Thursday, April 1, 2010

EU Playing Politics With Aid Policy

The world’s poor appear to have become pawns in a political battle over the European Union’s (EU) new diplomatic corps.

Catherine Ashton, foreign policy chief for the 27-country bloc, is urging that responsibility for development aid should fall within the scope of the European External Action Service (EEAS) that she is in the process of establishing.

In recent statements, Ashton has argued that if the EU is to have a successful development policy it must be compatible with its broader strategies on issues such as security.

Yet many observers of European politics suspect that the British baroness is more concerned with seizing control of a sizeable budget than in ensuring that development aid brings tangible benefits to the poor. At 15 billion dollars per year, development aid represents one of the top five areas of spending administered by the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission.

Plans for how the service should operate have been drafted in secretive meetings between some of the most powerful behind-the-scenes men and women in Brussels. They include Robert Cooper, a British diplomat whose 2004 book The Breaking of Nations advocates that a new form of imperialism should be devised for the twenty-first century, veteran French official Pierre de Boissieu and Ireland’s Catherine Day, the Commission’s secretary-general.

According to anti-poverty campaigners, there has been no substantial consultation with outside analysts. Some campaigners allege, too, that Ashton’s proposals constitute an effort to give her greater powers than those provided for the foreign policy chief in the EU’s core rulebooks. The Lisbon treaty, which came into effect last year and created the post awarded to Ashton, says nothing about giving the foreign policy chief responsibility for development aid, the campaigners say.

Although the EU has a separate commissioner for development policy – now Latvia’s Andris Piebalgs – fears are being expressed that he will be something of a vassal to Ashton and her advisers. This could have profound implications for the effectiveness of development aid. Under its treaties, the Union is legally obliged to ensure that such aid contributes to the reduction and ultimately the eradication of poverty. Yet the top figures mapping out the structure of the new diplomatic service generally lack expertise on poverty-related issues; instead, they have spent most of their careers working on more hard-headed economic and military strategies. Cooper, for example, has written numerous pamphlets for think-tanks close to the political and defence establishment in Washington.

Simon Stocker, director of the anti-poverty organisation Eurostep, noted that the principal objective of the new diplomatic service is “safeguarding the interests of European citizens.”

“Where does the eradication of poverty fit into that?” he asked. “Ultimately if you mix development – which after all is about promoting the interests of people in developing countries – with political objectives designed to safeguard the interests of European citizens, then you basically undermine both policies. The end result is that instead of the European Union having a stronger voice in the world, it will have the opposite. It will lose the ability to work potentially as a partner with the developing world.”

Tensions have surfaced between the EU’s main political bodies on several development aid dossiers since the Union decided to pay greater attention to security issues following the 11 September 2001 atrocities in the U.S. In 2005, the European Parliament decided to initiate court proceedings against a 5 million euro (6.7 million dollar) aid scheme designed to help the Philippines participate in the “war on terror” declared by former American president George W. Bush. Members of the parliament (MEPs) argued that there was no legal justification for using development aid for projects with a security dimension.

MEPs are now seeking assurances from Ashton that the fight against poverty will not be subservient to narrower strategic or economic considerations. Hannes Swoboda, a long-standing MEP from Austria, said that “clarification is necessary” to ensure that Piebalgs, the development commissioner, rather than Ashton, will be in charge of formulating policies on how aid should be allocated.

Swoboda added, however, that there is “no basic contradiction” between the fight against poverty and other policy goals. “The different aims (of foreign and development policies) can be brought together only if the development commissioner is strong enough,” he said. “We want to work together with Cathy Aston to find a solution where all these concerns are met.”

A source close to Piebalgs said that he is satisfied with the broad thrust of Ashton’s proposals. As both Ashton and Piebalgs will be given joint responsibility for presenting plans relating to development aid before their fellow commissioners “there cannot be a conflict” between them once the outlines of those plans have been decided, according to the source.

But Nuria Molina, spokeswoman for the European Network on Debt and Development, was less positive. She said that the development aid policies of individual EU governments tended to be more successful in alleviating poverty in cases – such as in Britain – where the development ministry enjoys considerable autonomy from the foreign ministry. “There is no magic bullet in how you set up the governance,” she added. “But it can be safely said that this (the Ashton proposal) is not the right move.”

First published by Inter Press Service (

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