EU development policy to be more interest-driven under ‘geopolitical’ Commission

Slum in Angola, Africa. Capital city of Luanda. [Shutterstock]

The European Commission’s geopolitical ambitions would turn cooperation and development policy into an internal and external interest-driven policy, Alexei Jones, senior policy officer at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) told EURACTIV. 

Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen wants geopolitics to be at the core of her mandate. This approach could mean changes not only for EU external action, including its cooperation and development policy but it is also an attempt “to close that gap between internal and external,” Jones explained.

The researcher argued development policy “is increasingly motivated by internal interests priorities,” including migration, security or von der Leyen’s main goal: the Green Deal. “These are priorities that will also be reflected in the cooperation and development policy if the EU,” he added.

Making use of cooperation and development policy to tackle migration is not new though. The EU “has strengthened its position, its conditionality in regards to cooperation,” especially with countries of origin or transit. 

“There has been a sort of condition but the EU has been using both negative and positive incentives, in particular putting pressure on some African countries to comply with their commitments as regards return on readmission,” Jones said.

Reinforcing this approach in the new Commission “is a concern” both among countries and in the development community. 

Nevertheless, the second biggest change in von der Leyen’s Commission approach is moving towards ‘partnerships’ with countries. The EU has been increasingly referring to partners as equal, in particular with regards to Africa. 

The college of commissioners will be travelling next week to Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa for a joint meeting with the African Union and the EU is expected to unveil its strategy for the continent in the coming weeks.

There is a “strong push” for a change in the relationship, said Jones, as even the name of the portfolio of the Commissioner in charge, International Partnerships, has changed.

Behind the changes in language, “there is an intention to be more assertive,” which also means “making EU external action and development policy more interest-driven and serving also EU internal interests.”

A budget to match the ambition 

Member states welcome the von der Leyen geopolitical Commission but the budget needs to match her ambition. EU leaders are meeting to shape the next seven-year budget.

Development policy faces a 6.45% cut to €7.02 billion under Charles Michel’s proposal, compared to the European Commission’s proposal. Meanwhile, funding for sub-Saharan Africa faces a 4.79% cut worth €1.36 billion.

In the last seven year EU spending round, external actions suffered “the most disproportionate cuts in the negotiations in order to find a compromise.” Jones said that with all eyes on the Common Agricultural Policy and Cohesion policy budgets, this time could be different.

“But nothing is agreed until everything,” he added, noting that there is no strong community defending external action spending within the member states.

The outcome of the negotiation, Jones warned, “will not only determine the available financial resources,” but they will also determine “the way and the instruments that the EU will have and will use.” and these are broad instruments, from Neighbouring Policy to International Cooperation.

The aim here again “is to bring together the different foreign policy strands” and “to blur the lines between policy silos that pre-existed in the past.

Looking at the instrument, there is a rising concern in the development community that in the Commission proposal reference to local authorities have disappeared.

Jones considers that the Commission and the EU “have recognized the importance of local authorities and they are also making a strong case to make sure that they are not forgotten in the equation.”

However, given the preoccupation among local leaders and organisations that they might be bypassed by national governments or struggle to access programmes, “the localization of the SDG agenda and the role of local authorities for climate for urbanization challenges, I think it is fully recognised, but there is a need to put this in the tool regulations.”

(Edited by Benjamin Fox)

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