In search of EU ambition

Development Policy19 Jun 2013Saskia Hollander

The EU has great potential to push a more sustainable and inclusive development agenda. Yet, at the same time, it  suffers from a lack of ambition and prevalence of – often conflicting – individual member states’ interests. 

This was one of the messages from last Monday’s official Dutch launch of the 2013 European Report on Development (ERD), Post-2015: Global Action for an Inclusive and Sustainable Future, organized by The Broker, the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM), and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In terms of form, the ERD’s main conclusions largely coincide with the recent report of the UN’s High Level Panel (HLP): the post-2015 development agenda should build on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but should be more comprehensive in order to make development more sustainable and inclusive. Yet, in terms of content it goes further than the HLP by arguing for an overall transformation of the global economy and society (read the blog post: An inclusive future demands political courage). As emphasized by Paul Engel, director of the ECDPM, rather than the MDG-like agenda of finding clear-cut solutions for development problems, the ERD highlights the necessary structural instruments to achieve this economic and societal transformation.

The ERD 2013, prepared by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the Deutsche Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) and the ECDPM, aims to enable a post-2015 dialogue on the EU-level and therefore focuses particularly on the role of the EU in the post-2015 process. Above all, this role is one of mixed feelings. On the one hand, the EU is praised for its strong commitment to the MDGs, as demonstrated by the European Consensus on Development and the more recent Commission’s Agenda for Change and A Decent Life for All. The EU has become the world’s largest Official Development Assistance (ODA) donor, thereby playing an important role in helping to achieve the MDGs. In addition, the ERD emphasizes the efforts made by the European institutions and the member states in ensuring Policy Coherence for Development (PCD). With the Lisbon Treaty, PCD became a legal obligation. Article 208 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU states that: ‘The Union shall take account of the objectives of development cooperation in the policies that it implements which are likely to affect developing countries’. In this sense, PCD can provide a more systematic and complementary instrument for global development.

Yet, some important challenges lie ahead. Although the ERD emphasizes the need to move beyond traditional aid, it underscores the necessity to maintain the EU’s ODA promise and to push for the 0.7% target. This might be a difficult task politically, in light of member states’ austerity measures. In addition, the ERD argues that the EU should make more effort to move beyond traditional support and explore new ways of supporting global development, for example by strengthening PCD. As reaffirmed by Nicole Metz, Policy Advisor at Oxfam Novib, there is a lot to win in terms of achieving policy coherence at the EU level. Niels Keijzer, researcher at DIE, strikingly showed that EU policies on trade, investment and migration largely undermine the EU’s broader development aims, due to the prevalence of restrictive and often conflicting individual member states’ interests .

Despite the potential financial gap and shortfalls in terms of PCD, a main challenge that remains for the EU is the formulation of a joint post-2015 position which should be effectively promoted during international negotiations. Due to difficulties in reaching consensus between 27 member states, the EU frequently proved itself to be unable to speak with one voice on external policies. As highlighted by Niels Keijzer, EU positions on development (such as the recent Council-Conclusions) often represent a blunt vision that lacks ambition and provides the member states with little room for dialogue at the UN level. As Paul Engel aptly put it, the EU just does not seem ready for the UN.

The lack of ambition became apparent when participants debated the Dutch position on post-2015. Both Rob Swartbol, Director-General of International Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Heleen Bakker, Head of the EU External Policy Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, welcomed the ERD report with its call for economic transformation. Yet, when discussing the necessary means, it became clear that this will not be part of the official Dutch input to the post-2015 process. Pushed by the Dutch government, consensus has been reached on the issue of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR). Participants agreed, however, that the aims could have been set much higher. Although, member states are apparently more inclined to pursue their own interests in UN negotiations, rather than avail themselves of the EU’s collective bargaining potential.

The ERD highlights the opportunities and challenges for the EU in the process of formulating the post-2015 development agenda. Its recommendations might well provide valuable input for the EU to live up to during the negotiations within the Open Working Group on Sustainability (OWG) and the upcoming post-2015 negotiations between the UN member states. Without doubt, for the EU to fulfill its potential in promoting a more sustainable and inclusive development agenda, the EU should make a strong effort to formulate a single position that is effectively shared by its member states and ambitious.