Has development completely fallen off the EU’s radar?

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

Neven Mimica is the European Commissioner for international cooperation and development. [European Parliament/flickr]

The nomination of Neven Mimica as European Commissioner for international cooperation and development and Christos Stylianides as European Commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management suggests that development cooperation is increasingly falling off the European Union’s radar, whereas in a recent past the Union was at the forefront of the global battle to eradicate poverty.

Joren Verschaeve is a PhD student at the Centre for EU Studies, Ghent University.

The European Union, in particular the European Commission, never fails to emphasise that the Union should be seen as an international leader in development cooperation. According to, for example, its recent publication ‘A decent life for all: from vision to collective action (2014)’, the EU has always been at the forefront of the international efforts to eradicate poverty, and will remain so by playing an active and constructive role in the discussions on the post-2015 framework, which will succeed the expiring Millennium Development Goals.

Indeed, for quite some time the EU was at the forefront of the global fight against poverty. Going back to the Monterrey conference on financing for development in 2002, the EU was one of the few international actors to take in an ambitious stance, collectively pledging to reach the 0.7% ODA target by 2015. In a similar vein, the EU also played a leading role at several other international aid conferences, amongst other, the High Level Forums on Aid Effectiveness in Paris (2005) and Accra (2007). Moreover, in the same period, several initiatives were launched within the EU such as the European Consensus on Development (2005) or the Code of Conduct on the Division of Labour (2007), which have in common that they aim to foster a common European development identity, revolving around achieving the MDGs.  

In recent years, however, the EU is increasingly abandoning its role as global champion of development cooperation. While lip service continue to be paid to its previous development engagements as well as the internationally agreed targets such as the MDGs or the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, various signs indicate that the European Commission is increasingly thinking and moving beyond the traditional development paradigms.

At first sight, one could rightly argue that moving beyond the traditional development paradigms is not something to be skeptical about. However, the EU moved beyond aid for all the wrong reasons. The EU’s discursive shift on this matter, for example, took place in the late 2000s, not surprisingly coinciding with the realisation that the Union’s long-standing ODA commitments were doomed to fail. Rather than exploring alternative ways to meet the 0,7% target, the Union increasingly started to downscale the importance of aid by emphasising e.g. economic growth, private sector involvement. In a similar vein, the EU also become a leading voice in the international debate on ‘ODA plus’ and innovative development financing (e.g. blending), though, one should again raise the question “Cui bono?” as the Union recently started to report profit-making loans as ODA, much against the liking of the international community. Finally, the negotiations on the EU’s most recent multiannual financial framework revealed that the Commission took advantage of the international ‘beyond aid’ discourse to legitimate the huge cuts in the Union’s development budgets. Therefore, while according to the UN High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the post-2015 agenda, moving beyond aid does not equals leaving the bottom billion(s) behind, the EU seems to have done so as development cooperation is increasingly falling off its radar.

Unfortunately, the composition of the new Juncker commission, more specifically the nomination of Neven Mimica (Croatia) as European Commissioner for international cooperation and development and Christos Stylianides (Cyprus) as European Commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management, is yet another sign in support of the above claim. Of course both are still Commissioner-designates, pending the hearings in the European Parliament later this year, though, the fact that they obtained the nominations indicates that the EU’s top development jobs are no longer of interest to the larger/more influential EU member states (e.g. Claude Cheysson, France, Manuel Marin, Spain), neither are they still reserved for the most progressive EU donors (e.g. Poul Nielson, Denmark), something which also reflects from the various rankings put forward by EU journalists in the past months. Seen in the light of history, times have thus changed quite a bit, leaving little to the imagination of how high (or better how) low development cooperation is ranked on the new Commissions’ priority list.  

Off course, appearances can be deceptive. Therefore let us hope for the best, namely that Neven Mimica and Christo Stylianides take up the (huge) task to put development cooperation back on the EU’s radar. After all, the billions of people living in poverty could certainly use – once again – a strong and progressive EU that puts their needs central in the negotiations on the post-Cotonou and post-2015 framework.  

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