, a Europe of 27 states was looking elsewhere in a hard-headed way, was increasingly distracted by its own problems, and was seeking different strategic relationships.
Why should the ACP have any greater significance than Central America, one participant asked in private?
This was not, speakers suggested, to imply that Africa in particular did not matter, but the utility of a single ACP group from a European perspective now had much less relevance or attraction. The group needed convincingly to identify new issues, create new and viable political structures, and demonstrate that it had the ability to change.
For its part, the European Commission suggested the possibility of four alternative scenarios: the ACP relationship continuing as it is; separate regional agreements with the component parts of the group; separate agreements as pillars under a slimmer ACP umbrella; and the opening up or enlargement of the ACP configuration.
However, what was far from clear was how representative this view was of the whole commission when some of the important new players in the process were not present at the meeting.
China's participation in the debate was particularly interesting, suggesting that from its perspective, it saw little utility in the ACP group as a whole, but a real opportunity to develop trilateral arrangements with Africa and the EU to find a middle way to activate the goal of common prosperity.
What was clear from the conference was that any solution had to lie not just with the institutions of the ACP, but perhaps more importantly, with the regions that make up the grouping, through a rigorous analysis involving political and economic frankness about whether the ACP had the ability to deliver better what other groupings were now doing.
The organisation had a past, but that was not enough. It needed youth, vigour, and a raison d'être rather than the language of solidarity and process, no matter how important the ACP's shared history and experience had been.
Some significant minds within the ACP are now reflecting on these issues and will in due course come forward with a report for discussion.
What emerged in Maastricht was a series of vignettes indicating how difficult it will be to achieve consensus on a way forward. For the ACP to have a future, it will need not just to find a clear purpose, but will need to do so in the next five years if it is to be able to successfully establish in a likely negotiating period between 2015 and 2020 a reason why Europe should want another treaty with a limited group of nations largely based on European colonisation.
Child of the cold war
In many respects, the ACP was a child of the Cold War, reflecting a practical response to the desire of the West to ensure the future development and political orientation of its existing and former colonies.
However, since 1957, the partnership though the Yaoundé and Lomé Conventions has metamorphosed and been pulled apart by the EPA process.
While some argue that the current treaty, Cotonou, is the only formal European model for managing a development relationship and should be valued, it is not clear yet whether there is enough political will across the ACP or in Europe to bring about change in a manner that would be attractive to both.
Emotional solidarity among the ACP is still strong, but the facts suggest that the grouping may have a tenuous grip on the future if it cannot identify and sustain a clear purpose.
David Jessop is director ofthe Caribbean Council.email@example.com