By Vanessa Comand (WFTO-Europe intern)

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The Cotonou Partnership Agreement, a legally binding treaty between the 28 EU Member States and 78 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP), will expire on 29 February 2020 and negotiations on its renewal are expected to begin officially by the 1 September 2018.

Negotiation is not a trivial issue: the Cotonou Agreement represents the broadest EU partnership with developing countries and future outcomes of negotiation will directly affect one in five people in the world[1].

The Cotonou treaty is composed by three main pillars – trade, development cooperation and political dialogue – where several crucial topics shaping ACP-EU relations are addressed. As regards trade cooperation, the treaty prescribed the negotiation of the Economic partnership agreements (EPAs), free trade agreements compatible with World Trade Organisation’s rules[2]. These arrangements, meant to be signed between EU and ACP gathered into 7 regions, want to achieve a gradual liberalization of ACP markets through opening up to EU imports in 15 up to 25 years (for exceptional cases), while EU markets are immediately and fully opened to ACP products.[3] At present, only 28 ACP countries are implementing an EPA[4]. These partnership agreements have been often criticized for promoting only EU interests instead of ACP’s ones.

In December 2017, the European Commission (EC) published its Recommendation for the Council decision on the negotiation mandate. In there, EC proposes one single agreement, articulated into a common binding foundation with the ACP countries and three comprehensive regional compacts (one for Africa, one for Caribbean and one for Pacific). The new structure intend to be more tailored to different regional characteristics and the common foundation should focus on common principles and comprehensive objectives. Moreover, the recommendation foresees a wider cooperation with North African countries.

On 20 March 2018 the Parliament’s Committee on Development hosted a public hearing to discuss European Commission’s recommendation. I had the opportunity to be present on behalf of WFTO-Europe. Main topics were the state of play of preparation of the Post-Cotonou negotiations and how to develop a real multi actor partnership.

Karine Sohet, Senior Policy Officer at ACT Alliance EU and Chair of the CONCORD (Confederation of European Development NGOs) working group on ACP-EU relations, presented CONCORD’s recommendation on how negotiations should be conducted to successfully include Civil Society Organisation (CSOs).

Despite that civil society is specifically enshrined as an actor in Cotonou Partnership Agreement and many provisions about CSOs’ inclusion in political dialogue are present, these have not been translated into reality. In fact, according to Mme Sohet, no effective and structured mechanisms have been set-up to secure CS participation at all levels of EU-ACP relations and this is particularly true for CSOs from ACP countries.

Karine Sohet interviewOn Thursday the 12th of April 2018 I had the opportunity to meet and ask her few questions to better explore what role civil society could play in the negotiation and if fair trade has been targeted as a possible tool to implement SDGs.

How do you think that CSOs as well as producer’s representative organizations from ACP countries could be included in the negotiations?

CONCORD wants all civil societies to be enabled to concretely participate in negotiations. We have seen so far that some African governments or EU Delegations tend to organize formal meetings with CSOs only once decisions have already been taken or when this is required by the EU. In many cases, no real dialogue was undertaken and civil society was left aside.

The participation of civil society as an actor of the partnership should be established in the common foundation through a specific article. Explicit reference to accountability, monitoring and review mechanisms must also be included. In particular, accountability mechanism should foresee formal spaces where citizens can complain if a project undermines human rights.

CSOs involvement can be achieved by putting in place more transparent systems where all information are easily understandable and available to all stakeholders. Transparency can foster accountability at all levels, not only financially.

Moreover, people directly affected by an ACP-EU project should be involved even before the implementation of the project starts, as it might be too late to correct negative outcomes. What we ask is that local population must be consulted even during the impact assessment phase.

More generally, we think that whenever CSOs have an added value to the discussion – not only when directly impacted – , they must participate to it. For example, this should happen for issues such as respect of human rights, workers’ rights, gender equality, social protection in the framework of development cooperation or trade negotiations and all actors should be involved including trade unions, women’s and youth organisations or small trading organizations, such as the ones belonging to fair trade movement.

What place should be given to trade and private sector in the new agreement?

The CONCORD working group on Cotonou agreement addresses different issues concerning civil society involvement and we do not focus on private sector and trade so much. However, we have sorted a document about our position on this two topics[5].

As regards trade, we found that the principles mentioned in the Art. 34-35 of the Cotonou Agreement are overall good and we want the future agreement to stress them again. According to these principles, trade should integrate ACP States into the world economy while promoting sustainable development and contributing to poverty eradication; it should give due regard to political choices and development priorities of the ACP countries, building on regional integration initiatives of ACP states, taking into account different needs and levels of development.

At this early stage of the negotiation process, we do not known yet where and how the two parts (EU and ACP) intend respectively to address the trade issue. However, all these principles should be reflected in the common binding foundation and no ACP country should be forced through the future agreement to conclude or deepen free trade agreements with the EU.

Concerning private sector, we recognize that it plays a key role in economic development of ACP countries. For this reason, public financial support to EU and ACP private enterprises should be granted only if principles such as transparency, accountability and regular assessment of impacts are respected.

Our vision is that private companies should be supported only if this contributes in the fight against poverty, injustice, inequalities and promoting decent work, dignity and sustainable development. Moreover the support should focus on local and small scale entrepreneurs in ACP countries which encompass different types of actors including cooperatives and small scale farmers.

Fair Trade core principles go definitely in this direction. Are some talks around Fair Trade already ongoing or not Which role do you think that it could play within this agreement?

We certainly recognize the positive impact of Fair Trade and what we want is trade to be fair. However, our vision of fair trade is a broad one that should apply to all trade agreements. In our position papers on the future EU-ACP agreement we do not refer to any Fair-Trade scheme in particular and we do not go into a detailed prescription of requirements to meet; what we call for is respecting ACP countries policy space and interests and implementing the transversal principles mentioned above (such as gender equality, respect of human rights, no discrimination) in trading relations or when negotiating trade agreements. The EU should not use the future agreement to impose its trade and investment agenda on its ACP partners.

At this stage of negotiations, it is important for CONCORD to quickly react on main and more general topics addressed in EC proposal (released in December). We will go into further details when assessing the EU strategic priorities at a later stage; I don’t exclude that Fair Trade could be taken into account among possible solutions and I am expecting that Fair Trade organisations will advocate for it.

What we could ask is that, for instance, the EU sets some criteria that private companies should meet, so that enterprises with bad environmental or social performances won’t be supported with EU public resources. And why not, this criteria could be also Fair Trade ones.

[1] European Parliament train schedule, Towards Post-Cotonou, www.europarl.europa.eu

[2] Before EPAs, economic non-reciprocal preferential treatment was granted to ACP countries under the Lomè Conventions. This means that ACP countries could export almost all of their products to the EU market without having to pay customs duties, and without having to open up their own markets in return. The preferential regime was convinced by WTO as it was said to undermine equal concurrence from countries not participating the ACP-EU agreement. However, an exception is made with least developed countries and the preferences regime is still applied towards them.

[3]What are the Economic Partnership Agreements? , trade.ec.europa.eu

[4] State of play of Economic Partnership Agreements in here

[5] CONCORD’s position on trade and private sector is available here.

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