As the date approaches for one of France’s Pacific entities, New Caledonia, to vote on its status for the future, it is worth reflecting on one of the wider contributions that France’s sovereign presence has made to the South Pacific region, that of the presence of the EU.
At a time of changing strategic balances in the South Pacific region and pressure on European budgets, this paper analyses the role of France in shaping the current engagement of Europe in the region, and its effect particularly on the French Pacific entities. France is the sole currently active resident sovereign European power in the South Pacific region. It has pioneered a special relationship between the EU and its own Pacific territories through the EU Overseas Countries and Territories arrangement, and between the EU and the independent South Pacific island countries through the Africa-Caribbean-Pacific program and its successor Economic Partnership Agreements. Although there have been limitations, and the relationship is changing, it has in general been a mutually productive one for both the EU and the South Pacific region. But aspects of EU engagement touch on sensitive local political nerves, both within the French collectivities and potentially more broadly in the region.
For the French Pacific collectivities, France, while itself advancing substantial direct financial support, has negotiated special access to EU funding, and non-reciprocal customs protection and EU citizenship rights for its Pacific nationals. But these measures have worked against integration of the French Pacific entities within the wider region. And citizenship issues are highly sensitive within the French Pacific islands.
For Pacific island independent states, the EU presence has delivered modest development cooperation; an evolving trade relationship which is yet to prove its consistency with other regional trade regimes; and higher expectations and standards on governance and other issues, with a potential for heightening regional differences.
For its part, by acquiescing in the Europeanisation of France’s geopolitical ambitions in the Pacific, the EU derives strategic benefits in its access, through what it has itself described as its outposts in regions of strategic interest, to a resident global presence, vast maritime zones with actual and potential mineral resources and a wealth of biodiversity, and land and sea areas which support Europe’s space program and scientific and technological research. But the EU now has its own stake in peaceful, sustainable and democratic outcomes in New Caledonia and the other French Pacific territories. The EU and its structures, including its human rights organisms, offer new avenues for French Pacific leaders, pro-independence and pro-France alike, in seeking international support for their positions. Until New Caledonia’s future status is resolved, it is too early to assess the effect of French/EU regional policy evolutions on the wider Pacific, although the issues raised are potentially divisive.