EU budget: When contradictions cost lives

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Enfants dans une école en Centreafrique [Pierre Holtz/UNICEF]

Children in a school in Central African Republic. [Pierre Holtz/UNICEF]

As the European Parliament is voting today on the draft EU’s budget for 2016 in Strasbourg, member states are pushing for cuts to programmes to fight extreme poverty, writes Tamira Gunzburg.

Tamira Gunzburg is Brussels Director of The ONE Campaign. ONE is an NGO co-founded by rock star Bono which seeks to end extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa.

Those in the Brussels bubble grow accustomed to seeing the most acrobatic compromises and arrangements to make this Union – 28 nations and an intricate web of political groups – work. But every now and then, we really are left speechless. This happened recently when I found out EU leaders want to bill a third of their proposed budget cuts to the world’s poorest.

2015 is the European Year for Development, and with good reason. This year saw a string of historic summits that aimed to pave the way to ending extreme poverty by 2030. In July, world leaders came together to decide on how to finance that fight. In September they agreed on a blueprint of how to achieve it – the 17 brand new Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Furthermore, the climate summit in late November will certainly make the word “sustainable” ring loud and clear.

In preparation for these global moments, EU ministers committed in May to increase their development assistance to reach 0.7% of their collective gross national income within the 15-year timeframe. They also promised to focus more on the poorest countries of the world, who will have the hardest time reaching these Goals. More commitments were made in the side-lines of these big moments, and many backs were patted.

And yet, at the very first opportunity for EU leaders to put their money where their mouth is, the picture backstage looks different. The EU is currently agreeing on its budget for 2016, which includes some €9 billion in proposed funding for the EU’s external action programmes. Crucially, poverty-fighting programmes are financed from this budget line. Programmes, which over the last ten years, have helped immunise 20 million babies against measles, connected more than 74 million people to safe drinking water and made sure that 13.7 million kids went to primary school.

In spite of these impressive results, EU member states have asked to cut proposed external spending by almost 5%. Whereas this budget line makes up only 6% of the overall EU budget, it accounts for one third of member states’ suggested cuts. In other words, in the same year European countries agreed to ambitious Goals to end extreme poverty, they are also proposing cuts to the very programmes that could help make that happen. It is this contradiction that boggles the mind.

The refugee crisis has shown that investing in external action programmes is at least as important to the European Union and its member states as the other programmes the EU budget supports. Failing to address the refugee crisis is not an option. But equally important is continuing to tackle the underlying causes of poverty and insecurity, as highlighted by the development ministers in Luxembourg this week. I am convinced we can do both, and member states must not cannibalise existing funds for development aid to address the current crisis.

Certainly, cutting overall external funding altogether will not help. The European Commission has proposed an amended budget that takes into account the funding needed in 2016 to both deliver on the Global Goals and do right by those fleeing from conflict and destitution towards our borders. Just yesterday, the European Parliament voted to increase the Commission’s budget. The question is: will member states live up to their recent promises and follow suit?

To all those who expect nothing less of our leaders – and they number in the hundreds of millions – this will come as a relief and a show of integrity and political will.

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