Institutionalised and constructive dialogue with civil society in post-Cotonou framework crucial for EU-ACP relations

Cotonou Partnership Agreement

Key events: Policy Forum on Development (PFD), 14-16 March 2016- Brussels; CSOs Forum, 17-18 March 2016-Brussels.

Discussions on the future of the Cotonou Partnership Agreement took place on 14-15 March at the 4th Policy Forum on Development (PFD), which provided a crucial springboard upon which to feed into negotiations on the future framework between the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the EU.

With more than 160 representatives from civil society organisations, associations of local authorities, the private sector, representatives from EU Institutions, EU Member States and the ACP Secretariat, the event focused on how to strengthen civil society participation in political dialogue and on how the ACP-EU framework could best fit into the new 2030 Agenda.

What is the Cotonou Partnership Agreement?

The Cotonou Partnership Agreement, adopted in 2000, governs the political, economic and development relations between the EU and the ACP. The areas of cooperation go far beyond development so any agreements involving development, trade and/or political dialect must be implemented through the legal channels of the European Development Fund.

Cotonou up for review: why is it important for civil society?

The Cotonou Partnership Agreement is due for revision in 2020, and since last year, EU institutions and the ACP bodies have been reflecting on the future framework. This event also enabled IPPF EN to draw attention to the key concerns and recommendations on the importance of civil society involvement. Many other issues surrounding the broader framework were raised. For example, should it be legally binding? Should it be renewed? Should they create a new agreement or broaden the scope of the current Cotonou Partnership Agreement by not restricting it to ACP states?

These are all burning questions, and means that it is crucial for civil society to be involved in the post-Cotonou reflection process, and for the future of EU-ACP relations.

The recognition of civil society as key actors is critical to ensure that the dialogue doesn’t stop at institutions. Civil society can influence the conversation and the relationship between the EU and ACP countries. Putting civil society organisations at the decision-making table not only ensures that governments remain accountable to their commitments, but also allows for the proper implementation of aspects of the agreement.

EU and ACP institutions and Member States – what next?

The main challenges for civil society organisations to be addressed in the future framework and the advantages and disadvantages of a regionalised approach are the:

  • Need to put in place structured mechanisms to facilitate and maintain civil society organisation involvement in political dialogue and at all stages of cooperation;
  • Need to recognise civil society organisations as governance actors and understand the different roles endorsed by civil society organisations;
  • Added-value of a legally binding agreement allowing civil society organisations to hold their governments to account;
  • Importance of a people-centred framework within the regionalisation approach.

Effective governance is critical to building a strong, fully-functioning framework. Discussions held at the PFD further nourished debates on the future of Cotonou at the Civil Society Forum held a few days later, and when EU-ACP negotiations officially commence in 2018, the fundamental role played by civil society organisations in mediating between government and communities shouldn’t be taken for granted.

By Gina Wharton, Advocacy Advisor at the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network (IPPF EN) and co-Chair of the CONCORD Cotonou Working Group.