EU development aid faces Brexit squeeze

Campaigners have warned that Brexit threatens to erode the UK and the EU's leading role in aid work. [Tanya Holden/ DFID]

The EU and UK’s leadership in development policy is threatened by Brexit, which will leave a considerable funding gap after 2019, leading campaigners have warned.

Britain is one of Europe’s biggest aid donors, spending over £12 billion on aid in 2017, and among the handful of EU countries to have met the 0.7% of economic output target set by the United Nations.

The Department for International Development (DFID), meanwhile, has long been highly regarded by the European Commission and beyond. As a result, the UK’s pending departure from the EU has prompted anxiety among the NGO community in London and Brussels.

So what happens next?

“Brexit will mean a serious loss of an important partner and big contributor to EU development finance,” said Mikaela Gavas, head of strategy at the London-based Overseas Development Institute.

Nick Clegg warns of ‘lack of coherence’ in post-Brexit UK development action

Britain’s commitment to development spending will give way to short-term geopolitics as “Brexit points the UK towards a friendless future,” the country’s former Deputy PM Nick Clegg has warned.

“Post-transition, the UK will still be obliged to contribute to the European Development Fund (EDF) because it is committed until 2020 and it exists as a rolling fund, meaning funds unspent carry over year to year. We may be in a position where we are contributing until 2022 without a seat at the governance table.”

But the first hit could be to the EU budget after 2020, when the next seven-year budget framework starts.

Around €1 billion of the UK’s aid spending is currently funnelled through the European Development Fund (EDF) and tied up with EU programmes. Non-EU countries are not allowed to contribute to the EDF, so the money will stay in the hands of the UK treasury after 2019.

“The overall budget will reduce. Britain’s departure will leave a funding gap of at least 15%,” says Gavas. With pressure on the EU to increase spending security spending but net recipients reluctant to see farming subsidies and regional cohesion spending cut, that leaves the development budget as potentially vulnerable low-hanging fruit.

So far, however, any fears that the UK will abandon its development commitments appear to have been misplaced.

British Council boss: Brexit won’t change the way we help the world

The British Council will continue to do the work it has always done, despite Brexit, and its priorities in areas like Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East remain as important as ever, said the organisation’s CEO in a wide-ranging interview.

In 2016, the UK overtook the EU as the world’s second-largest public funder of global health research targeted at HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases. UK funding increased 10% to $101m, while EU support dropped almost 40% to $77m.

The G-Finder report published in December, which tracks global investment into research and development for neglected diseases, attributes this reduction to uneven disbursements by the European Commission to the EU’s main funding instrument in this area, the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP).

Meanwhile, the UK government stated that “continued close working with European partners will form an important part of the UK’s future international development strategy,” in a ‘future partnership’ paper published last September.

However, it added that “such close collaboration would be on a case-by-case basis”.

“Development and humanitarian planning is not a top priority for negotiators,” said Ester Asin, director of Save the Children International’s EU office.

That is not a problem but an opportunity, she added.

“This is a benefit to us as we have time to work out what the future relationship should be. We do not just want access to funding but also to maintain influence in the EU.”

But not everyone is convinced that the UK’s place as a leader on development will survive the Brexit process.

“British trade with the EU will fall by 40% in the first 10 years post-Brexit. That is equivalent to a 3 to 3.5% decrease annually in GDP,” warned Professor Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe programme at King’s College London.

“Do you really think the [UK] government will have any time or capacity to focus on development?” he said.