Challenges for the new European Development Commissioner

Development Policy01 May 2014Saskia Hollander

On 23 April, in cooperation with the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) and The Broker, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized a seminar on the future of EU development cooperation. The main message of the day was, once again, that while the European Commission has all the potential to play a significant role in development cooperation, the EU member states lack the political will and courage to do so.

This is by no means a new message. Despite its clear development vision, as outlined in the European Consensus on Development and the Commission’s Agenda for Change and A Decent Life for All, the EU’s failure to establish strong political will and commitment has been echoing throughout the many debates on the topic. Yet, these debates rarely go further than analysing what is going wrong. During last week’s seminar, moderated by Simon Maxwell of the ODI, the panellists provided the future European Commission with a ‘to do’ list to make EU development cooperation work. In short, they stressed the need to:

  • mobilize political will on the basis of ‘success’ stories
  • be pragmatic: make strategic choices as to what the EU can do
  • make development objectives a central element throughout the Commission and ensure the right job description for the future development Commissioner

This might, however, all be easier said than done. The most important question remains where power really lies in the EU. Not with the European Development Commissioner, that is certain. Within the European Commission, the Development Commissioner is competing with more powerful colleagues charged with, for example, the policy portfolios of trade and energy. In this context, any European Development Commissioner, whatever his or her ambition, runs the risk of getting the short end of the stick. Moreover, despite the EU’s budget for development aid, sovereignty in relation to development policy still largely lies with the member states, where there is a tendency to reduce development funding. In addition, as development policy touches upon many other politically sensitive issues, such as migration and security, national interests clash, something that is clearly marked by the EU’s current failure to develop an ambitious post-2015 development strategy.

Coherence, pragmatism and vision

According to the panellists at last week’s seminar, the solution lies in building a Commission where development priorities are filtered through all portfolios. The challenge of strengthening policy coherence for development (PCD) has been on the European agenda for many years, but in practice, the instruments and political courage are lacking to fulfil its purpose. Yet, with the European elections to be held between 22-25 May, surely now is the time to put PCD at the heart of European external policy and to rethink Europe’s role as development actor. This, according to the panellists, requires a clear list of strategic choices, based on Europe’s ‘success stories’ on which the EU should focus and a visionary Commissioner that brings it all together.

For Thijs Berman, MEP for the Dutch Labour Party, Europe’s potential lies in formulating a clear joint development vision based on three dimensions: sustainability, peace & security and human rights. According to Berman, member states should recognize that we need the EU to guarantee the provision of global public goods. Andrew Sheriff, Head of the Programme for EU External Action at the ECDPM, Europe’s added value lies in its long-term response to political crises, thereby closely linking its development policy to its democratization and conflict & fragility agenda. This, accordingly, requires bottom-up analyses in which citizens’ interactions with their governments are taken into account. Louise van Schaik, senior research fellow at Clingendael Institute, Europe’s potential lies above all in connecting its development priorities to its climate strategy, for which there is likely to be most political will at EU level. Myrtille Danse, director of the BoP innovation centre , underscored that the EU can only make a change through more effective engagement with private sector.

These calls all mark an optimism among the panellist that, with a strong Development Commissioner and a clear shortlist of actions, Europe has the potential to fulfil its ambition on the global development stage.

Squaring the circle?

But does that mean that, in the words of Simon Maxwell, ‘we can lock the door and throw away the key? Probably not. Something insufficiently recognized during the seminar is that calls to scale up political will at EU level tend to ignore that the absence of broad political commitment is due to the fact that interests are bound to clash. At national level, PCD is already a challenge. Yet, in the multi-layered governance structure of the EU, where interests between different policy departments, member states and EU institutions are diverging even more, it seems even more utopian. Even with a visionary Commission, the EU member states are trying increasingly harder to protect their national sovereignty in light of ever-diminishing levels of public trust; especially in terms of the EU’s external relations, where national economic and geopolitical interests prevail. As a consequence, Europe has not proven itself able to speak with one voice and to act as pro-active and credible global player. As mentioned by Andrew Sheriff, the recent crisis in Ukraine and Mali, where the EU lacked a pro-active performance, offer clear examples.

The bottom line is that solutions at EU level, such as restructuring the EC by merging the development and trade portfolios, will provide no cure for a problem that lies above all at national level, where support for a further transfer of power to Brussels and for increasing development funding are diminishing. As mentioned by someone in the audience, ‘Europe first needs to put its own house in order’ before it can become a credible actor on the multilateral stage. This implies above all recognizing that ongoing European economic and monetary integration is no longer tenable, when not backed with the support and trust of the European public.

Implications for Europe’s role in the post-2015 negotiations

What does this all imply for Europe’s role in the post-2015 negotiations? As pointed out by Louise van Schaik, since the EU still lacks a clear common vision, this would be one the main challenges for the new Development Commissioner. Yet again, this might be easier said than done. As I mentioned earlier, in the post-2015 negotiations, individual country interests largely prevail, and inter-country divisions lead to ambiguous EU statements that lack ambition. In addition, as argued by Thijs Berman, Europe needs to build a strategy on how to engage with new actors in the post-2015 negotiations, such as Brazil, China and India, a relationship that is currently mainly marked by quarrels over development financing. For the new Commissioner, the post-2015 negotiations will clearly be a litmus test of whether Europe will be able to present itself as a credible and unanimous development actor.