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Putting the right words in the right order: The Reflection Group Report

Written by Simon Maxwell


The overall tenor of the report by the Reflection Group on the future of the EU to 2030, issued earlier this month, can best be described as alarmism leading to a call for renewal. According to the report, internal and external threats to Europe's prosperity and social stability are piling up; only a process of European renewal can reverse our inevitable decline.

The threats are manifold: slow growth and declining competiveness; an ageing population; under-investment in education and innovation; dependence on others for energy,; and a range of external threats, from terrorism to intellectual piracy. To cap it all, EU citizens have lost confidence in the EU.

In the past, the EU has offered peace, stability and progress. It has developed a distinctive social market economy. It has been a reference point for inter-state relations, a transnational community of law, and an exemplar of soft power.

These remain assets for the future. But the EU is also greater than the sum of its Member States. It can apply multi-level governance to global problems like climate change; economies of scale, for example via the single market; and its role as a ‘power multiplier'.

According to the Reflection Group Report, urgent action is required if those assets are to help defend Europe's prosperity and security. Europe, the EU, must be ambitious, assertive and determined. In practical terms, this means: a big investment in the policies and institutions required to create a successful Europe-wide economy; a commitment to energy efficiency and to diversification of supply, as well as tackling climate change; and new thinking on international security, backed up by new investments in the instruments of common security and defence policy. On international development, the report has a short chapter entitled ‘Europe in the world: becoming an assertive player' – the title tells its own story. The first two paragraphs, talk of the need to increase Europe's economic competitiveness, provide its citizens with freedom and security, and reshape international governance to enable the EU to promote its agenda.

There is recognition of a higher purpose, with reference to ‘inclusiveness, equity, sustainable development, collective security, respect for human rights and the rule of law and fair trade practices'. Nevertheless, development in this formulation is mostly an instrument of a wider strategic concept.

Three thoughts on this:

  1. This chapter of the report has most of the right words, though not necessarily in the right order or with the right emphasis. It is hard to resist the conclusion that the moral case for investing in development takes second place to the imperative of securing Europe's interests – a perspective familiar from the European Security Strategy of 2003. The risk is that aid, for example, will be subordinated to foreign policy and spent in the ‘wrong' places or in the ‘wrong' ways. This would not be consistent with the Lisbon Treaty, which stipulates that aid must be used to reduce poverty. If there were to be a new ‘strategic concept', it should recognise the moral pillar as well as the instrumental one.
  2. A moral pillar imbued with a sense of partnership is not clear in the Reflection Group Report. The rest of the world is treated as either a threat (younger, more innovative, owning the resource we need) or an opportunity (mainly markets). There is little sense of common stewardship of the world, its resources and its people. The authors of the report could have adopted more of the language of partnership from development cooperation. There have perhaps been too many international relations realists holding the pen, and not enough idealists.
  3. The case for ‘more Europe' rather than, say, more trans-Atlanticism or more effective UN-based multilateralism, is only thinly sketched. A single European market with portable social security, and a commitment to joint European security forces may or may not be the only or best answer to the global challenge. Where does ECOFIN run out of road and the G-20 take over? Or EuropeAid hand over to the World Bank? These are pragmatic questions about where the priorities lie in multilateral space, which the Report does little to answer, despite approving references to ‘multi-level governance'.

There is a case for reinforcing Europe's role in international development, and it is one we make, in the European Development Cooperation Support Programme , and more widely through the European Think-Tanks Group . It begins by recognising shared interests in poverty reduction and sustainable development. It emphasises partnership and mutual accountability in Europe's relations with developing countries and regions. And it makes the case for ‘more Europe' in both idealist and realist terms: as a vehicle for expressing European values, but also because there are economies of scale and other sources of comparative advantage in Europe-wide collective action. The end-point may not be that dissimilar – but it is important to have the right order as well as the right words.

View a full version of this blog on the international-development.eu site