Whether or not Britain chooses to turn back the clock on its EU membership, the country is likely to remain an important player in Europe’s overseas development policies.
Prime Minister David Cameron is to lay out his vision of the nation’s future in the EU in a speech on Wednesday (23 January) after months of cross-Channel combat over how to manage Europe’s financial and economic challenges.
But Britain is unlikely to reduce or sever its ties to the Continent on overseas development aid. A divorce could cost Britain international influence, including with many of its former colonies, and leave the EU without one of its most committed proponents for helping poorer nations.
“The scale of the global challenges that we face today – whether it’s climate change [or] food insecurity – I think it would be naïve for any country to think that they can tackle these issues alone,” said Mikaela Gavas, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute think tank in London. She added that a Britain would “stand to lose on the global reach of the EU” if it were to exit the bloc.
Britain, meanwhile, has had significant influence in shaping EU overseas policy. Under both Conservative and Labour governments, London has played a central role in reshaping aid policies and in pressing other advanced countries to target world poverty.
“A key priority for the UK [was] really about results and accountability and transparency and value for money,” Gavas told EURACTIV in a telephone interview. “One of the reasons why that message got so clearly across to all the other European donors – and a number of them are really pushing it forward – is because the UK is a strong member of the club.”
“They wouldn’t have the same leverage if they weren’t a part of it. They wouldn’t have the vote, which is absolutely key,” said Gavas, who has worked for the UK aid agency and the European Parliament.
Tony Blair’s global role
Britain played a central role in development aid during Tony Blair’s decade as prime minister. Blair created a Commission for Africa, enlisting the Irish singer Bob Geldof and African leaders to lobby for a larger donor commitment to the world’s poorest countries. Blair was also prominent in pressing rich nations to commit to fund poverty-fighting under the UN Millennium Development Goals.
Despite Britain’s own banking and economic problems, London has sought to live up to its promises to keep the aid money flowing while other European capitals have cut or slowed aid spending, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures show.
Britain spends a higher percentage of its gross national income (0.56%) on aid than Germany (0.40%) and two other former colonial powers in Africa, Belgium (0.53%) and France (0.46%). Britain and Europe’s economic powerhouse Germany provided nearly the same amount of development aid in 2011 – €10.5 billion and €11 billion respectively. France was the EU’s third biggest donor, with €9.9 billion.
But even if British Conservatives and eurosceptics gain the upper hand and downgrade the country’s relationship with Europe, it could continue to participate in donor policy debates, as does non-EU member Switzerland.
Gavas also says London is likely to continue to play a role in the European Development Fund. The fund, which dates to 1959, provides overseas aids and grants and benefits many of the 54 Commonwealth countries, most of which are former British colonies.
A Britain outside of Europe “would stand to lose on the global reach of the EU, [and] the fact is that the EU reaches some very strategic and important countries for the UK which UK aid doesn’t,” Gavas said. These include a number of Commonwealth countries, the Caribbean, North Africa, the Middle East “and other areas that are important to the Foreign Office.”