More than two decades ago, the European Union and a group of African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states were due to meet in Suva, to sign a new partnership agreement. But the ceremony, scheduled for June 2000, never took place. On 19 May 2000, a group of armed men led by George Speight and Ilisoni Ligairi stormed the Fijian Parliament and took the government hostage.
At short notice, the signing ceremony was relocated to Cotonou, capital of the African nation of Benin. For more than 20 years, relations between the European Union (EU) and former European colonies were then framed by the Cotonou Agreement, covering aid, trade, human rights and political dialogue.
Today, there’s a new “post-Cotonou” agreement and this time, the Pacific takes the lead. After years of complex negotiations, a new EU-ACP Partnership Agreement will be adopted at a ceremony in Apia on 15 November, to be known as the Samoa Agreement.
Prime Minister of Samoa, Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa welcomes European and ACP delegates to her nation this week, to witness the signing of the new framework agreement. She will be joined by Koen Doens, the Director General of the European Commission’s Directorate General for International Partnerships, and Georges Rebelo Pinto Chikoti, Secretary General of the 79-member Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS).
En route to Samoa, Chikoti attended last week’s Pacific Islands Forum in Rarotonga, highlighting the importance of the Samoa Agreement in “boosting the voice, influence, and impact of OACPS members globally.”
A former foreign minister of Angola, Chikoti said that the very fact of signing the partnership agreement in this region is a major achievement for Pacific negotiators: “That’s a very good step, as it appeals to the international community – I did not know much about the Pacific until I came here.”
The long road to Apia
This week’s ceremony is the latest step in a long process, and it’s not been easy getting this far.
Since the 1960s, relations between the EU and former European colonies have been governed by a series of treaties. The 1963 Yaoundé aid and trade agreement was followed by the Lomé Convention between 1975-2000. Lomé opened the way for subsidised trade between the EU and some Forum member states, including fish exports from Papua New Guinea and sugar from Fiji. However, with the founding of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in January 1995, a new era of neo-liberal policy saw challenges to European trade subsidies assisting ACP nations.
Next came the Cotonou Agreement (2000-2020), which expanded to cover aid, trade, human rights and political dialogue, with the EU pledging to sign Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA) with six ACP regions around the world.
However throughout the 20 years of the Cotonou treaty, the EU and Pacific Islands Forum failed to finalise a comprehensive regional EPA for the whole region. Indeed, the tortured negotiations over the Cotonou EPA left a sour taste in the mouth of Pacific negotiators, as Europe privileged trade cooperation with larger African nations.
Since then, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Solomon Islands have signed on to EPA, with a few smaller states still considering accession. Tariff and quota free entry into Europe has expanded exports: EU trade with the Pacific was 4 billion euros in 2022, nearly double the level from 2012.
In 2018, as the Cotonou Agreement wound down, the EU and OACPS launched formal negotiations to develop a successor treaty. Samoa and Papua New Guinea were the two Pacific leads in these ACP ambassadorial-level negotiations.
Once again, the talks were difficult. As Islands Business reported in 2019, there were a series of roadblocks on the path to finalising a deal. The disruption of the Covid pandemic further delayed the replacement for Cotonou, until the Chief Negotiators initialled the new Partnership Agreement at a ceremony in Brussels on 15 April 2021. Today, it’s finally ready to be signed.
PACP sets agenda
At last week’s 52nd Pacific Islands Forum, members of the Pacific group of African, Caribbean and Pacific nations – known as PACP – met as part of the official program.
Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, the current Forum chair, told the PACP meeting “our bilateral and regional relationships with Europe and the EU have evolved over centuries – either bilaterally, regionally through the PACP, and inter-regionally, through the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States.”
Although the new Samoa Agreement covers a broad range of agendas, Brown highlighted the region’s primary concern – climate change: “Certainly, there is great recognition, both from the EU but also individual European countries, in trying to assess and help Pacific countries address the concerns they have around climate change, reducing carbon emissions globally, but also around building resilience, in particular our low-lying countries.”
“A constantly evolving global order requires our PACP grouping to take a step back and consider a range of existing and emerging issues impacting the Blue Pacific,” he added. “Climate change remains our single greatest security threat, and we should be using all opportunities and all fora to discuss the issue.”
