What the EU could contribute, with a little more EU-phoria

Development Policy10 Sep 2013Mark Furness

The 2013 European Report on Development (ERD) ‘Post 2015: Global Action for an Inclusive and Sustainable Future’ offered two ambitions for the post-2015 global development agenda. First, it should not be just ‘MDGs plus’, but also truly transformative. The agenda should support economic and social transformations through employment, socioeconomic equality and environmental sustainability. Second, it should look beyond the goals, and more at the international drivers that create a development-friendly environment.

Given these ambitions, there are two areas where the EU could and should try to push the global agenda. One is based on its domestic strengths, and the other on its international potential.

1. Inequality

The EU could contribute to reversing global and country-level trends towards widening socioeconomic inequality. The European social model is one of Europe’s greatest successes: although them rising recently, the EU still has the lowest levels of inequality in the world. The EU could therefore push harder for specific inequality targets in the post-2015 agenda. It could, for example, lead the way by implementing promises made in August 2012, when the Commission released the excellent Communication on social protection in EU development cooperation.

Inequality is primarily a domestic issue, and the EU cannot force other countries to tackle it, but it can offer support to partners that want to address their own inequality issues. This could include building political will by placing social protection at the centre of policy dialogue, supporting domestic initiatives to reform tax systems – including by closing European tax havens – and providing technical expertise for building welfare delivery systems.

Unfortunately, there are many reasons to doubt that Europe will be able to make this ambition a reality.

First, inequality is not a priority for EU development policy. Although the Commission earmarks 20% of its aid for social programmes, most is actually spent on promoting economic growth and tackling governance issues like police and judicial reform. Though these are helpful, they do not directly address inequality.

Second, the EU is disengaging from country-level development cooperation with middle income countries (MICs). Poverty remains a massive problem for many MICs, and even though their national wealth is increasing, there are major obstacles to ensuring that ordinary people benefit. Addressing inequality could therefore become a central topic for cooperation with interested MICs.

Third, the EU must set an example. Developing country elites will not take the EU seriously while inequality is rising in Europe. As Europe wrestles with its future and its place in the world, this is a good time to reflect on what the European project has been about: assuring the long-term peace and prosperity of the citizens of its member states. Social cohesion, achieved by ensuring that as many people as possible have a decent standard of living, is a core element of the EU strategy.

2. The framework conditions

Although the post-2015 goals will be very important for the global development agenda, they will not be as important as the framework conditions. The goals will be set after late night horse-trading at the UN, so we will have to see how detailed and feasible they end up being. But the framework conditions, which provide the context for both the global development agenda itself and its implementation at domestic level, will continue to evolve regardless of what negotiators can agree on.

The framework conditions are where the EU’s greatest potential to support global development lies. Europe could make two massive contributions. The first is through traditional development policy. While official development assistance (ODA) may not be as important for many developing countries in 2030 as it is now, the EU needs to keep working on improving aid effectiveness in line with international commitments. Europe also needs to keep making progress on the Policy Coherence for Development agenda in line with commitments made, especially with regard to its agriculture, fisheries and trade policy.

Europe’s second, and potentially biggest contribution could come in the area of global public policies: policies for shaping international agreements and rules that support global public goods (GPGs) provision in areas crucial for development. The ERD dealt with three types of international regime: aid and finance, trade/investment, and labour migration. Other areas include regional security regimes, illicit financial flows, extractive industries and maritime governance, as well as environmental GPGs like biodiversity and climate. Basically, the EU has a major role in international negotiations on many of these regimes, and it is time to pull these processes together behind the global development agenda.

Therefore, the EU remains crucial because of what it is: a major global development actor, and a visionary project that has underwritten peace, stability and prosperity on the European continent. The post-2015 development agenda provides a golden opportunity to reaffirm this on the global stage. At the moment, the signs are not good that the EU will take this opportunity. The ongoing euro crisis does not leave a lot of space for ambitious global agendas and, in many member states, the welfare state is being dismantled rather than promoted as a model for others. In short, the global development agenda could do with a little more EU-phoria.