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The politics of European Union reform

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:30
Hero image description: Peter Mandelson Image license:Creative Commons

Peter Mandelson MP
Howard Mollett, EU Campaigns Officer, British Overseas NGOs for Development (BOND)
Hugh Bayley MP
, International Development Committee and ODI Council member

1. Hugh Bayley welcomed the speakers for the final meeting in the current ODI meeting series.

2. Peter Mandelson talked about the importance of leadership in the EU. A new and more effective alliance was needed between politicians and civil society, to provide political purpose, vision and direction to the EU. Strong leadership, in turn, would help to forge agreement. The alternative was accommodation, always attractive to the politically weak. This, however, would lead the EU to settle on the lowest common denominator, in a kind of race to the bottom.

3. What were the sources of leadership in Europe? Historically, Peter Mandelson saw two: the European Commission and the 'Franco-German motor'. Europe worked best when there was a strong President and when there were strong pro-Europeans leading France and Germany. The era of Delors, Mitterand and Kohl was an example. At present we did not have this: the EU, at present, was weak at the top - and this showed, for example in issues concerning the management of the European economy.

4. For the future, it was important to recognise the limits of Franco-German leadership. Those two countries sometimes pursued their own national interests rather than the interests of the Union as a whole, and in some cases, Iraq for example, had shown themselves to be isolated. A Club of Three would be a better model for the pursuit of transnational politics, with the UK included. With Britain would come a whole swathe of European opinion. For this to happen, however, Britain had to be more positive about Europe, and more prepared to work with others. We could not always insist that our point of view prevailed.

5. On specifics, Peter Mandelson had some proposals, and some thoughts about proposals already on the table. He

  • thought Commissioners should be given clear geographical responsibilities (both inside and outside the EU);
  • recommended an administrative model based on autonomous agencies rather than departments, agencies, an area in which the UK had plenty of relevant expertise.
  • wanted to see Council procedures simplified, since a Council of 25 could not make decisions, only ratify them;
  • welcomed the idea a single 'double-hatted' European Foreign Minister; and
  • also welcomed a permanent Chair of the Council, and thus the abolition of the rotating Presidency.

6. Howard Mollett welcomed the opportunity to talk about the politics of reform, particularly since the reform debate was so often presented in technocratic terms. There were three main problems or risks: first, that development might become instrumentalised in the effort to construct the EU's foreign policy profile; second, that European aid was predominantly focused on middle-income countries, rather than allocated on the basis of poverty reduction; and, third, that EU trade and agriculture policies are undermining commitments on development co-operation.

7. In achieving reform, there are complex inter-relations between the EU Institutions, Member States, and Civil Society.

8. For the institutions, the issues included the marginalisation of DG Development by DG RELEX, and the role of EuropeAid (chaired, significantly, by Chris Patten). Howard Mollett also wanted to see more joined-up work to promote coherence between the Council and DGs, for example on agriculture, trade, and development.

9. Turning to Member States, there were divisions between North and South, between East and West, and between big and small. The divide between north and south of the 'olive belt' in Europe was noted. Mollett noted there were generally like-minded countries interested in progressive aid reform in the north, with southern European states more interested in immigration and security concerns. The East-West distinction was also notable. On one hand, there were debates about allegiances with the United States and European perspectives on global governance. On the other hand, the ten new accession states would bring new priorities to the EU, particularly around regional stability in Central Asia. These are all legitimate concerns but Mollett advocated clarity on the principles and proper focus for development co-operation: namely tackling poverty. (see BOND's paper on enlargement at http://www.bond.org.uk/pubs/eu/euenlargement.pdf )

10. In contrast to the hard-nosed pragmatism and national interests of EU governments, civil society organisations are better able to mobilise and advocate around shared values for development co-operation. BOND, as the UK national platform of development NGOs, was a member of the new pan-European confederation for development NGOs, CONCORD. CONCORD had a range of thematic working groups looking at subjects such as the Constitution and Financial Perspectives. BOND advocates bringing the relevant policy constituencies together (foreign, security and development policy) to promote an informed debate on synergies and differences in their respective means and ends. (Read BOND's book 'Europe in the World: Essays on EU foreign, security and development policies': http://www.bond.org.uk/eu/euinworld.htm )

11. Howard Mollett highlighted further opportunities and challenges, including those surrounding a new parliament and commission, budget reforms, and enlargement. To illustrate the politics of reform, he took one example, aid effectiveness.

12. Here, there were challenges in engaging with the relevant policy constituencies and civil society in all EU Member States; in ensuring aid programming and implementation was not top-down and technocratic; and in ensuring the Commission's devolution of aid management to in-country offices supports genuine participation and consultation of local civil society, especially the poor and marginalised. Additionally, the Cotonou Agreement with African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, at least on paper, offers a useful model for co-operation based on mutual accountability and partnership between donors and recipients. As with other donors, EU aid reform is a long-term project which will only succeed if the voices of broad-based civil society are heard in developing countries and across Europe, not just a political or NGO elite. (Another BOND paper exploring civil society participation in EC aid can be found at http://www.bond.org.uk/pubs/eu/ecaid.pdf )

13. Concluding, Howard Mollett noted that the next few Presidencies would be in countries that were relatively 'development friendly', which might make a difference for development policy and lobbying. Following Peter Mandelson, he stressed the need to have clear principles and leadership, but added that in that context we need to ensure that the political voice for development policy must be strengthened and safeguarded, not undermined by a narrow security agenda.

14. There were a number of questions from the floor, and further points, including:

  • In a Development Committee of 25 members, it would be difficult to keep the agenda focused outside of Europe.
  • Local government can make valuable contributions and should not be ignored alongside higher-level dialogue; it was important to localise decisions and not centralise them too much.
  • There will be the same tensions in civil society, as in Member States, when the EU is expanded to 25 members.
  • With the creation of a European Foreign Minister, the tripartite locus should probably be regarded as a 3+1 group, hence including the future Foreign Minister.
  • Many NGOs were unhappy about the 'decommitting' of funds from development projects to the 'war on terror'. In this respect, the issue of clarity was important again - legally, politically, and institutionally. However, Chris Patten and Javier Solana had both called for increased flexibility on all aid resources.
  • The African Peacekeeping Facility was an example of an initiative led by developing countries and the development constituency.
  • Leadership needed both vision (as Peter Mandelson has stressed) but also good political skills. UK development policy since 1997 had not lacked vision, but progress was slow in Europe. There were still unanswered questions about the best negotiating strategy for the UK. Work within the system? Build new alliances? Threaten to withdraw?

15. Hugh Bayley brought the discussion to a close by asking what would happen if we did get a European Foreign Minister. Howard Mollett felt the debate on the interface between foreign and development policies rested largely around securing the necessary institutional and policy clarity, both within the Commission and the Council. Development could not stay in a 'ghetto', but we must be vigilant about the boundaries between coherence and subordination. It was an important period from now up to the ratification of the Constitution, and the appointment of the Commission itself. Hugh Bayley wondered if the circle could be squared by reconstituting the Development Council and making it obligatory for an appointed European Foreign Minister to attend.


This event discussed leadership and politics in the EU, looking at how to forge agreement and deliver on development.

Boothroyd Room