Saint Lucia

Preparing for post-Cotonou trade

Post-Cotonou negotiations were high on the agenda as ACP dignitaries met for the 9th Summit of Heads of State and Government in Kenya in December 2019 (Photo courtesy ACP}

Trade and development in the Caribbean is nearing a crucial deadline. Time is running down on the Cotonou Partnership Agreement (CPA), a landmark piece of legislation signed two decades ago that forged important political and economic links between Caribbean, African and European nations.

The CPA expires at the end of this month, giving stakeholders until March 1 to devise a workable replacement – a deadline that they look set to miss as negotiations roll on. Although progress has been made between the parties, challenges remain given that the global context is very different than it was at the turn of the millennium when the CPA was originally created.

What is the CPA?

Ratified in Cotonou, Benin in June 2000, the CPA carries a long list of signatories encompassing the then-members of the European Union and the nations that make up the African, Caribbean and Pacific States (ACP).

In the abstract, the agreement was designed to eradicate poverty, support sustainable development and integrate the ACP countries more fully into the world economy. In its practical application, the CPA has allowed the EU to channel development funding into a variety of projects in the ACP through the European Development Fund (EDF) as well as establishing the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) that govern treatment of ACP exports into European markets.

Stumbling blocks

The CPA has been revised twice, once in 2005 and again in 2010, to reflect the changing geopolitical landscape. Now that the agreement is expiring entirely, it’s a chance for all parties to create something more suited to their current needs and goals. Negotiations to that end began in 2018 and areas of tension were apparent from the outset.

Today’s European Union is a very different animal from that seen in 2000. In the current climate of nationalism/populism, nations are looking inward rather than out and politicians are under pressure to firm up borders and shy away from globalisation. Relations between the EU and its former colonies have become somewhat strained as a result, and the recent Windrush generation scandal in the UK only added fuel to the fire. Going into negotiations, the ACP nations sought greater movement and skill-sharing while the EU looked for enhanced management and oversight of migration to crack down on illegal immigration.

Another area that the EU is keen to revisit is development financing. Having poured millions into its less developed partners through the EDF, the bloc is now attempting to tighten its belt and move from its role as a wealthy donor to a more reciprocal arrangement. The European electorate has been feeling the pinch of austerity for several years now and has less tolerance for expensive development assistance programmes that have no domestic impact beyond adding to the rising public debt. In response, the EU is proposing to refinance the EDF, mainstreaming it into the Union’s 2012-2027 multi-annual budget.

Fractures within the EU have weakened its position and none more so than the high-profile snub from one of its most powerful members. Formally exiting from the Union earlier this month, Britain is now free of its European agreements and this leaves the CPA in an uncertain position. While CARICOM has negotiated separate EPAs with the newly-independent UK, their absence from the CPA is likely to have a significant impact on political allegiances and development funding.

The EU is not the only group at the table showing cracks, however. The ACP has also waned in the 20 years since the CPA was first signed. Though its members share certain common goals and concerns, not all developing or low-income countries are alike and it must be noted that the ACP encompasses three very different regions and 79 nations. The ACP is in the process of revising the Georgetown Agreement in preparation for its new incarnation as the Organization of ACP States and is also fending off overlap with the African Union, which has been quietly building its own bilateral relationship with the EU. At risk of being sidelined, Pacific and Caribbean partners have begun looking to other south-south allies such as Brazil. The rise of China and the Middle East North Africa (MENA) bloc also points to an era where old alliances must be redrawn and the traditional model of a united ACP front against with the dominant EU has grown stale.

Progress so far

According to those involved in the negotiations, the new and improved CPA will not materialise by March 1. Instead, it’s likely that the ACP and EU will create an extension giving them until December 31, 2020.

In the two years since the post-Cotonou negotiations began there have been two rounds of discussions, the most recent concluding in April 2019. The first stage tackled the basics – addressing the overarching principles of the original agreement and re-establishing strategic priorities such as those relating to human rights, social development, inclusive economic growth and environmental sustainability. In this first round, the friction points included an obligation to “promote and respect sexual orientation and gender identity”, to which the ACP objected, and the principle of sovereignty, with the ACP seeking a policy of non-intervention on internal conflicts. There has also been considerable back and forth over trade, with the EU pushing ACP nations for more liberalisation of their markets and to go beyond their WTO obligations.

Despite these hurdles, enough consensus was reached for the talks to go forward, and a second round began in 2019, this time on developing regional protocols with the individual regions of the ACP. Discussions on the Caribbean side are being largely led by a Central Negotiating Group (CNG) comprised of the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Jamaica and Saint Lucia at the ministerial level, alongside an Ambassadorial CNG whose remit is technical discussions in collaboration with a delegation from Brussels. These negotiations are currently ongoing.

The slow but steady progress seen in the first stages of the post-Cotonou negotiations appears to have entered more of a holding pattern with very little to show on the regional protocols and several crucial, hot button issues still at a standstill – such as development and post-Brexit trade. With much still to be determined, and a worrying silence from stakeholders so far this year, it remains to be seen if there will be a new agreement on the table by December.