UK Minister: Backs stronger EU development policy

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The richest countries need to fulfil their commitmment to raise development aid to 0.7% of their GNP by 2015 or the Millennium Development Goals are doomed to fail, UK Development Minister Gareth Thomas told EURACTIV in an interview. 

Gareth Thomas is the UK development minister.

To read a shortened version of the interview, please click here

Your ministry is launching a consultation on what the UK expects from the EU’s development policy. What are the current strengths and weaknesses of this policy? 

We are publishing a draft strategy that recognises the Commission and the member states as the major players in ensuring the EU development policy is going forward. 

We want to work in three key areas with the Commission and other member states: 1) how to get more and better aid to developing countries, 2) how to get more political leverage and support from other member states in the fight against poverty, and 3) allow wider policy areas (trade, climate change, security, etc.) to have an impact on helping developing countries. 

Are there contradictions in what the EU does?

There are always challenges in what the EU does to maximise the potential for developing countries to get a benefit from that. 

In terms of international trade and trade negotiations, we want to make sure we open up opportunities for developing countries to get their goods into EU markets. We are also thinking about what the capacity constraints are in individual developing country markets that might stop them from taking advantage of those opportunities. How do we help bring barriers to trade down? How do we increase competitiveness? How do we increase access to finance for businesses in developing countries? We want to make it easier for them to take advantage of any reductions in trade barriers that enables them to gain access to EU markets. 

Given the potential conflict between trade and development policies in the Doha trade round, do you agree with the view of civil society that the Commission is not doing enough in this area? Do you think there is a conflict in what the Commission is doing in Doha and what it is trying to achieve in its development policy? 

I support the view of many NGOs that the CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] should be reformed as it is sensible and it is right. We will continue to engage in discussions over the next 12 months as part of the CAP health check. 

But I do think it is significant that Peter Mandelson is committed to phasing out export subsidies by 2013, as has been requested by a number of developing countries. I think we are close to a deal and he has done a good job. We need to look at what else we can secure for developing countries. We need to see improvements on rules of origin, which is a key area. 

We need to see better access to the poorest countries in Africa who produce cotton who see challenges from not only EU producers but also from US producers. We want Europe to get behind those cotton-growing countries. There are ways in which Europe can help more in trade negotiations, but Peter Mandelson has put a significant package of reforms forward that will help developing countries, and we would like him to go a bit further. 

The coherence between sometimes conflicting EU policies towards the developing world is an issue that keeps coming back onto the agenda, even though the EU has attempted to address this problem. There was an inter-institutional agreement in December 2005, the so-called European Consensus for Development. How has the situation evolved since then? Has coherence become even more of a challenge than it used to be? 

The understanding of what different parts of the Commission and member states do on development has increased dramatically. That is the importance of the European Consensus for Development: it has raised the issue of policy coherence to another level. 

We are seeing the EU understand more effectively than it has in the past the impact of trade on developing countries in the Doha Trade Round. I think there has been an impact on policy coherence. 

The challenge of working in a joined-up way is considerable. We need to think what else we can do in terms of climate change, trade and security policies and how they can impact on poverty. 

Any specific initiatives you recommend the EU takes on some of these issues? 

In terms of coherence, we think the Commission’s development work in Asia and Latin America should be brought alongside that of the ACP [Africa-Caribbean-Pacific] countries under one commissioner rather than under two, as is the case at the moment. So that the lessons learned on development in one part of the world can be spread to other parts of the world more effectively. 

Do you think the Lisbon Treaty will help this reform or will it complicate it further? 

The Lisbon Treaty is a positive treaty, one which the UK Government has supported. I welcome the fact that a commitment to reducing poverty has been included for the first time in the principles that govern the way in which the Commission works. That is a significant benefit of the Treaty of Lisbon. 

What about the new permanent President of the Council and the merging of the roles of the commissioners for development and external relations? 

We need a more sensible set-up in terms of external relations. That’s why I said we need one commissioner responsible for development in the whole world, rather than splitting it into regions. The current set-up is not coherent. We will continue to champion this change with the result of a stronger development commissioner. 

Why has this been dragging on for at least five years now? Why is there so much resistance to it despite there being fairly broad agreement on it? 

I hope there is increasing agreement on it, as a change would be sensible. The discussions surrounding the External Action Service provide an opportunity to have a debate again. We will have to deal with the issues some people have about bringing the development agenda together, where other parts of the Commission might not have access to expertise in Asia and Latin America. We can deal with that concern quite easily. We should have a more coherent development set-up and we should do it as soon as we can. 

To finish on a budget aspect, are you pushing for more money to be channelled into aid? There is a commitment to increasing the aid budget to over 0.7% of GNP by 2015. Would you want to raise this further? 

We want member states to fulfil this commitment, as the richest 15 member states committed to the target of 0.7% of GNP by 2015. A number of countries are off-track, and we are obviously talking to these countries about how they can get back on track. This is going to be critical going forward to 2015 if we are going to achieve the Millenium Development Goals. 

Is the UK aiming to go beyond the 0.7% target? 

We want to achieve this target by 2013, so two years ahead of the agreed date. We are on course to do that. 

Will you be pushing for something similar on an EU level? 

We only just set that commitment back in 2005, so we need countries to meet that commitment. Most are on track but some are not, so we are concentrating on helping those that are lagging behind to get on track before we decide to bring the target date forward. 

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