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Joint Assembly in Gabon


Lomartnership goes under the microscope again

For the third time in succession, the future of cooperation under the Lomonvention has taken centre stage in the deliberations of the ACP-EU Joint Assembly. With the LomV 'mid-term review' negotiations now formally under way, the Assembly, meeting in Libreville from 3 6 October, had what was probably its last opportunity to influence the outcome of the talks. With this in mind and following a lengthy debate, it adopted a comprehensive resolution on the subject which will be transmitted to all interested ACP, EU and joint institutions.

An indication of the importance which the Assembly attaches to the midterm review came during the formal opening session, in the addresses of the two co-Presidents.

From the European side, Lord Plumb (EPP-UK) expressed the hope that the report and recommendations the Assembly would go on to adopt would 'enable a new impetus to be injected into the current negotiations.' These, he said, were 'not proceeding as well as we would like.' He argued in particular that it was essential to maintain 'the fundamental principles of partnership and dialogue', insisting that these provided the 'foundations for the trust which exists between us.' He then went on to commend the Joint Assembly as the only institution in the ACP-EU system 'which can legitimately claim to be democratic.' His decision to emphasise this point was presumably not unrelated to the fact that there is a proposal on the table that scheduled meetings of the Joint Assembly be held once, rather than twice a year in future. He also spoke approvingly of plans to strengthen the commitment to democratic values in the revised Convention.

For his part, Dr Marcel-Eloi Chambrier (Gabon), the ACP Co-President, did not seek to 'pull his punches'. Cooperation with the EU went back a long way, he observed, and there had been many projects, conceptual parameters, promises, ideologies and so-called development policies. 'Today,' he continued, 'we note, with some bitterness, that none of these policies have succeeded.' He had some sharp criticisms of both sides in the development partnership, referring to 'tine economic and social lethargy of our countries' and the 'ruthless dumping' of agricultural products by the developed world. On the Lomonvention, he struck a more positive note, emphasising the reference in Article 5 to a people-centred approach and calling for greater stress to be laid on regional cooperation. Mr Chambrier was unhappy with the idea of reducing the frequency of Joint Assembly sessions, suggesting that this was a 'trend away from democracy' and was keen to stress the commitment on the ACP side to the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

In the actual debate on the LomV review, which took place later in the session, the focus was, not unnaturally, on those areas of the Convention which may be affected by the mid-term negotiations that are taking place. Five key themes, enumerated by the Rapporteur, John Corrie (EPP-UK), cropped up time and again in the discussion, which featured no fewer than 30 speakers. These were:

- the trade aspects,
- democracy and human rights,
- programming and procedures,
- the role of the Joint Assembly,
and,
- finance.

Trade

The trade aspects of the ACP-EU relationship are seen as a key area for the ACP side in the negotiations and this was reflected at the outset when the Chairman of the Working Group, Alain Yoda Bedouma of Burkina Faso, made his introductory presentation. He expressed surprise that, 'at a time when everybody is talking about trade liberalisation', more attention was not apparently being paid to this issue by the European negotiators.

There appear to have been two distinct elements to the discussion when the subject of trade was raised. On the one hand, there was general acknowledgement of the weakness of ACP (and particularly African) exports to the European Union, notwithstanding the preferential terms available for many years under successive Lomonventions. Various ideas aimed at improving ACP efficiency and competitiveness were mooted, reflecting a widely-held view that this was the key reason for these countries' declining share of world trade. But there were also suggestions that more could be done on the European side to facilitate access to its markets, for example, by 'Liberalising' the rules of origin. Echoing the earlier remarks of Mr Chambrier, the Zambian representative raised a sensitive issue which may well have struck one or two raw nerves. 'What is the point of developing grain projects,' he asked, 'if local production is being undercut by imports of subsidised EU wheat?' He went on to allege that such imports were entering his country, 'thinly disguised' as having an ACP origin.

