The Pacific always has been regarded as “the small boy in the ACP class”. With the exception of the “Pacific giant” Papua New Guinea, the region mainly includes small independent islands states such as Niue, Tuvalu or Nauru. Some of these have less inhabitants than an average European village or hamlet.
Under the leadership of former Nigerian President Obasanjo, the ACP Group recently established an Eminent Persons Group (EPG), that will reflect on the future of the ACP Group.
Regional multi-stakeholder consultations are now being organised in each of the six ACP sub-regions. Last week the Pacific was the first region to organise such a consultation. The Samoan Ambassador to the EU and current Chair of the ACP Committee of Ambassadors, Pa’o Luteru took the lead in inviting some 50 delegates from most of the 15 ACP Pacific countries to the Polynesian paradise island Samoa. It included several high level delegates such as the President of the Marshall Islands, the Prime Minister of Samoa, the Pacific members of the EPG, Fiji’s former Foreign Affairs Minister, Kaliopate Tavola and former Samoan Financial Secretary, Kolone Vaai, the ACP Secretary General Muhammad Mamuni and the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Tuiloma Slade.
Emerging Powers, Growing Interests
The Pacific is heavily aid dependent. It is the highest per capita recipient of development aid globally. On average a Pacific citizen receives some 250 USD per year, about five times more than the African region and ten times more than the global average to all developing countries combined. Almost all aid comes from the six lead donors in the region: Australia, France, Japan, New Zealand, the USA and the EU.
But the Pacific seems committed to break this aid dependency. The region is moving fast in attracting the interest of other global players. In a world with growing needs for energy and mineral resources, China, India, Russia, Indonesia and South Korea seem to be increasingly interested in the huge potential for natural resources of the vast Pacific ocean.
Against this background the Pacific seems to be aware of its growing bargaining power.
“The world is coming down on the Pacific, we might be feeding the world with our oceans” said a representative of a small island state with territorial waters extending far over 1 million square kilometres.
The region wants to use this renewed interest by the international partners to draw attention on its key priorities such as fisheries, climate change, renewable energy, the development and sound management of natural resources and sustainable tourism.
Where Does the EU Fit in this Picture?
In this context of rapid “multi-polarisation” in the Pacific region, the EU does not want to stay behind. It issued in 2012 a Communication calling the Pacific an “emerging foreign policy priority” for the EU because of its growing geostrategic importance. The EU can count on a longstanding tradition and some degree of appreciation in the region, mainly because of its generous aid amounting to some 750 million EURO for the period 2008-2013. Participants in the Samoa consultation also commended the EU for its “model” of regional integration that served as a source of inspiration for Pacific integration initiatives and that also contributed to “bringing Timor Leste closer to the Pacific region”. The imminent opening of a Pacific office in Brussels, that should also serve as a business and information centre, clearly underlines the Pacific commitment to keep up its strong link with the EU.
However, frustration was ventilated about the EU, mainly in relation to the protracted EPA negotiations and the inequality in the Pacific-EU partnership. The complexity of EU aid delivery and management procedures was also felt to be putting a major stress on the limited capacities of small islands.
ACP: Do Less and Chose Better
The key aim of the Samoa consultation was to explore how the ACP Group could still be of use to the Pacific beyond 2020. Through the ACP the Pacific has gained some bargaining power in raising global awareness on the specific problems of small islands states,. However, there was also a strong feeling that the impact of the ACP is waning. Current reflections on the future of the ACP Group are not any longer “business as usual”. The ACP Group needs to reinvent itself and fundamentally review its mandate. The ACP Group should not do everything at the same time but focus more on a limited set of priorities and areas of common interest. From a Pacific perspective these are: tackling climate change, the sustainable development and management of natural resources and renewable energies.
This Pacific consultation in Samoa is only a first step in a longer term process of reflection that will need, in the next stage, more focus on “ feasibility analysis”. Beyond identifying matching priorities and common interests in all ACP regions (the “what”) it will be important to also look at the practical implementation of these newly defined policy agendas (“ the how”).
Several questions need to be given convincing answers:
In the years ahead, both the Pacific and the ACP Group are confronted with major challenges. The hospitable and friendly ACP region could use some more assertiveness. To quote a Pacific stakeholder in the Samoa consultation: “More rounds of brainstorming will be needed to move beyond some of the generalities that still cloud Pacific thinking on the form, shape and content of that much talked about “recalibrated” relationship. Unfortunately political correctness and the Pacific politeness get in the way of “brutal” analysis of our interests and needs in order to find what our common regional objective interests and needs are.”
This first Pacific consultation will now be followed by five more regional consultations in the next weeks and months in the Caribbean (early November 2013) and in the 4 African regions (early 2014).
Read our Briefing Note on this topic: The future of Pacific-EU relations: With or without the ACP?
The views expressed here are those of the author, and may not necessarily represent those of ECDPM.