EU must develop ‘best supporting actor’ role in war zones

EuroMaidan protestors. Kyiv, January 2014. [Sasha Maksymenko/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Development Aid Under Fire.

SPECIAL REPORT: The new European Commission needs to shift its focus from humanitarian aid in conflict zones to conflict prevention and intervene more as a ‘best supporting actor to the UN’, says a paper by the European Think Tanks Group published today (1 September).

‘Our collective interest’, which will be presented to the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee today, is the fruit of a year’s work by 26 researchers from the German Development Institute, European Centre for Development Policy Management, Overseas Development Institute and Fride.

Its theme is that “the new EU leadership must step up and realise that to ensure stability and economic growth at home, global issues must be tackled head on. Europe will prosper if the world is prospering,” according to Kevin Watkins, ODI’s executive director.

Some 1.5 billion people in the Middle East, Africa and European neighbourhood are affected by conflicts and the report argues that the Commission has sufficient policy guidance, mandate, specialist units, adapted financial instruments, operational capacity and institutional reach to massively step up its developmental profile in such regions.

But this is being hampered by institutional structures which incentivise duplication, division and unhelpful competition, rather than genuine cooperation.

“On paper there is a division of labour but when it comes to implementation, there’s a lack of clarity because the overall purpose of action isn’t clear,” Volker Hauck, one of the report’s authors told EURACTIV.

Overlapping boundaries

Partly this can happen due to mismatches in the aims of EU institutions and member states which may pursue their own interests. But it can also reflect overlapping boundaries between differing wings of the EU institutions, said Hauck, who also heads the ECDPM’s conflict, security and resilience programme.  

“Between DG development and the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EEAS sometimes has a political lead but has no operational budget to act whereas DG devco has a development mandate but very often comes into EEAS [territory] where it goes beyond pure technical assistance to political issues that need to be addressed,” he said.

In Mali last May, an EU-led donor conference pledged €3.25bn of development aid under the aegis of the EU’s development directorate, but this was tied to political strings and took place in the context of a French military operation.

“There are clear differences on how to handle or follow up on certain decisions operationally which become difficult when a clear direction has not been a priori defined,” Hauck said.

“Where EU institutions need to link back and coordinate with member states on which path to take, that then creates the ground for what [some call] ‘turf wars’.”

To solve this, the think tanks call for the High Representative for Foreign Affairs’s remit to be broadened to take in international development.

“Now is the time for an overhaul as the European Parliament and member states select its new leadership team led by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker,” said Paul Engel, Director of the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM).

Unsung achievements

Many of the EU’s greatest developmental achievements have been unsung, according to the new report, and highlight the advantage of the Commission hiding its light under a bushel.

“In the Philippines, the EU played a background mediation role and supported a process of facilitating a multitude of actors,” Hauck explained. “It is not widely recognised but from our research we know that it played a very important role in the peace negotiations.”

In East Timor and Ache too the EU was able to effectively act as an honest broker because it was not perceived as having a dog in the local fights with Indonesia.

The bloc’s long-term funding horizon and ability to establish stable long-term partnerships for developmental investment has also enhanced its reputation, adding heft to the case for it playing second fiddle to other actors.  

“In most cases, globally, the EU should be looking to further develop its role as ‘best supporting actor’ in both the political and financing realms,” the new report says.

“By playing a supporting role, the EU can in fact be much more effective,” Hauck added. “It doesn’t have to be in the front line all the time.”

The lost art of conflict prevention

To do this, the paper’s authors propose a renewed focus on what they call “the lost art of conflict prevention,” and propelling this to the top of the political agenda, as they go.

“The EU needs to recognise that, given what has happened in Africa, Ukraine, the Middle East and the neighbourhood, crisis management alone is insufficient and costly, as well as damaging to the fundamental long-term interests of the EU,” the paper reads.

Aid agencies say that for every euro spent on conflict prevention, seven are saved in humanitarian aid donations once conflicts have broken out.

The bloc’s external affairs service says that conflict prevention is “at the heart” of its actions, and wields a programme of risk identification, mediation and dialogue.

But according to the new report, newly-developed early warning systems, conflict analysis approaches and maturing approaches to mediation should be rolled out “more systematically” by the bloc.

“Now, with a new leadership, a new mandate and a new budget with more resources for long-term capability-building in the Instrument of Peace and Stability, is the time to act,” it says.

In December 2013, the European Commission and its High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, set out a comprehensive approach towards its external actions.

The new approach established guiding principle for the joined-up deployment of EU instruments and resources when dealing with situations of crisis and conflict, while taking into account their respective strengths and added value.

These included:

• Developing a shared analysis among all EU players – institutions and Member States alike – about potential crisis situations and identifying the EU's interests, objectives and potential role(s)

• Defining a single, common strategic vision for a conflict or crisis situation and for future EU engagement across policy areas;

• Focusing on prevention, whenever possible, through diplomacy as well as early warning and early action;

• Mobilising the EU's different strengths and capacities in support of shared objectives;

• Committing to the long term, even while carrying out short-term engagements and actions, by ensuring natural synergies between different EU tools to effectively build peaceful, resilient societies.

A further review is planned for this year.

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