Colonies Seek to Redefine Relationship with EU
By Peter Richards
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad (IPS) - The newly elected chair of the Overseas Countries and Territories Association (OCTA), Montserrat's Chief Minister Reuben Meade, wants "trade rather than aid" to form the basis of the future relationship between Europe and its colonies around the world.
The ninth European Development Fund (EDF) assistance programmes are now coming to an end, and Meade wants to "get maximum benefits" for the 17 member countries of OCTA - mainly territories of Britain, France, the Netherlands and Denmark - when EDF-10 comes on stream.
"The European Union rules on drawing down on funds are extremely stringent and it can take years to get a drawdown," Meade told IPS. "What we are trying to do is to ensure that both sides pretty much understands what needs to be done to draw down the money" that plays a significant role in the socio-economic development of these European colonies.
"We continue to face many difficulties in the finalisation of the frameworks for the funds to be released," said Meade, whose island, under the EDF-10, has been allocated 15.7 million Euros for building a new port.
Each year a ministerial meeting between the ministers of the OCTs and a Tripartite Forum between the member states, the European Commission and the OCTs are held. The ministerial meeting sets out the visions, strategy and action plan which is subsequently implemented by the Executive Council, while the Forum outlines the visions for cooperation between the parties.
This year's meeting in early March took place in New Caledonia, a French colony located in the southwest Pacific. The distance proved to be a nightmare for some delegates and Meade, who had expressed his disappointment at the absence of several key European Union representatives, told IPS that a proposal is now being considered that would allow for the annual meetings to be held in Brussels with the OCTs staging "focused" meetings on matters such as the environment.
"This would give the opportunity for all players in the partnership who are involved in facilitating the support to OCTs to be present and can share critical information. Given the scarcity of resources, we have to be mindful of the cost-effectiveness of hosting these fora outside of Brussels," he added.
Meade said another aspect of his stewardship will be to get "Europe to better understand the needs of the territories". He believes the Apr. 12 "Open Day in Brussels" showcasing the socio-economic development strategies of the overseas territories will provide the European parliamentarians and other stakeholders with the opportunity to get "a better feel of what are our challenges".
But Meade, 57, an economist by training, said that he does not like the idea of the Europeans "changing the rules from time to time, (and) shifting the goalpost" with little or no consultation.
OCTA was established as a non-profit organisation in 2002 and has since been working to coordinate the views of the overseas territories, whose leaders have already established a Joint Position paper (JPP) that sets out the framework terms and conditions the European Union will use to prepare the new Overseas Association Decision (OAD).
Market access looms large
The existing OAD, which is a trade regime that gives the OCTs free market access to the EU to help create economic and social prosperity in the territories, expires in 2013. Britain has already indicated that the successor to the OAD must be flexible enough to meet the needs of both the larger, more prosperous territories, and those which are more vulnerable and likely to be in need of development assistance for years to come.
"The mandate of the European Union is to look at poverty reduction and there are some Overseas Territories which do not get direct aid from them," said Angela Greenway, who is also Montserrat's Territorial Authorisation Officer for the EDF.
"There have been challenges with drawing down the funds from approved EU projects and the new agreement will look at the disbursement," she said. Other areas which are covered in the proposed position paper are the issues of environmental protection and trade.
An array of challenges
When he took over the chairmanship of OCTA, Meade said he regarded his election "not only as a serious responsibility but as an opportunity to support the diverse agenda of the OCTs."
"It is no doubt a challenging time to be the chairman of OCTA," he added. "We must face the effects of protracted global economic and financial decline, falling levels of disposable incomes of our people and increasing challenges of war and natural disasters and their demand on scarce resources."
The Montserrat government leader said that the targets set by the EU to be achieved by the year 2020 provide "the basis for hope in the OCTs, if we can fully benefit from such an agenda."
According to Meade these targets include an employment rate of 75 percent of the 20- to 64-year-old-olds in the overseas territories; investment of three percent of the EU's gross domestic product in research, development and innovation; and reducing greenhouse gases by 20 percent below the 1990 levels, conditioned on international agreement.
The targets also call for achieving 20 percent energy from renewable sources and a 20-percent increase in energy efficiency, reducing school drop-out rates to below 10 percent, and having at least 40 percent of 30- to 34-year- olds complete tertiary education or its equivalent.
Committing to 20 million fewer people at risk of poverty and social exclusion is also among the identified targets.
But Meade, a strong supporter of a redefined relationship with the EU, says he hopes at the end of his one-year chairmanship, his legacy would be that the OCTs have been able to gain improved trading opportunities with Europe.
"Basically that's what we are looking at...focusing on trade relationships rather than aid," he said, noting that the OCTs could benefit from their services sector as well as investment opportunities in the European colonies.
In the Caribbean, the OCTs are Anguilla, Aruba, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Netherlands Antilles, Turks and Caicos Islands. In the Indian Ocean, there is Mayotte, and in the Pacific there are New Caledonia, Pitcairn, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna. The Falkland Islands, Greenland, Saint Pierre and Miquelon and Saint Helena are also members.