What would ‘Brexit’ mean for Development?

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

Childrens' toilets at a school in rural Senegal, funded by EU aid money. [MattTempest/Flickr]

On June 23rd Britain will go to the polls to make a momentous decision: whether to remain in or leave the EU, writes Linda McAvan MEP.

Linda McAvan is a British MEP and chair of the European Parliament’s Development Committee.

The case for staying in the European Union has been made by many people representing different sectors already. For the area I am most working on, overseas development policy, it is clear to me that if Britain wants to keep the influence it has in the EU and in the world, then a vote to remain in the EU would be both in our best interests and that of our EU partners. 

One area where Britain really does have global influence through its EU membership is in international development. Britain is a leading player in the fight against global poverty. It is one of the few countries to reach the UN development aid target of 0.7% GNI, and has a strong and well respected Department for International Development (DFID). 

As a member state of the EU, Britain is part of the world’s largest development aid donor community which disburses some €12 billion per year, and is present in around 140 countries. As a result of its own strong development policy, Britain is hugely influential over EU development policy and how EU aid is spent. Equally, the EU benefits from working with DFID which is widely recognised for its expertise, experience and ability to deliver on its aid pledges.

Global challenges, common solutions

Development cooperation is vital to both British and EU interests. Climate change, political instability, forced migration and conflict – these are the key challenges of the 21st century. Put simply, development cooperation increases the resilience of countries to such crises, providing greater opportunities for governments to be able to provide basic services to their populations, improve governance and reduce the likelihood of war and conflict.  

Brexit will put the UK’s ability to resolve these problems at risk because, despite our impressive national contribution to international development policy, we need broad international agreement to make real progress on these challenges. Reflecting on 2015 which saw the new 2030 development agenda take shape through a series of international conferences – Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, the UN Summit on the Global Goals in New York and the  Paris Climate Summit – we see that at all these major conferences, British influence was magnified because it was part of the EU delegation. The EU brings not just more money to the table in such multilateral negotiations; it brings greater geographical reach, a perception of being a more neutral partner than former colonial powers and the sheer political clout.

Looking at the financial aspects, Britain channels around 10% of its total aid budget through the EU, but research shows that each pound of aid the UK spends through EU institutions is matched by £6 from other EU member states. This gives British development aid increased leverage, allowing it to reach more people and to tackle problems in areas where the UK does not have a large presence, a fact that is recognised by the UK government. Britain acting alone could never provide such a high level of support to Commonwealth countries which today are major beneficiaries of EU aid. 

Past successes, new goals

Whilst the EU helps Britain realise its own strategic interest, the UK has also played a key role in shaping EU development policy and ensuring the policy survived as an EU priority into the 21st century. This was not always a given. After the 2004 enlargement, some felt the EU’s collective interest in development would weaken after the accession of new member states with little tradition of overseas aid and economic problems closer to home to worry about.

Fortunately, this did not happen.

Led by the UK presidency of the Council and G8, in 2005 the EU adopted a new consensus on development, making new commitments to increase aid and outlining shared principles for development cooperation. It is in part thanks to this new focus that the last two decades have seen the largest reduction in extreme poverty in all of history, more children are in school, fewer go hungry and gender rights have been out firmly on the international agenda.

Brexit would deny the UK the chance to help shape this policy, to extend the reach of its own national policies and to have greater clout at the UN. Equally, the EU would miss the leading role that Britain can play, as it did in 2005, in setting a strong development agenda for the whole Union.

UK membership of the EU has been mutually beneficial when it comes to development policy. Politicians on all sides recognise that British engagement in the EU allows the UK to punch above its weight and extend its relationships and influence. The EU on the other hand has benefitted from Britain’s leadership and focus on development policy in 2005 and could benefit from it again as the implementation of the 2030 Agenda gets underway.

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