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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Partnership Agreement Between the Members of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States and the European Community and Its Member States (The Cotonou Agreement)) Order 2001

Ninth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 6 November 2001

[Mr. Derek Conway in the Chair]

Draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Partnership Agreement between the Members of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States and the European Community and its Member States (The Cotonou Agreement)) Order 2001

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Partnership Agreement between the Members of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States and the European Community and its Member States (The Cotonou Agreement)) Order 2001.

It is a pleasure to be here this morning. I understand, Mr. Conway, that this is your first outing as a Chairman of a Committee that is discussing delegated legislation. It is also my first outing as a Minister in such a Committee, which probably means that we can guide each other gently, under your tutelage, through the proceedings to what I hope will be a satisfactory outcome.

It is just over 10 years since the Lome convention, the predecessor agreement to Cotonou, was approved by the House. In her speech moving the adoption of that order, the then Minister for Overseas Development—now Baroness Chalker—said:

    ``if developing countries are to make sustainable economic and social progress, they need to participate as fully as possible in the world economy.—[Official Report, 26 February 1991; Vol. 186, c. 934.]

Those words were true then and they still hold true today. Sustainable progress remains the goal of our development effort. However, despite the progress that has been made in the last half of the past century, we have entered this new century with one in four of our fellow human beings still living in extreme poverty.

I am sure, therefore, that the Committee will recognise that we face a considerable challenge, which has been made more urgent by the events of the past six weeks. Poverty, inequality and injustice are not excuses for terrorism, nor are they the cause of the terrible events of 11 September, but their existence can be a source of resentment and alienation that those who are prepared to use violent means can exploit for support. One matter on which we should reflect is that, as powerful as it was before 11 September, the case for tackling poverty, inequality and injustice is even more powerful now. The Cotonou agreement, alongside many other instruments and policies, has a contribution to make in turning the aspirations that we all share into changes that benefit those in the world who have the least.

As the European Community is the world's largest multilateral grant provider, the world's largest single market and the main trading partner of most developing countries, it can potentially make a huge contribution to eradicating global poverty. In the past, the EC has not fulfilled that potential, but the new Cotonou agreement between the European Community, its member states and the countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific represents a landmark, not least because Cotonou has a clear, overall objective, which is to reduce poverty.

The Cotonou agreement is a successor to the Lome conventions and marks the most important revision of the relationship between the EC and the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries since the first Lome convention was signed in 1975. At the time, the first Lome convention was regarded as a flagship agreement. It embraced the principle of partnership between Europe and the ACP states and it brought together trade, political and development co-operation within a single agreement.

Those were the right principles but, unfortunately, the convention did not have the effect that we all wanted. Between 1980 and 1997, the ACP countries' share of EU imports decreased from 10 per cent. to 4 per cent. Meanwhile, world trade liberalisation eroded the ACP countries' relative preferences, which also fell foul of World Trade Organisation rules, as highlighted, for example, by the recent banana dispute. Furthermore, the impact of the EC's development assistance was disappointing. For all those reasons, a substantial revision of the relationship was clearly needed.

The Government have worked hard, and successfully, to ensure that the Cotonou agreement is a good agreement for the ACP countries. The European Union's negotiating mandate was agreed during the most recent British EU Presidency in 1998. Negotiations started in that same year and were concluded in 2000. The negotiations were hard, but all the UK's main objectives were agreed. First, poverty reduction was made the agreement's overriding objective.

Secondly, improved financial management of and better procedures for the European development fund were agreed, and in exchange for those improvements in the way in which it operates, a significant replenishment of the ninth EDF was agreed, which will give the Commission potential spending power of approximately 3 billion euros a year.

Thirdly, there was a re-affirmation of the essential elements of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. As under Lome, there is a process for consultation and possible action if those principles are breached.

Fourthly, it was agreed to ensure that good governance is a fundamental element underpinning the new agreement. For example, for the first time, it will be possible to take action in cases of severe corruption.

All of that is founded on the same principle of partnership—the EU and the ACP talking to each other as equals. The new emphasis on mutual responsibility is also a feature of the new partnership for African development, which represents a bold initiative of African leadership to address African challenges.

One of the most important aspects of Cotonou is the new trade deal between the EU and the ACP states. The arrangement maximises ACP access to the EU market while promoting gradual integration into the global economy. As we know—this is highly relevant to the debates that will take place in Doha later this week—the potential benefit of improved trade with developing countries is much greater in the long run than that from development assistance programmes alone. That echoes the remarks made by my predecessor in moving the Lome convention in 1991.

Under Cotonou, the EU is committed to open its market to a substantial group of developing countries. That is an important part of the EU's strategy to promote a new trade round and to ensure that it is a new development round. The ACP's current preferential arrangements will be maintained until 2008, after which new, WTO-compatible arrangements will come into effect. Those will be free trade agreements between groups of ACP countries and the EU but, to allow ACP countries time to adjust, fully reciprocal free trade will not be expected until about 20 years from now.

One of the Government's main concerns in the negotiations was for those countries that will not be able to join free trade areas in 2008. We secured two important objectives in that regard. The first is that the least developed countries—the poorest countries—will benefit from the EU's commitment to allow duty-free access for, essentially, all their products by 2005. As Members will be aware, that change has been implemented early through the everything but arms decision. The second is that there is a safety net for other developing countries that would not be covered by a regional agreement or are not LDC countries. The EU has undertaken to examine all possibilities to provide a new, WTO-compatible trading framework with benefits that are equivalent to those available under the Lome convention.

Cotonou is, of course, not the whole story of the Community's relations with African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. The impact of other Community policies on matters such as investment, agriculture and fisheries is also substantial. Therefore, the Government are working with our partners in Europe to ensure that those policies are consistent with the Community's development objectives, especially through significant reform of the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy.

Equally, although the improvements that Cotonou will make to the Community's development assistance programme are welcome, they too need to be accompanied by substantial and broader reform. The Commission has embarked on a process aimed at tackling many of the institutional weaknesses of the past. For example, it has begun a process of what is described, in European parlance, as ``deconcentration''—I think that we would refer to it as decentralisation and delegation—of staff, resources and greater autonomy to its delegations in country. We hope that that will make the Community a more responsive development partner, which is what we really need. It has improved its systems and procedures, with a common framework for its country and regional strategy papers, a simplified contracting procedure, and a quality support group to promote best practice. A new office, EuropeAid, has been set up to handle implementation of the EC programmes. The challenge now is to ensure that all the reforms are implemented effectively, efficiently and fully, while continuing to press for wider change—not least to increase the proportion of EC development aid for the poorest countries.

The Cotonou agreement represents a further development of the relationship between the European Community and the ACP states. It has at its heart the goal of poverty reduction and, ultimately, poverty elimination, through the instruments of development, trade and political dialogue. Together with the wider reforms to which I referred, it is in my view an important step forward in helping to ensure that the European Community contributes in the way that it should towards achieving the millennium development goals. For that reason, I commend the order to the Committee.

10.41 am

 
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