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An effective EU in a changing world: seven reflections from ODI’s ‘Changemakers’ conference

Written by Simon Maxwell


What changes does the European Union (EU) need to make in the development arena if it is to remain both relevant and useful? How can it make the leap from ‘old aid’ to ‘new development’? Who should it work with to do this? What must be on the agenda for the European parliament elections in 2014 and the appointment of a new European Commission? Just some of the questions at the recent EU Changemakers conference hosted by ODI, with participants from a dozen countries, including representatives from the public and private sectors, think-tanks, NGOs and aid agencies.

As a member of ODI’s EU programme, which organised the conference, the discussion set me thinking about how the EU could be more effective in a changing world, without losing the core values of social justice that must drive its development engagement. This leads me to seven reflections:

  1. There’s a divide between those who start from an unquestioning pro- European position, and those, including me, who are more transactional in their approach. The former talked about shared interests and common approaches as a jumping off point; the latter more about recognising divergent interests, institutional choices and the need to make the case for change. The two groups may come together. Working through the EU offers economies of scale and greater weight internationally – and there are areas, like international trade policy, which are inevitably European as a consequence of the internal market. Nevertheless, we should not adopt the Mount Everest option: always to think first about the EU, ‘because it is there’.
  2. It is easy to sketch out a vision of future EU development cooperation that differs from the current version. The values would be the same, inspired by ideas of social justice. But there would be less emphasis on service delivery in poor countries, many of which will graduate from aid, and more emphasis on delivering global public goods, including sustainability and peace. A greater variety of instruments would be needed, including trade, new forms of finance, climate rules, and foreign policy; and partnerships would be needed with a greater range of countries, including the BRICS. I have described this as ‘same mission statement, new job description’. In this context, two key ideas for post-2015 come into play, both advocated by the High Level Panel (HLP) on post-2015: first, unifying poverty and sustainable development goals into a single framework; second, a universal approach, applying to developed and developing countries. I have advocated for these, so think the HLP has got it right. Could this vision not be used as a vehicle to garner support for development, and even perhaps help re-connect the EU with its citizens?
  3. It is quite easy to picture the development cooperation agency of the future. There will need to be a wide range of skills, on a wide range of topics, including those related to brokering global deals and managing partnerships with different kinds of countries. The ability to manage relationships and delivery mechanisms across government will be essential. This will not be an ‘aid’ ministry, and may not be a separate ministry at all. It was interesting to learn at the conference that some countries had already created new ministries, often called ‘globalisation’ or ‘global issues’, incorporating aid, trade, and sometimes climate, alongside foreign policy. The main issue, though, is competencies. As one donor representative remarked: ‘we are terrified by the extent and speed of change that will be needed in our institution’. Note that the EU is on the edge of the red zone according to the Kharas/Rogerson stress test of aid agencies’ readiness for the future.
  4. Responding to a changing aid agenda is no trivial act for the EU. The basic building blocks are in place, including the creation of the (unifying) External Action Service, and the mandate to work across thematic areas on ‘policy coherence for development’. However, the silos are strong and well-cemented, both in the Commission and the Parliament. There are examples of successful joined-up action (Somali piracy is often cited), but they are exceptional. Proposals to foster a new approach could include: deputies to the High Representative for External Affairs; a more explicit hierarchy among external commissioners, led by the High Representative/Commission Vice-President; perhaps different ways of organising funding, certainly a more integrated approach by the committees of the European Parliament. There is material on all of that on our programme website.
  5. To quote a participant, ‘no-one should underestimate the depth and strength of vested interests opposing change in our institutions’ – nationally and particularly at EU level. One possible outcome from next year’s elections and Commission process is a new vision and new capacity to implement, with strong political leadership, greater capacity to deliver cross-sectorally, and improved parliamentary accountability, all backed by high levels of public support. More likely is a continued but slow evolution, marked by messy debate about the limits of EU competence and the internal arrangements of EU development cooperation.
  6. An important question will be about how to incentivise and manage change. Statements of purpose may help, especially if articulated by those with the capacity to set agendas. However, collective action theory suggests that other elements are needed, including trust-building measures and incentives. Finance is probably key. Having a seven-year perspective for the budget and the European Development Fund provides predictability for EU planners, but may also reduce their responsiveness to signals from stakeholders. Could there be promises of additional money if changes are made?
  7. Finally, there is an important role for consensus-building and policy engagement across national boundaries –the purpose of the EU Changemakers group. New ways of working are needed, however. Policy-makers and politicians are busy. Attending meetings is costly. Participation in e-fora or discussions is unlikely. We probably need a core steering group and a variety of ‘instruments’ to reach different actors. The European Think Tanks Group will be a key actor in developing new narratives, and in supporting disparate policy processes in the Member States of the EU.