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Dear European Commission president: four priorities to demonstrate global leadership

Written by Dan Sharp, Marcus Manuel, Marta Foresti, Ipek Gençsü, Alina Rocha Menocal


Dear Ursula von der Leyen,

We welcome your appointment as President of the European Commission. The European Union and its institutions have been at the centre of collective action to deliver social and economic progress.

But the world is now politically precarious, with unprecedented pulls away from multilateralism and once-prominent champions retreating from formal structures for international cooperation.

Against this backdrop, we have witnessed pressing issues such as migration come to the forefront of political debate – amidst claims that political debate and democracy itself is failing. 

Meanwhile, climate change has mobilised citizens across the continent. Many of the commitments agreed by the international community under the Sustainable Development Goals, including to end extreme poverty, are off-track.

In short, we are at a crossroads and how your Commission responds will be crucial.

Your initial steps as President-elect are welcome: from streamlining delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals across all commissioners and shifting the narrative on Europe’s relationship with Africa from development to partnership, to elevating the profile of the climate portfolio. Securing progress across these issues, however, will depend on the effective implementation of innovative policies.

In the true spirit of European solidarity, together with partners in the European Think Tanks Group, we have developed An agenda for Europe in the world, which sets out concrete proposals for areas where your Commission can make a lasting difference globally.

Here we set out how the EU can show global leadership on four key challenges.

Dan Sharp

Frequently asked questions

Marcus Manuel: invest in people to end extreme poverty

Given that you have rightly prioritised the Sustainable Development Goals across the remits of every commissioner and have called for Europe to build a 'partnership of equals and mutual interest', your Commission should be at the forefront of international efforts to end extreme poverty and deliver SDG 1.Our research highlights that despite efforts to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030, 430 million people will be left behind based on current trends. This number could risk rising as many of these people live in countries vulnerable to conflict and climate change.

However, if domestic and donor governments invest sufficiently in human development – namely health, education and social protection – we could avert this tragedy.

The European Union must be more ambitious. It should meet the target to spend 0.7% on aid by the end of its multi-annual financing framework period in 2027 rather than by 2030 as set out in the new European Consensus on Development.

Disconcertingly, aid as a percentage of national income across EU member states has fallen over the last two years.

Moreover, at least 50% of the EU’s aid must be allocated to the least developed countries and over 20% to human development. Over the last four years, there has been no significant change in the amount of funding to these countries. Also, over recent years, the Commission has focused on leveraging private sector funding – but this should not incentivise shifting aid towards middle-income countries or reducing spending on human development.

If your Commission is to prioritise the SDGs and Africa in actions as well as words, the financing framework must be consistent with delivering the 2030 Agenda and ending extreme poverty. This would not only save millions of lives but could also help reconnect EU citizens with EU aid. 

Frequently asked questions

Marta Foresti: facilitate coalitions of the willing on migration

Migration will remain a high priority and a political challenge for the European Commission. The ability of the EU to speak with one voice and to act collectively is under increased scrutiny, not least because of the failures to enforce a common policy and approach to managing migration and asylum. This will require different ways of working.

Yet given that no country can address migration in isolation as it fundamentally requires compromises to address the reality of people moving across borders, what is the alternative to current EU wide, often ineffective, approaches?

The problem continues to be urgent and real: arrivals to Europe are at a record low, but mortality rates the highest in recent years.  From July 2017 to June 2018 approximately 40,000 people arrived in Italy, compared with over 100,000 in the same period in 2016–2017. and over 150,000 the year before. While it would be desirable, these numbers do not require all EU member states to agree on a common approach.

What we need is smaller ‘coalitions of the willing’  or form of ‘mini multilateralism’   in the words of the late Peter Sutherland.

These are more viable mechanisms for cooperation than current ‘all or nothing’ models, where states with opposing interests and views are unlikely to find enough common ground to agree on joint action.

The focus of these coalitions should be to collaborate on practical and limited measures in areas of genuine mutual interest.

Examples do exist: we have recently seen France, Italy, Germany and others taking the lead in forming a coalition of selected European states willing to cooperate in resettling and hosting refugees and other migrants rescued at sea in an attempt to find a pragmatic and workable agreement, which was reached at the recent Malta Summit.  

