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Interview

The troops may leave, but the EU will stay

by Andris Piebalgs

Opinion

German troops on patrol near Kunduz

German troops on patrol near Kunduz

EU Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs says that Europe has to be ready to help even in countries suffering from war and violence. Hans Dembowski and Peter Hauff spoke with the prominent politician from Latvia. Interview with Andris Piebalgs

A lot of countries that get aid from the EU are at war or are fragile states. Can development policy be productive at all in those conditions?
That’s a good question. My answer is that we also have to pursue development-policy goals in areas that are not at peace. Take a look at Somalia, for instance. The country has been at war for 20 years. Still we have managed to deliver development and humanitarian aid to deliver basic services to the population, to support communities and to create conditions for peace. For the years 2008 to 2013, the EU has committed € 212 million for Somalia, channelled through international NGOs and those multilateral organisations that manage to work in such difficult conditions. And this sum does not include our humanitarian aid, which is on average of € 35 million per year. In 2009, the European Union launched its multilateral operation called Atalanta to protect navigation and humanitarian supplies from pirates. Nonetheless, piracy is worsening. Today, our strategy is to pay a peace dividend, by supporting local administrations that are committed to peace and stability and willing to provide basic services to the population. Development aid is the only way to keep potential criminals from committing further violence and robbery. We have a similar situation in the Sahel region, where people who do not see a future for themselves are starting to trade drugs and take hostages. The roots of this violence lie in poverty. So we have to nip poverty in the bud.

What is your assessment of the situation in Afghanistan?
Afghanistan also shows that military means can provide temporary calm, but not stability. Nonetheless, we cannot leave this region without a state and without peace when foreign troops withdraw in 2014 or later. Real peace requires a properly working government and a viable social system. If Afghanistan has neither, it will cause problems for its neighbours and even for the EU. Development policy is thus really the core answer to all questions.

US President Barack Obama has announced he will start pulling out troops this year because the security situation has reportedly improved. Has it?
That’s something for military experts to say. At the beginning of April, I read in the US press that the situation was still considered critical, and Germany’s Der Spiegel also reported deaths in northern Afghanistan. But regardless of when the last US troops pull out, the situation will remain unstable. On a trip to Afghanistan with Germany’s Development Minister Dirk Niebel in June, we discussed how to improve EU strategy. Think about it – EU members currently spend a total of € 1 billion on development aid to Afghani­stan per year. Of course, it could be more. But whatever the case, we need to clearly define the areas where the money has the greatest impact. If US troops will no longer be there, Europe will continue to provide development aid beyond military presence. At present, Afghanistan still needs a military presence for stability, partly because the troops provide so many people with work in the country. If the US pulls out, the political consequences will be tremendous – but of course, at some point NATO has to go home. It cannot ensure stability over the long run. That is where development policy comes in.

Afghanistan’s government regularly complains that donors are too fragmented and provide too much aid bypassing it. How do you respond?
I think that criticism is right, but we shouldn’t forget the situation we face. There is simply too much corruption, and we have to be careful with European taxpayers’ money. Personally, I would like to channel more EU support through the government in Kabul, but that won’t work yet. We have to clearly state our conditions for the parties to be responsible, demanding that corruption be combated more, and improving the basic conditions for aid. I agree with Minister Niebel that we Europeans need a shared programme for Afghanistan. In Haiti and southern Sudan, we demonstrated that such coordination works in practice and that there is a political will to act together. The Council of Ministers has to discuss – in close cooperation with the US – what the focal areas should be. We all have to work together. I am not saying that we need to centralise funds, but rather that all donors must know what the others are doing.

The multilateral Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness of 2005 emphasises both donor harmonisation and ownership of developing countries. But the more donors speak with one voice, the less leeway the receiving country’s government has – Afghanistan, for instance. Is that not paradoxical?
It sounds paradoxical, but makes sense nonetheless. The governments in developing countries have to show ownership, and donors have to cooperate more closely to avoid duplication or divergent strategies. Incidentally, the strategy for Afghanistan only came about because EU member states insisted to have one. And in the future, our development policy will also have to be coherent with other actions, both military and political ones. Security risks naturally bother us. But the most unsettling thing about Afghanistan is corruption. We can do nothing about it without Kabul’s engagement.

How can Europe more clearly define what it wants to do in Afghanistan?
We need a dialogue. For instance, when Kabul says we need to build jails – no, we have to reject that, for we cannot justify that towards EU citizens. We do not need a wish list from the Afghan government, but rather a joint, positive strategy. To the extent that it works, we will be pleased to support Kabul, such as in training a police force. We have to know and be able to show where our assistance makes a difference. Our continent has valuable experience it can share. Look, we established stable democracies and reduced corruption in Eastern Europe. This experience is valuable in other parts of the world such as Afghanistan, but Africa too.

Development politicians like to emphasise democracy and transparency. How does Brussels perform in those respects? Some observers say the European Parliament is hardly able to control the European Commission and core decisions are taken by the European Council – and hence to the EU governmental heads – in a top-down fashion.
I personally feel the strong involvement of the members of parliament. None of my decisions is made without democratic checks and balances. First of all, the EU development budget depends on the will of EU governments, who answer to their parliaments and hence their citizens. Second, I need the approval of the European MPs in Strasbourg for the EU aid budget. I therefore have two bodies critically inspecting the funding. And by the way, I would be pleased if the European Parliament had more say beyond the budget. When I took office, I said I would promote that goal – which I do. Finally, I need the agreement of all 27 member states on most issues.

Nonetheless, a lot of citizens feel that everything in Brussels is top-down.
From my perspective, we currently allow too much to be decided from the bottom-up. Too many decisions are made at the base, for instance by EU delegations in developing countries. In numerous developing countries, the EU handles small-scale cultural projects, for instance. Delegation leaders receive a nice pro­posal, which they accept. But even if culture matters in the battle against famine, the EU might not be the most relevant actor in this field. I wish we had a clearer profile in areas where we truly have expertise, and large scale projects are needed. For instance, I’d like to see more emphasis on energy supply. Agriculture is another area where Europe can take advantage of its lead. We are not much help if we try to help out in every area. It may be hard to say no, but we should focus our efforts.

Is there political opposition to your calls for better coordination of European development efforts?
The problem is not political opposition, but technical obstacles. To date, every EU member state has its own institutions and own procedures, which often go back far into history. These structures have grown historically, they are about democratic checks and balances. The problem is that different countries’ approaches don’t fit together well. We need to improve our coordination and joint programming of aid.

What role will national development ministers have if the EU coordinates policy?
I wish each of the 27 countries in Europe had a development minister – regardless of budget sizes. In Council negotiations, I often notice that countries with a development ministry have a different perspective on global issues. Their philosophy is that we have to invest prudently in a liveable, global future. The emerging-market nation of Brazil recently announced that it aims to do away with extreme poverty at home by 2014. We also have to work towards that goal in Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia, for instance. Ultimately, we are fighting the global causes of terrorism and war. If we discontinue development aid in Africa, forests will be cut down for firewood, people will migrate, and wars will probably become more common. Development policy is a smart investment in the future, even for the future of the citizens of Europe.