YESTERDAY, as an important meeting on "future perspectives" in relations between the European Union and the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of nations was concluding in South Africa, the Caribbean Community (Caricom) was reaffirming its own commitment to honour obligations to the EU under the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) signed by member states in 2008.
That reaffirmation, as expressed in a statement on Monday from the Caricom Secretariat, came against rising concerns over the implications of this region's failure to meet the January 2013 deadline for a scheduled second round of cuts in tariffs under the EPA.
The Cariforum bloc of countries (Caricom plus Dominican Republic and Cuba) became the first of the ACP states to conclude an EPA with the European Union (EU) even amid their own internal disagreements and to the surprise of some ACP partners that continue to question beneficial trading aspects of such an accord.
Guyana, for one, became the last signatory only after an understanding was reached on the modalities of a review of the extensive and complicated trade and economic accord within five years. Eight Caricom countries have already moved to reduce required cuts in tariffs and the Community Secretariat is optimistic that the remaining ones would do so by January next year.
However, while the EU remains a major trade and aid partner of Caricom the 15-member Community, now in its 39th year, generally shares the anxieties of its wider partnership involvement in the 79-strong ACP group on how to develop more effective relations with Europe. This was an issue addressed by the ACP Council of Ministers in November 2010 when it established an "Ambassadorial Working Group on Future Perspectives" (WGFP) with the EU.
The mandate of the WGFP, to "maintain and strengthen unity and solidarity" within the ACP bloc of states, is due to expire in 2014 and its participation in this week's policy research seminar in Capetown, South Africa was provided with a special focus on at least six initiatives to be pursued.
Guyana's Brussels-based ambassador, Dr Patrick Gomes, in representing the ACP's Committee of Ambassadors, identified six recommended aspects for "deeper reflections" in order to stimulate a more effective and satisfying relationship with the EU:
• First, that the existing status in ACP-EU relations is not an option to be perpetuated. As Gomes noted, a majority of respondents in a case study done by Prof Mirjam van Reisen, clearly favoured "the need for the ACP group to undergo structural changes" to reinforce the "relevance and effectiveness" of ACP's programmes in relation to their global impact and especially at the domestic level…"
• Secondly, that the rapidly changing and turbulent environment of multilateral and regional relations, does not allow the original historic ACP/EU relations to "remain immune".
• Thirdly, in responses to the changing conditions interviewees explicitly recognised that the underlying basis and rationale of the ACP-EU relationship are being questioned both in the European Union and by ACP states.
Moreover, challenges to its exclusion from "global governance", as in the UN Security Council, emphasises the need for a new structured relationship by the ACP beyond the EU, one that facilitates a collective "voice" within the "Global South", perhaps through the G-20 bloc of nations as well as the BRIC group—comprising Brazil, Russia, India and China.
• Fourthly, in defining strategic objectives, focus must be placed by the ACP in forging "tri-continental connections with a new emphasis in relations with the Americas region''.
• Fifthly, there is need for "political endorsement at the highest levels'' of the ACP for the identified structural changes and policy initiatives. This should be forthcoming when the Seventh Summit of ACP Heads of State and government takes place as scheduled for December in order to signal the group's "evolution beyond 2020".
And, sixthly, in outlining scenarios "towards 2020 and beyond", the ACP member countries must seriously address the critical issue of ensuring "financial sustainability", primarily for operational costs of its Secretariat. As is known, this is also a recurring concern for member countries of Caricom. Let's await the oucome of this coming December ACP Summit.