The second 'trade' aspect raised by a number of members related to the impact of the new GATT arrangements. The Solomon Islands representative expressed concern in general terms about the erosion of preferences and this was taken a stage further by Paul Lannoye (Greens-B) and Dominique Souchet (EN-F) both of whom argued that the effect of the new world trade regime was to rob the Lomrade provisions of any substance. This extreme interpretation may not have been widely shared in the Assembly but there was no dispute about the fact that the trade advantages were gradually being whittled away. Speaking for the Commission, Director-General Peter Pooley gave a clear exposf how this was happening, pointing out that it was not because of any change in the ACP-EU relationship but because of the lowering of protective barriers at the global level. The reality, of course, is that this process has considerable momentum behind it and it is difficult to see how it could be stopped, even if such a course of action were desirable (which many would dispute).

The ACPs must, therefore, learn to run with the wind rather than trying to tack against it. This approach appeared to underpin the remarks of Mr Pooley and of Vice-President Mar(n, (who dealt with the point earlier during 'Question Time'). Both reiterated the need to raise ACP competitiveness. Mr Pooley also spoke of the importance of 'changing mindsets' and persuading ACP countries to look beyond the traditional bilateral link with the EU towards trading opportunities with third countries - opportunities which the latest GATT round should actually enhance.

In the resolution which was subsequently adopted, the following four measures were proposed with a view to improving ACP access to the EU market: - a deepening of preferences, in particular for those products considered too sensitive to be subject to generalised liberalisation;

- the elimination or reduction of non-tariff barriers such as quotas, particularly for agricultural products;

- the removal of internal taxes which have been excluded from harmonisation in the EC single market in the case of tropical beverages, and;

- assistance to ACP States in creating suitable trading structures with adequate quality control standards in order to enable them to compete in the Single Market.

The resolution also called for a relaxation of the terms of the rules of origin which, it was claimed, often hamper the development of trade diversification opportunities.

An amendment from the Green group demanding that the GATT treaty should not be ratified, and a less radical proposal from the Europe of Nations members favouring a delay until the effects of the agreement had been evaluated, were both rejected by the Assembly. As a result, the two groups decided to abstain in the final vote.

The Assembly did, however, agree to an amendment tabled by Jean-Francois Hory (F) and Allan Macartney (UK) of the European Radical Alliance 'deploring the fact that the concerns of the developing countries were insufficiently taken into account' in the GATT negotiations (point 60 of the resolution).

Democracy and human rights

Turning to the linked issues of democracy and human rights, there appears to be broad acceptance on both sides that these concepts are part of the development equation and are therefore legitimate elements in the dialogue about cooperation. Clearly, attitudes to this have changed markedly over the life of the four Lomonventions but there are still concerns about the way in which any new provisions introduced for the second half of LomV might be applied in practice. The rapporteur, Mr Corrie, was the first to raise such concerns when he referred to the proposed clause allowing for suspension of cooperation where human rights or democratic principles had been infringed. In this regard, he insisted on consistency on the EU side, referring pointedly to the Union's relations with China which, purportedly, did not involve the same keen attention to such issues. Michael McGowan (PES-UK) chose to focus on the 'myth that human rights abuses only take place in ACP countries' and suggested that the subject, together with criticisms about a lack of democracy, were often raised as a pretext when the real problem lay in a lack of funding. He also suggested that his ACP colleagues 'should be given an opportunity to observe elections in the European Union.' The speaker from the Central African Republic stressed the positive progress that had been made on the democray front over the life of the Lomonventions while the representative of Papua New Guinea saw human rights in particular as one of the 'vital elements' in the development process. For Jan Bertens (ELDR-NI), however, the wording of the human rights provisions in the draft resolution under discussion did not go far enough. Indeed, it was this factor that ultimately swung both Mr Bertens and his Liberal Group colleague Yves Galland (F) against the resolution when the vote was taken later in the session.