The new Samoa Agreement includes a foundation framework and three separate regional protocols, with variations for Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific.
Speaking to Islands Business in Rarotonga, OACPS Secretary General Chikoti said: “It pleases me, as we negotiated the post-Cotonou agreement, which now becomes the Samoa Agreement, the interests of Small Island Developing States were taken into consideration. If you look at the structure of this agreement, it’s particularly interesting because it was negotiated with three protocols, covering each one of the regions of the OACPS.”
Chikoti noted the new treaty has key provisions for regular review and the involvement of non-state actors.
“I think that an important aspect of this agreement is that partners can sit together every five years to look into where they can do better,” he said. “I think this engagement is very important for the region.”
“Another of the important aspects is that as we move from Cotonou to Samoa, we see engagement will be more and more collective, with civil society participating in all major issues that our regions face. The new agreement fosters large participation from civil society.”
Speaking to journalists in Rarotonga, the European Commission’s Koen Doens echoed the significance of the new deal: “We’ve had successive treaties (Yaoundé, Lomé, Cotonou), but the Cotonou Agreement has come to an end. The Samoa Agreement basically gives us a political framework and a legal basis for relations with the ACP countries. It has three regional protocols – one with the Caribbean, one with sub-Saharan Africa and one with the Pacific – that allows us to identify more specifically the regional priorities. Here again, climate and environment feature very highly in the Pacific protocol.”
The new Pacific protocol features five core areas: environmental sustainability and climate change; inclusive and sustainable economic development; oceans, seas and fisheries; security, human rights, democracy and governance; and human and social development.
In contrast, the new African protocol includes a greater focus on migration and mobility. It’s been widely criticised by civil society groups in both Europe and Africa. They argue that rhetoric about partnership is undercut by the reality that EU member nations are tightening borders and regularly detain, deport or turn away African asylum seekers fleeing war, economic crisis and human-induced climate disasters.
For Pacific negotiators, the development of three different protocols is an improvement on many “one size fits all” elements of the Cotonou Agreement, which didn’t take account of the vast disparities between African nations and Small Island Developing States, in population, geography, or trade access to European markets. For unskilled labour mobility, island states were more interested in seasonal work programs in Australia and New Zealand. Europe is eager to recruit more skilled workers, from Fijian soldiers in the British Army to medical professionals and rugby players across the EU.
Access to financing
Even as he welcomed the new EU-ACP partnership last week, Prime Minister Mark Brown said that Smaller Island States within the Forum recognise “the difficulties with accessing financing, whether it’s through mechanisms like the Samoa Agreement or whether it’s through borrowings. These are challenges that we’ve made our voice and concerns known, and we’ll wait to see how they’re addressed.”
Many Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Pacific, Caribbean and Indian Ocean continue to lose access to concessional loans and development assistance because economic criteria like Gross National Income (GNI) are the core measure that determines eligibility for assistance. Brown noted: “There are challenges for countries like the Cook Islands with our graduated LDC status making access to some of these concessional financing no longer available to us.”
In response, Pacific states are working on new ways to measure vulnerability, such as a Multi-dimensional Vulnerability Index (MVI). At the United Nations, this work is led by the current chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), Samoa’s Permanent UN Representative Fatumanava-o-Upolu III Dr. Pa’olelei Luteru.
Cristelle Pratt is a former Deputy Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum. Now working as Assistant Secretary General for Environment and Climate Action at the OACPS Secretariat in Brussels, she says that many smaller developing nations want to move “Beyond GNI.”
“From the OACPS side, one of the things we have supported is the UN High Level Panel for the Multi-dimensional Vulnerability Index,” Pratt said. “Our OACPS minister have adopted an MVI, which we think strengthens the work at the United Nations. It is simple, it is transparent, it is affordable and reproducible. We’ve also coupled that with an OACPS Resilience Index – it’s about access to grants and highly accessible concessional finance to build resilience.”
Despite the call for new and additional resources, Secretary General Chikoti said that ACP countries must better mobilise their own resources, avoiding mismanagement and corruption.
“The lack of resources is not only a problem of the developed countries – they have committed something,” he said. “But when you look at Africa and the resources that we have, sometimes they’ve been badly managed. It is true that we need to claim more resources, but let’s see how well we can do, with what we have at home. The world is at a crisis, because everything asks for resources, and we don’t have the resources. Or more probably, we have resources but we’re not doing the best where we should.”
Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, the host of this week’s signing, has long sought reform of partnership mechanisms and multilateral development banks. In September 2022, she took to the tribune at the opening of the UN General Assembly and told delegations that “the global financial system is morally bankrupt, and it favours the rich and punishes the poor. This must change. The approval and effective implementation of the Multi-dimensional Vulnerability Index will be a move in the right direction in addressing this imbalance and make the global financial architecture fit for purpose, by tackling the SIDS’ financing gaps.”
France, Germany and EU geopolitics
There will be lots of talk of partnership this week, but Pacific Islands Forum leaders are often wary of the geopolitical interests lurking behind this rhetoric.
France and the United Kingdom were amongst the first Forum Dialogue Partners in 1989. Other European states and institutions have since gained FDP status with the Forum: the European Union (1991), Italy (2007), Spain (2014), Germany (2016), and Norway (2021). More European nations are in the queue, with Denmark, Ukraine and Portugal awaiting approval of FDP status from Forum leaders.
Despite these crucial relationships, many Pacific governments have a tortured relationship with the notoriously bureaucratic EU system. And if you think forging a consensus amongst 18 Forum member states is complex, take pity on the EU with 27 members, ranging from major G7 powers like Germany, France and Italy, to smaller states like Malta and Cyprus!
ACP states must navigate through the rocks and shoals of competing geopolitical priorities amongst individual European partners. Even as the EU works to co-ordinate security and developments interventions in the Asia Pacific, their efforts are complicated by US-China strategic competition and the rise of AUKUS, Quad and other networks that sideline the United Nations General Assembly.
As one example, the EU Strategy for Co-operation in the Indo-Pacific was launched on 16 September 2021. You may have missed the announcement, because regional headlines featured the public announcement – on that very day – of the Australia, United Kingdom and United States (AUKUS) partnership. Blowing apart the A$90 billion France-Australia submarine contract, Australia’s decision to buy US and UK nuclear submarines has highlighted the ongoing rivalry between US arms manufacturers and their European competitors.
The A$368 billion price tag for Australia’s nuclear submarines has also raised ire amongst island nations seeking extra climate and development funds, especially as OECD countries failed to meet the 2020 climate finance targets set in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. As former Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor wrote in September, “we do not see that even a fraction of the staggering $368 billion allocated for AUKUS has been made available to deal with the climate crisis.”
Since the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU after the 2016 Brexit vote, France has regularly presented itself as the only EU with territories in the region. As a colonial power in the region – claiming more than 7 million square kilometres of EEZ around dependencies like New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna – Paris has leveraged its role as a major EU member state to advance President Macron’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.
New Caledonia and French Polynesia joined the Forum as full members in 2016, with Wallis and Futuna as an observer. But current pro-independence leaders, President Louis Mapou of New Caledonia and his French Polynesian counterpart Moetai Brotherson, seek to prioritise work with regional partners on the 2050 Blue Pacific Strategy, more than France’s geopolitical agenda.
As President Mapou told Islands Business at last year’s Forum in Suva, “There’s no doubt that France needs New Caledonia and French Polynesia to maintain its Indo-Pacific strategy, facing other major powers in the region. But this is not our project – we want to engage with our neighbours in the Pacific region. We are at the crossroads between those who advance France’s strategic interests and our desire as New Caledonians – especially in a government headed by an independence leader – to seek greater integration in our region.”
Germany was very active at this year’s Forum, with the presence of regional ambassadors as well as Jennifer Morgan, Special Representative for International Climate Policy in Germany’s Foreign Office.
In September, German diplomat Barbara Plinkert replaced France’s Sujiro Seam as Head of the Delegation of the European Union to the Pacific in Suva. As EU Ambassador to the Pacific, Plinkert attended the Rarotonga Forum, and has described the Samoa Agreement as “a major milestone in our region-to-region relations.”
With the signing of the partnership agreement in Apia on 15 November, a new period of co-operation will open between the EU, former and present European colonies. But can the Europeans adjust their diplomacy and unwieldy bureaucratic systems to better deal with the capacities and priorities of Small Island Developing States? We’ll soon find out.