Civil society eyes enhanced role in next EU-ACP accord

Photo by: Thierry Roge / © European Union

BRUSSELS — As the European Union and the 79 African, Caribbean, and Pacific states negotiate their post-2020 relationship, civil society actors are seeking to boost their input under the future agreement, which will guide work on development cooperation, political dialogue, and trade. 

The current Cotonou Agreement, due to expire in February though likely to be extended as negotiations drag, calls for nonstate actors to receive capacity-building support and to be “informed and involved in consultation on cooperation policies and strategies,” such as through “the establishment of consultation mechanisms including channels of communication and dialogue, and to promote strategic alliances.”

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However, in practice, a European Commission official authorized to speak to the media on condition of anonymity told Devex that: “What has not been working and what has been recognized by different sources as a gap or lack in the existing Cotonou Agreement is the capacity to translate into proper mechanisms and modes of work the principles contained in the agreement.”

While arguing that Cotonou is “incredibly innovative” for including the principle of civil society participation in the first place, the official acknowledged that “the weak point is the fact that sometimes at the level of actual translation of principles into working mechanisms, we might not have found a correct formula.”

In the negotiations on a successor to Cotonou, the official said the status quo is the baseline on which to build, rather than any “backtrack.” The commission’s negotiating mandate from EU member states calls for “specific dialogue and consultation mechanisms with all relevant stakeholders including local authorities, civil society and private sector representatives,” adding that such mechanisms should be “based on existing dialogue structures where available.”

The European NGO confederation, CONCORD, has published options for how to improve civil society’s role under the new agreement — though negotiators are yet to address the topic, as talks stalled before the summer break, notably over migration.

Riccardo Roba, policy and advocacy officer at CONCORD, told Devex one of its main recommendations is to create an online platform, managed by civil society, to share opportunities for funding and political dialogue between the EU and the 79 ACP states.

There are already knowledge-sharing websites, including capacity4dev, run by the European Commission, however, Roba said there would still be value in a new, CSO-managed platform with funding for a secretariat to run it.

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“What we’ve seen is that there is an African-organized civil society, there are many initiatives, but we don’t know [about them],” Roba said, adding that Brussels and the African, Caribbean, and Pacific regions are yet to communicate effectively with each other.

How much money and how many people the secretariat would require are still details to be worked out, Roba said, arguing it was more important to win an in-principle agreement on the idea from the commission first.

CONCORD is also calling for civil society to be briefed before and after ministerial meetings and to play a more active role in the Joint Parliamentary Assembly between members of the European Parliament and MPs from national parliaments in ACP countries.

“What we are asking for is not big delegations of civil society organizations, which are very expensive, but at least to have a civil society representative,” Roba said.

He added that even though there are ways for European civil society to make its voice heard, the same was not always true elsewhere. As a result, he said, even short speeches in official forums were important.

“Civil society, especially in some African states is seen as foreign, external influence, there is a lot of discussion around where African CSOs are getting funding from etcetera,” he said. “There is not even the principle of political recognition there.”

About the author

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.