The final resolution included a recognition 'that there is no established model of democracy' (point 14), a demand for the establishment of 'clear and transparent provisions' before any decision is made to suspend cooperation on human rights or democracy grounds (point 16), and a call that any such decision should be accompanied by 'positive actions aimed at promoting the restoration of democracy and respect for human rights in the country concerned' (point 18).

Programming and procedures

The view that implementation of the Lomonvention is hampered by bureaucracy - on both the European and the ACP side - was aired once again at the Joint Assembly. In a question to the Commission, the representative of Chad focused on the low level of disbursements in most ACP countries and, in his reply, Commissioner Marin pledged that practical efforts would be made to speed up methods of payment. John Corrie also emphasised this subject in his presentation during the main debate, urging that a special effort should be made to target countries with low implementation rates. The strongest criticism, however, came from Maartje Van Putten (PES-NI) who attacked EU 'red tape' in particular. She argued that training centres needed to be set up in ACP countries to publicise the opportunities available under the Convention and provide practical guidance on the procedures to be followed. She also put in a plea for training manuals to be issued to help facilitate implementation.

The concerns expressed on previous occasions about an alteration in the balance of responsibilities between the Commission and the ACP country authorities were much more muted this time. However, Mr Sotutu from Fiji did seek a reassurance from the Commission that 'the failure of a handful of ACP States should not be used as a pretext for punishing the rest' - presumably a reference to the proposals on programming which the European negotiators argue are necessary to make the system more responsive.

On the specific proposal to introduce a two-tranche system in place of the current five-year indicative programme to which a fixed sum is allocated, the European negotiating position was supported by Jan Bertens of the Liberal Group.

The representatives of both the Council and the Commission argued strongly in favour of the proposed change to the programming arrangements. For the former, the German Minister Ursula Seiler-Albring rejected the suggestion that the aim was to concentrate decision-making at the centre. The real purpose, she insisted, was to improve the workings of the Convention by making the system more flexible. This view was echoed by Peter Pooley, who said that the present arrangement - with its five-year plans - 'harked back to the Marxist-Leninist approach'. He also pointed out that there was a need for a trade-off in this area. The flexibility that was essential could not be achieved 'while maintaining the certainty of the existing system.'

In the final resolution, the Joint Assembly chose a nuanced approach suggesting a concern about the possible implications of changes in implementation rather than outright opposition to such changes. It emphasised the better use of existing instruments as opposed to the adoption of new ones (point 22) and spoke of the need for practical measures to improve the whole process from contract awarding to conflict resolution (point 23). Perhaps most significantly, it maintained 'that an overhaul of the NIP concept as a whole is unnecessary and disruptive.' Those responsible for negotiating on the European side would presumably argue that there is no conflict here since the NIP concept has been maintained and the 'tranche' idea is merely a practical adjustment designed to make the system more efficient - and hence to comply with the Assembly's demand for a more speedy utilisation of resources.

The role of the Joint Assembly

While nuanced criticism may have been the order of the day as far as the programming and other aspects of the Lomeview were concerned, the EU proposal to reduce the regular sessions of the Joint Assembly from two to one each year drew outright and near unanimous opposition from the members who spoke on the issue. The scene was set at the outset by the two Co-Presidents whose concerns were mentioned earlier in this article. John Corrie then relayed the views of the Working Group in 'totally rejecting' the idea of just one meeting annually. The speaker from the Central African Republic, expressed the same sentiment, although the length of his speech (which far exceeded the five minutes notionally allowed to him) suggested that he might have been happier for the Assembly to meet in permanent session! The only dissenting voice, and even then, only partly, came from Terence Wynne, who has a particular interest in the budgetary aspects. He suggested that the Assembly should ask itself why it met and whether it was giving 'value for money'. He was also critical of turnout on the European side, and of attendance while debates were taking place. The strength of this latter argument must be open to question, however. To an outside observer, attendance at the Joint Assembly would appear to compare very favourably with that of other Parliamentary bodies, including the plenary sessions of the EP itself.

