European Union

Challenged by complexity

The recent UN proposal for 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) covers a multitude of topics, which indicates that the list of issues relevant to international development has grown rapidly in recent years. This trend has a bearing on how the EU should articulate and implement its development policy.
The EU’s response to the Arab spring might have been more satisfying, had external policies concerning security, development and the promotion of democracy been better coordinated and more focussed: Libyan insurgents celebrating the fall of Gaddafi in 2011. Sabri Elmhedwi/picture-alliance/dpa The EU’s response to the Arab spring might have been more satisfying, had external policies concerning security, development and the promotion of democracy been better coordinated and more focussed: Libyan insurgents celebrating the fall of Gaddafi in 2011.

Indeed, reforms to the EU’s external-relations management after the 2009 Lisbon Treaty were supposed to make the system more effective in response to an increasingly world. The idea was to strengthen the coherence of the EU’s foreign, security, trade and development policies.

Among other things, the responsibilities of the various commissioners and the bureaucracy that supports them were redefined. The new Commission, which took office under President Jean-Claude Juncker on 1 November 2014, has taken this a step further. To give the Commission more thrust, Juncker gave his vice presidents coordinating powers. Federica Mogherini, one of his vice-presidents thus has the mandate to lead all commissioners who handle matters related to external relations. She also heads the European External Action Service.

However, modifying administrative rules and reforming bureaucracies will not be enough. The EU needs an overarching strategic vision that is shared by all of its institutions as well as its 28 member countries. The vision must define what the EU wants to achieve globally, identify the policy tools that are needed, and set out the steps of implementation. The SDG agenda could serve as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the EU to re-define its global strategy.

In EU legalese, development policy is a “shared competence”. This term means that, while EU institutions are engaged in development aid, the 28 member governments are free to run their own bilateral programmes as they see fit.

Indeed, the oft-repeated claim that the EU is the world’s largest aid donor is something of a misnomer. It is true that the total official development assistance (ODA) provided by the EU and its members dwarfs the ODA of other OECD members. However, most EU member states pursue their own bilateral aid policies, and so far, they have shown little appetite to coordinate them more closely through the EU. Accordingly, the EU has struggled to translate its potential for financial leverage into real political influence. This is true both in the relations with individual developing countries as well as in the international forums that set global norms and standards.

The EU’s institutional set-up for making and implementing development policy is quite complex and involves many players. The European Commission (EC) is something like a European government. It is responsible for initiating legislation and controls the EU bureaucracy. Within that administration, the Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development (DEVCO) is led by Commissioner Neven Mimica.

The Commission is in charge of implementing aid programmes through the EU “delegations”. That is what the embassy-like offices that represent the European External Action Service on other continents are called. In addition to being a development actor in its own right, the Commission has the mandate to coordinate European donors and ensure the complementarity of bilateral and EU programmes.

The European Parliament has a development committee that scrutinises the Commission’s work. The Parliament is slowly but steadily becoming more assertive. 

The member governments, however, are more powerful than the Parliament. Apart from implementing their own ODA policies, they have a direct say in related matters at the EU level. Their most important forum is the biannual Development Council, which is subordinate to the Council of Foreign Ministers. The Council of Foreign Ministers oversees the proposals (‘Communications’) from the Commission and has a final say on their adoption.

Member states can also influence policies through the various working groups and committees of the Development Council. This way, they can influence the formulation of specific initiatives, such as budget support, country strategy papers or conditionality clauses. 

Agencies of EU governments play a role too. They often implement EU programmes. Germany’s GIZ and KfW are among the most important implementers of Commission-funded projects.

For instance, more than € 320 million of EDF-money was channelled through German development agencies between 2008 and 2012. EDF stands for “European Development Fund”. The EDF is run by the Commission, the European External Action Service and the European Investment Bank. It serves development cooperation with former colonies of EU members in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific (ACP countries) as well as remaining overseas territories. In the years 2008 to 2012, the EDF’s volume was more than € 21 billion.

The EU aid system has often been criticised for being over-complex. Even member governments which are part of it say so. Over the years, information sharing has improved in the EU, and policies have become better coordinated. Nonetheless, the level of coordination remains insufficient. In individual developing countries, some member states have shown little interest in coordinating their substantial bilateral programmes with those of the Commission and other member states. More joint action would make sense – not only in regard to development issues.

Commission President Juncker is aware of the challenges. “We need to be more effective in bringing together the tools of Europe’s external action,” he has said. “Trade policy, development aid, our participation in international financial institutions and our neighbourhood policy must be combined and activated according to one and the same logic."

In view of the Euro crisis and recessions in many member countries, the EU has recently been rather self-centred. Accordingly, the momentum for better coordination of external action has been lost to some extent. There is no coherent EU-wide vision for common stewardship of the world, its resources and its people.

The EU security strategy and its neighbourhood policy, which is meant to improve relations with – and standards of living in – North Africa, the Near East and Eastern Europe should be linked much more closely to development programmes. So far, this has not happened to a satisfying extent. The EU needs a strong and coherent approach in its external affairs – as became evident in the Arab spring and, more recently, in Ukraine.

The SDGs are an opportunity to improve matters. As they will spell out targets for all nations, rather than only developing ones, this agenda will require not only coherent management of the EU’s external affairs. The EU will also have to consider how to achieve the SDGs within Europe.


Svea Koch is a researcher at Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik/German Development Institute.

Mark Furness is also a researcher at DIE/GDI.

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