While it may appear limited, it could well serve as the basis to create broader coalitions with other EU member states, and it marks a significant departure from the standoff between Italy and its neighbouring countries in recent years. Interestingly the proposals include new ideas such as ‘earmarking’ EU regional development funds for those willing to cooperate.

Your Commission will be key not only to create an enabling ‘political’ environment for these coalitions to emerge but crucially to help create incentives, rules and processes to support their implementation.

Frequently asked questions

Ipek Gençsü: halt public financing for fossil fuels to confront climate change

As you’ve said: “Our most pressing challenge is keeping our planet healthy.” And time is running out. The youth on the streets are calling for urgent action; action that must be taken within the life of your Commission if we are to have a chance of meeting the Paris climate goals.

Europe has led on ambitious climate targets, and you have outlined yours. But there is a major disconnect between rhetoric and action. Don’t let this be a failure of your presidency. Here are three concrete steps your Commission can take to bring about a zero-carbon Europe, for which ensuring the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels is critical:

1. Government-led financing for fossil fuels must end.

This includes all financing through the EU budget and mechanisms that have supported fossil fuel infrastructure for years.

Europe has already pledged to end subsidies to fossil fuels by 2020, yet continues to pour billions of Euros into coal, oil and gas production and consumption each year. This risks locking into decades more of fossil fuels, and many of these assets becoming uneconomical. The recent European Investment Bank (EIB) decision to stop financing fossil fuels past 2021 is exactly the kind of leadership we need but it requires the highest-level support to fully implement it, without any loopholes or backtracking. Signalling your support for it, and ensuring all other European financing follows this lead, would place you on the right side of history.

2.  Member state’s National Energy and Climate Plans offer a real chance to get it right at country-level.

As recent analysis by ODI and the Commission itself have highlighted, the first drafts lacked in fossil fuel subsidies reporting and phase-out plans. Your Commission must work with member states to ensure the final plans, due at the end of the year, are comprehensive and ambitious.

3. The end of coal must become a reality.

Progress to date has been encouraging, but a total phase-out must be achieved without delay, with measures put in place to support those affected. Hidden support mechanisms, such as free allocation of emitting allowances and capacity mechanisms to ensure security of supply, which are purportedly in place to support the transition but end up hindering it, must also be terminated.

The time for making bold statements on climate change is long over. Leaders of today will be judged not by their words but by their actions that will move the world to a fossil-free future.

Frequently asked questions

Alina Rocha Menocal: increase political awareness to strengthen democracy

We are at a critical juncture where the stability and resilience of democracy have come into question, not just in developing settings but also in some of the most established democracies.

Supporting emerging democracies so that they can work more effectively and deliver on the needs, priorities and expectations of their populations is a vital challenge of our time – and the EU needs to reinvigorate the nature of its democracy support to rise to the occasion. Your creation of a Vice President for Democracy and Demography is a welcome step towards this, but we must also adopt new approaches that are more agile.

Democracy support has thus far tended to rely on one-size-fits-all forms of engagement that tend to be overly technical and rely on idealised and unrealistic models of change. Deepening the quality of democratic governance is messy, complex, and uncertain, so a more creative and innovative approach is needed – one that enables the EU to think and work in more politically aware ways.

One crucial place to start is understanding:

  • where pressures for democratic reform are coming from within a given country,
  • how different forces are positioned,
  • what the nature of underlying power dynamics are,
  • how rules of the gameplay out, and
  • how these different dynamics are linked to subnational, regional, international and global drivers of change. 

Interventions need to be grounded in a more nuanced understanding of how change actually happens based on those realities.  This entails designing and implementing programmes that are tailored to context, testing assumptions on an ongoing basis, and remaining mindful of unintended consequences along the way.

It also means engaging with existing political incentives and opportunity structures to achieve change, with a focus on how to help broker or facilitate processes of reform or transformation rather than relying solely on technical support. Crucially, the EU also needs to become more tolerant of both risk and failure to foster a culture of experimentation and learning.

Supporting democracies more effectively so that they can deliver is a formidable endeavour, but one that is well worth pursuing.  The resilience and very survival of democracy depends on it.