A Rethink on ACP-EU Partnership


In order to know where you are going, you need to know where you are coming from, so I want to put history right at the heart of my own presentation.

I am going to present on “A Dialogue of the Deaf: Global Apartheid, Global Governance, and the ACP-EU Relationship”. In discussing the challenges of global governance and the emerging world order, I think it is appropriate to frame this whole discussion within the concept of “global apartheid” and to particularly focus attention on the primary and universal institution of global governance, the United Nations.

Kenyan scholar Ali Mazrui in 1994 noted: “The question that arises is whether the triumph of those market ideologies is polarising the globe along racial lines more deeply than ever, with black people almost everywhere at the bottom, white people in control of global wealth, and Asian people in intermediate levels of stratification. Is this the global apartheid that is emerging at its sharpest between white and black?” During his welcome address to the UN Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa’s Industrial heartland of Johannesburg in 2002, then South African President Thabo Mbeki also noted: 

“We have converged at the cradle of humanity to confront the social behaviour that has pity neither for beautiful nature, nor for living human beings. This social behaviour has produced an entrenched and global system of apartheid.”

The concept of global apartheid used here by the scholar Mizrui and statesman Mbeki describes the political and socio-economic inequalities that exist between the rich North and Global South. The ACP-EU relationship in many ways typifies these inequalities of a “poor man’s club” and a “rich man’s club”. 

These inequalities are also deeply embedded, of course, in the world’s first truly universal organisation, the UN. The paradox of the 193-member world body is that while it embodies ideals of justice and equality, the power politics embodied in its structures, particularly the powerful UN Security Council, often mean that the Brahmins of international society – the Great Powers – can manipulate the system to the disadvantage of the Dalits – the wretched Untouchables.

The tale of the ACP-EU relationship is thus a sacred drama, in which the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries have sought to transform themselves from pawns to influential players on the global geopolitical chessboard.

I will examine global apartheid through the three pillars of the 2000 ACP-EU Cotonou Partnership Agreement – politics, trade and development. Starting with political apartheid, all of the 79 ACP and 28 EU countries are of course, members of the United Nations. After the emergence of the UN in 1945, many ACP states played an important role, along with their allies from Latin American and the Soviet Union at the time, in the Group of 77 and China on issues of decolonisation, sanctions against apartheid, promoting socio-economic development. ACP states at the UN also established new concepts of international law, in areas such as self-determination, decolonisation, and the right to use force in wars of national liberation, racial discrimination, and the recognition of the international seabed as a common heritage of mankind. In the Afro-Asian revolt against the West between 1945 and 1960, forty African and Asian states won their independence with a population at the time of 800 million – a quarter of the world’s population. Such a momentous transformation had never occurred in the international system.

Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah after the African independence dismissed the Yaoundé agreement as neo-colonial designs that were basically meant to keep colonies and former French colonies tied to the apron strings of the Mother country. It is also important to note that the Lomé agreement of 1975 was about Europe’s quest for a secure source of energy and minerals following the OPEC’s oil crisis of two years earlier. The accord and the Cotonou have failed largely to diversify ACP exports and promote industrialisation after four decades.

The current political co-operation between the ACP and the EU must thus be assessed within this historical context in which colonial powers notoriously define this relationship as one between a horse and a rider – and no prizes for guessing who was the horse, and who the rider. EU officials like former British Trade Commissioner and his patronising paternalistic approach to the EPAs (ACP-EU Economic Partnership Agreements) represented the modern European viceroy, a direct descendant of this kind of jaundiced neo-colonial thinking, of the colonial age when we were all part of Her Majesty’s possessions and also a Commonwealth, in which, as Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad notes, “the wealth was far from common”. 

Over half of ACP mono-crop economies still remain amongst the poorest countries in the world, and continue to depend on the EU as a market for most of their exports. This is at a time, as we have heard, when the EU itself is suffering from one of its worst economic crises. Thank God it got the Nobel Prize for Peace and not for Economics!

Brussels will almost certainly pursue separate relationships with each of the ACP regions after Cotonou expires in 2020, so I think we should prepare for that. The EU seems to be losing interest in the Caribbean and the Pacific, while Africa remains largely a source of economic and security interests in search of minerals and “mad mullahs” with the war on terrorism that is being waged by the US, France and others. Since the EU remains the ACP paymasters, it can afford to commit institutional infanticide. The review of the Cotonou Partnership Agreement next year does not look promising for the ACP. Several Eastern and Central European states are determined to slash EU funding, which some perceive to be competing with their own interests. The outrageous outsourcing of this relationship to technocrats in the EU Commission is an abdication of responsibility by EU governments.

The failure to include a clause protecting cooperation with the ACP in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty has already been noted, as well as the absence of the ACP from some other structures. This is the clearest sign of the downgrading of the relationship, despite some of the rhetoric we continue to hear. The political dialogue of the ACP is also a “dialogue of the deaf”, conducted with multilateral bodies like the AU, as we have heard from Geert (Laporte), and individual states, but not within the structured ACP framework. The ACP is clearly regarded as an impenetrable Tower of Babel by fortress Europe.

Turning from political to development apartheid, ACP states have historically sought to use their institution as well as UN agencies to promote their own socioeconomic development. The Global South thus force the UN to move away from focusing exclusively on the peace and security issues of the Great Powers, to focusing on the socioeconomic development priorities of the Global South. The Southern Bavarians in Martinican scholar Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth” were finally at the gates of the hallowed mansions and manicured lawns of the exclusive Northern gentleman’s club to challenge to roles of global apartheid that they had no hand in setting.

