Keeping the Caribbean close to Europe

European relations with the Caribbean need to be reviewed as one of its key treaties nears its expiration date, with renegotiations starting in June. It comes at a time when Caribbean countries are investigating how to position themselves in international politics.

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Bitterness over Europe’s ebbing interest in the Caribbean signifies the loosening of post-colonial ties that still bind some Western European nations to the region.

When in October 2010, the European Union tried to gain speaker rights in the United Nations General Assembly, their efforts were blocked by a majority of seventy-six states, led by fifteen Caribbean nations. Experts saw this as a major diplomatic debacle, since most of these states were main beneficiaries of EU developmental aid, and considered allies in international relations.

This was met with disbelief in the EU’s Member State missions to the UN, and in the EU-offices in Brussels, writes Morten Broberg, Professor and Jean Monnet Chair at the Faculty of Law of the University of Copenhagen in a 2016 article for the European Foreign Affairs Review.

“Talking behind firmly closed doors to both European Union and EU Member State diplomats, the rather undiplomatic term ‘betrayal’ regularly slips through their lips,” writes Broberg.

“Apparently,” he continues: “it is a widespread opinion in Brussels that for decades the two sides have been close allies in international affairs, as has been reflected not only in strong political and cultural ties, but also in the fact that they have cooperated for many years within the so-called ACP framework – and for years the European Union has provided substantial development assistance and attractive trade preferences to the small countries on the other side of the Atlantic.”

But among Caribbean diplomats and politicians, a “prevalent viewpoint seems to be that the European Union has forgotten its Caribbean allies so that today the Union channels virtually all its attention as well as its funding towards Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Broberg writes that “in economic terms the Caribbean countries play only a very limited role when viewed from Brussels.”

But by blocking the EU’s efforts, he writes that the Caribbean nations, “irrespective of their small size, sent a clear message that it would be wrong to overlook them in international negotiations.”

To Michael Emerson, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies and Jan Wouters, Professor of international law and international organizations at Leuven University, it meant that the EU “must do its diplomatic homework better.”

In a report for the Centre for European Policy Studies published in the year of the UN speaking rights-affair, they write that the EU underestimated the combined influence that the Caribbean nations are able to exercise in world politics, despite their light economic weight.

This diplomatic rout signifies a rift in relations between the Caribbean countries and the European Union, which is growing, despite continuing development aid and cooperation.

The Caribbean countries are looking to position themselves in international relations as the Cotonou Agreement, a cornerstone trade and development treaty, comes to an end in 2020.

Renegotiations over this agreement start in June and are set to recalibrate European relations with the Caribbean.

In June 2000, seventy-six Caribbean, African and Pacific countries came together in Cotonou, the capital of Bénin, to sign the twenty-year Cotonou Agreement with the European Union’s member states at the time.

This legally binding agreement is based on three key pillars; trade, development, and political dialogue. It follows a series of European development and trade agreements with the ‘global south,’ categorized as the ACP Group, a group of countries in Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean.

It remains unique in scope, as it ties more than half the world’s nation states together in a treaty that established its own institutes to promote political dialogue, such as a council of ministers and a joint parliamentary assembly.

But as the agreement’s expiration date in 2020 comes closer, both Europe and the Caribbean countries need to review the composition of this treaty, to find a way of cooperating in the future and to establish the Caribbean’s place in world politics.

The German Development Institute (GDI) reviewed the Cotonou Agreement in 2013, conducting interviews with stakeholders and officials. They conclude that there is a general consensus “that the current configuration makes little sense given the changing global context.”

Because since its inception in 2000, questions are being raised over the way Europe operates in the postcolonial southern hemisphere. The inequality in capacity between the European Union and the ACP countries incites bitterness in the south.

One respondent told the German researchers that the large difference in economic and political capacity “results in most agreements being almost 100% EU input.”

The Cotonou Agreement established several institutions, located in Brussels, to promote political dialogue among ministers and parliamentarians. But despite the imbalance in decision making, the meetings are poorly attended by EU officials.

According to the GDI report, it is said that there is a “false sense of security” among government officials, as they “take for granted that the special relationship will be continued after 2020.” The report goes on to state that “some heads of state may not even be aware that the Cotonou Agreement expires in 2020.”

But as the 2010 debacle in the UN portended, stakeholders are reviewing their relationships. “It is no secret,” the researchers say, “that the EU’s strategic interest in the Caribbean is waning.”

Prime Minister Kenny Anthony of the small island country St. Lucia said in 2013 that the relationship with Europe was becoming increasingly one-sided, with the EU “seemingly having its way at every turn, on every occasion.”

According to David Jessop, senior consultant for the Caribbean Council, a London-based non-profit consultancy, the remarks of Prime Minister Anthony “had been a long time coming, but go to the heart of the Caribbean’s future relationship with Europe.”

“Europe and the Caribbean may be reaching the point at which their common history may start to diverge,” he continues to write, pointing at the enlarged European Union of 28 member states, who with its relatively new Eastern member states “now sees the world very differently to the former colonizing powers, whose outlook too has changed.”

In an article for the Jamaica Gleaner last January, Jessop looks forward to the renegotiations of the Cotonou Agreement, which come at a time when all European Union member states are dealing with budgetary constraints.

According to him, a policy review by the European Commission will likely incorporate the new principle of development universality, the so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) agreed last September at the United Nations.

But Jessop signals a “lack of clarity” as to how a follow up to the 2000 agreement would look like, taking these goals in consideration. He says that “some in Europe believe that the principle of universality established in the SDG’s implies that any special relationship of the kind that exists with the ACP may be at an end; while others suggest that the Sustainable Development Goals demonstrate why the ACP as a group must adapt its partnership.”

It will be very difficult for the Caribbean to position itself in this fundamentally changed policy environment, Jessop writes: “it needs to politically mobilize support in Europe’s 28 nations, almost all of which have no historic relationship with a region most regard as marginal.”

“It should demonstrate where it fits in the changed global order, what its justifiable needs are, and what it is going to give politically in return to Europe.”

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