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Reorganising Europe’s foreign affairs: what role for international development?

Written by Simon Maxwell


European Union Foreign Ministers are meeting today to agree the shape and functions of the new European External Action Service created by the Lisbon Treaty . This is not the final stage of the approval process. The European Parliament must agree the required budget and can thus require further change. Nevertheless, Monday's meeting will mark the point at which European Foreign Ministers sign up to the deal that gives Baroness Cathy Ashton her mandate as the EU's first Foreign Minister. International development forms part of the deal. Will the EU's contribution to poverty reduction , human security and environmental sustainability be well or badly served?

The EU already has a Development Commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, and a Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, Kristalina Georgieva. It has a department for Development and an implementing agency, EuropeAid, both of which report to Commissioner Piebalgs; and a humanitarian relief organisation, ECHO, which reports to Commissioner Georgieva. Why, then, involve Baroness Ashton? And why involve the External Action Service ?

In the worst case, this could be a foreign policy take-over of development, which could lead to diversion of funds from poverty reduction to security policy. Transferring posts and functions from the existing organs to the new diplomatic service would weaken Europe's $15 billion aid programme and make it more difficult to deliver the Millennium Development Goals . In the best case, however, the opposite could be true. Engaging Baroness Ashton and her team in development could strengthen coordination between the different parts of the European institutions and deliver greater coherence between aid and other policies, like trade. An example of joined-up thinking and action took place after the Haiti earthquake, when Baroness Ashton led a coordinated European response.

There are four ways we will know whether or not Foreign Ministers have signed up to a deal which is good for development.

First, a strong reiteration of the commitment to the poverty focus of international development, enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty, and to the principles of development policy laid out in the European Consensus on Development , approved by Ministers, Commissioners and Parliament in 2005.

Second, the Development and Humanitarian Commissioners will be recognised as providing policy and implementation leadership in their respective fields, with sufficient authority. In practical terms, this means that the External Action Service is unable to act independently of specialist services – and vice-versa. A ‘double-key' solution will be required. Cathy Ashton will have a role to play in delivering coherent and joined-up policy to achieve the MDGs. Andris Piebalgs and Kristalina Georgieva will need cast-iron guarantees that they can both propose and dispose: work with the External Action Service to develop new ideas, team up in international diplomacy, and stop initiatives which do not conform to development principles. The College of Commissioners will be the guarantor of this arrangement. Though Baroness Ashton is ‘double-hatted', reporting directly to Member States, as well as being a member of the Commission, it is the collegiality of the college that will be tested.

Third, the proposals for the funding and staffing of the External Action Service will recognise the importance of international development. That means a Secretary General or senior deputy charged specifically with leading development work, supported by the staff to manage overall policy and resource allocation. This is a model familiar in many European foreign ministries. In Sweden, for example, which has an autonomous implementing agency for bilateral aid, SIDA , the Minister of Development Cooperation sits in the Foreign Ministry, supported by one of the Ministry's five Directors General. In the Netherlands, also, the development minister and the development director-general are located within the Foreign Ministry – and in this case manage delivery as well as policy.

Fourth, the development work of the External Action Service, indeed all its work, will be accountable to the European Parliament, in this case not just to the Foreign Affairs Committee, but also the Development Committee. It might seem obvious that this should be the case, and it would be obvious if the EAS were a Commission service, but the double-hatted nature of Baroness Ashton's appointment leave scope for some ambiguity. The right deal for development will remove uncertainty.

There would have been better ways to organise this. From a UK perspective, the DFID model has many attractive features, with a Cabinet-level Secretary of State responsible for all aspects of development policy and implementation, and also for humanitarian assistance. Why the European Union could not have adopted this model is a mystery. A second best would have been to place all the external Commissioners in a single team, working to Baroness Ashton, and again with a single chain of command from policy to implementation – the Dutch solution. Given that we are working in the territory of third-best, the four conditions we have outlined are the minimum Foreign Ministers should require.

This blog was written by Simon Maxwell, Senior Research Associate, with Mikaela Gavas, Research Associate, from the European Development Cooperation Support Programme at ODI .