Perhaps the most disappointing outcomes of efforts to reform the global development architecture a decade ago at the UN, was the failure to make progress on issues relating to development, aid and trade. Between 1970 and 2002 as UNCTAD has noted, Africa borrowed US$540 billion and paid back about US$550b in principle and interest. The 0.7 percent of aid set as far back as 1970 has been consistently met by only a very few like the Nordics and the Dutch. It is important however that the richer states of ACP, Asia, and Middle East also join this group of largely Western donors.

The Bretton Woods institutions – the World Bank and IMF, the people that some describe as the “evil sisters” – they have also been described by other critics as “lords of poverty” – the powerful Western actors, including several EU states, have maintained their strong grip on these bodies with their weighted voting systems. An apartheid system continues since 1945 in which an American is always the head of the World Bank, and a European the head of the IMF as if there is some genetic code that gives them that privilege. Powerful Western governments continue to exert their influence through the Bank, the Fund and the World Trade Organisation which they control, rather than through the United Nations. And I just want to quote Egyptian former UN Secretary-General Bhutros Bhutros Ghali who noted: “these are organisations in which democratic values do not count for much in decision and policy making. The underlining objective of these institutions is to support the status quo, not to be critical of it”.

Turning finally to trade apartheid, the global trading system must be urgently reformed in ways that give the ACP a greater voice. Greater ACP representation in the highest decision making bodies of the WTO and the Bretton Woods institutions will be important. It is scandalous that China does not have a greater weighting vote for example, in these institutions, despite being the second largest economy in the world. Unfair trade policies by rich countries will also keep ACP states in poverty. We know all about the bruising battles over sugar, rum, food mountains, and bananas that have raged between the ACP and the EU over the years.

More recently the EU has often adopted a heavy handed unilateralism to trade negotiations. The EPAs which Brussels has sought since 2007 to impose on ACP governments have been particularly contentious as we all know, and they have sought to open vulnerable ACP markets to European goods in the most sensitive areas, and it is no wonder that many ACP states including 17 African ones have rejected them. Rather than promoting regional integration, these EPAs have actually damaged regional integration, nearly leading to the disintegration of the 104-year-old Southern African Customs Union, as well as negatively impacting the Caribbean Community as well.

It is pretty clear that a neo-mercantilist approach has been adopted by the EU, in response to the growing presence of China in Africa. China of course, by 2009, had become Africa’s largest single trade partner, with trade worth over US$200b. Trying to corner that market, or protect it, has been part of the agenda here. The other thorn in the EU-ACP relations is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), where subsidies of over €50 billion a year continue to go to European farmers in a sector in which 70 percent of ACP populations typically find employment.

So what is to be done? I want to offer six policy recommendations in closing to improve the ACP-EU relations. First, while recognising the huge development needs in the ACP, I think it is important to reduce dependence on the EU and stop the begging bowl culture and addiction to EDF funds. As long as the CAP continues subsidising gluttonous EU farmers who are choking on this poison, it is also important to insist that we do continue to get the aid – but these programmes must be done in a way that is owned by ACP states, not determined as a political tool of the EU. It is of course important that ACP states also take South-South trade more seriously, not rhetorically, because intra-ACP trade has not really improved despite all the rhetoric, and South Africa of course can be a bridge between the BRICS and the ACP. Of course, we all know that Nigeria has overtaken South Africa now as the largest economy in Africa, so BRICS itself may need to be taken to the BRINC.

Second, there must be greater recognition of the mutual interdependence between the ACP and the EU. Both account for nearly a fifth of the world population and there has been cooperation, for example, the ACP states were vital in the EU gaining representation within the UN General Assembly. In June 2012, both sides also coordinated their position before the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, so there is room for cooperation.

Third, discussions on the future of the ACP currently lack legitimacy. They are conducted in the “Brussels bubble”, without properly consulting civil society and private sector actors. Like the UN’s play within a play, the ACP-EU relationship often resembles a game played by political elite, who have created a parallel universe, that they have convinced themselves equate to the real world. It is a fantastical world of duplicitous diplomats, development marabouts, and omniscient Eurocrats, but it is a great illusion. Turkeys, of course, do not vote for Christmas, so ACP bureaucrats and diplomats will clearly fight tooth and nail for their own preservation, but does this necessarily serve the interests of ACP citizens?

Fourth, ACP states must share best practices and comparative lessons from EPA negotiations across the six regions, perhaps using the ACP Inter-Regional Organisation Coordination Committee (IROCC).

Fifth, the EU should pay compensation to ACP governments to make up for the harmful impact of its CAP subsidies. The ACP needs also to pay careful attention to the US and EU transatlantic that is being proposed, being as the African proverb says, “Whenever two elephants fight or make love, it is the ACP grass underneath their feet that will suffer.”

Finally there is no reason why the ACP should be relying entirely on Western think tanks in places like Brussels and Maastricht to do its thinking for it. This shows the lack of confidence of these governments in their own policy intellectuals and institutions – a major problem with development over the last six decades. 

Surely the EU would not hire Canadian or American experts to research their relationship for them.

If reforms are not urgently undertaken, the ACP, like the dodo and dinosaur, could become extinct. With six years to go to the expiry of Cotonou, many are asking whether this “trade union of the poor” has outlived its usefulness. There is an awful precedent in global governance institutions that the ACP should keep in mind in its existential struggle. Seven and a half decades ago, on the eve of the Second World War, the League of Nations, the UN’s precursor, died an untimely death at the hands of revisionist Axis powers – Germany, Japan and Italy. The organisation was scarcely mourned, let alone given a decent burial.

I wanted to end on a more positive note, and I remembered the ancient Chinese proverb, “May you live in interesting times.” But I recently discovered that this actually a curse. – The African Executive

*Dr Adekeye Adebajo is the Executive Director, Centre for Conflict Resolution – Cape Town, South Africa.

June 2014
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