The view that ACP representatives should all be parliamentarians, by contrast, seemed to be supported in principle by most of those who mentioned it although Dominique Souchet (EN-F), citing financial reasons, argued for the maintenance of the status quo until all ACP countries were in a position to send elected members.

Replying to these points, Peter Pooley said that the aim was to improve the role of the Joint Assembly. He argued that it was difficult to undertake the appropriate preparatory work for two sessions a year, and it was unrealistic to expect members to set aside a full month, given all their other responsibilities. He also cited the cost aspect, noting that resources were limited. Despite his eloquence in defending the 'one session a year' proposal (which would not preclude the holding of 'extraordinary' meetings when the occasion demands), the Assembly voted to reject the idea (point 77 of the resolution). The resolution made no recommendation on limiting membership to elected members but it did call for 'en examination of an increased legislative role for the Joint Assembly'. Given the present stage of institutional development, this is probably an unrealistic demand, but even if it were feasible, it is difficult to imagine it happening so long as votes on the ACP side are being cast by ambassadors.

Finance

For those who have been following the Assembly's debates on the LomV review since the outset, a curious feature has been the almost monastic silence about the one thing that must be decided in the negotiations, namely the financing for the second phase of the Convention. The current financial protocol makes the sum of ECU 12 billion available under the various 'budget' headings (EDF, Stabex, Sysmin, Structural Adjustment, EIB etc.) with each EU Member State contributing an agreed percentage share of the total.

Will the resources go up or down in comparison with this figure? If there is an increase, will this be in real terms or merely nominal, to take account of inflation? What effect will the enlargement of the EU have on the final numbers? These are all questions which must be in the minds of Joint Assembly members, but until recently there was little point in raising them. The EU countries have to reach agreement among themselves on this highly sensitive area and even if such an agreement had been concluded at an early stage (which appears not to have been the case), it is hardly likely that the information would be made public while the negotiations are still under way. Similarly, to pick figures out of the blue and present them to the Member States as recommendations would be an exercise of doubtful utility. And so, until recently, discussions at the Joint Assembly about the 'bottom line' were confined to the corridors. In Libreville, this changed, although there still appears to have been a reluctance to talk about specific amounts. With the negotiations now under way - and the possibility that everything will be wrapped up before the Assembly next meets - rapporteur John Corrie spoke of his 'greet concern' about the issue. He said that although the decision on financing would not be made until January 1995, early indications from a number of Member States indicated 'bleak prospects' for the ACPs. He singled out three countries in particular that were allegedly aiming to reduce the size of their contributions. Since individual Member States have no official representation at the Assembly (the President in Office is obliged to speak for the Council of Ministers as an institution), there was no-one there to confirm or rebut this claim. Mr Corrie also implied that the funding issue was not unrelated to the Member States' push for other changes to the Convention, suggesting that 'this is not democracy but a dictat'. For the Commission, Peter Pooley was particularly anxious to reassure the rapporteur on this point. 'There is no question of a dicta",' he insisted. 'A settlement made on this basis could not endure. Indeed, we are not professionally capable of working on a mandate designed to ruin the Lomonvention - it is the core of our work.' It is worth recalling here that the negotiations are handled by the Commission although the negotiating mandate is set by the Council.

Mr Corrie, when he replied to the debate, appeared somewhat reassured by the 'transparency' of the Commission but the Assembly, nonetheless, went on to agree a text which laid strong emphasis on the need for resource increases to 'take full cognisance of the magnitude of the needs facing the ACP States' (point 84).

Dissenting voices

When it came to the vote, the Corrie Resolution was agreed without significant amendment. Consensus was not achieved on the European side, however, with Liberal members voting against and members of both the Green and Europe of Nations groups abstaining for reasons enumerated earlier. Unless the mid-term negotiations become completely bogged down this is likely to be the Joint Assembly's last bite at this particular cherry, although the Bureau did agree to maintain a watching brief on the talks. Doubtless the Assembly will have more to say on the subject, ex post facto, once it is in a position to judge how far it was able to influence the process.

Simon Homer