Bill Gates to Europe: 'Stay generous' on aid to stop US cuts

Maroš Šefčovič (right), vice-president of the European Commission in charge of energy union, Carlos Moedas (center), member of the EC in charge of research, science and innovation, and Bill Gates (left), chairman of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, participate in the signing ceremony of the memorandum of understanding on the 'Breakthrough Energy Europe Joint Fund.' Photo by: European Union

BRUSSELS — Bill Gates entered the debate over the European Union’s next seven-year budget Wednesday, telling a packed meeting of the European Parliament’s development committee that maintaining high levels of EU aid would prevent budget cuts in Washington.

“In terms of U.S. foreign aid, as long as Europe stays generous, I believe there is a bipartisan consensus where the U.S. overall it may cut a few things, but the overall level I believe will be maintained,” Gates told European parliamentarians, researchers and aid advocates in Brussels.

“The [U.S.] Congress has a longer timeframe, what I would call a more responsible view of cooperation, than the current executive branch position.”

United States President Donald Trump told the United Nations last month that his administration was taking “a hard look at U.S. foreign assistance.” Trump said the review, headed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, would examine “whether the countries who receive our dollars and our protection also have our interests at heart. Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends.”

Gates lauded the EU for collectively accounting for 57 percent of global aid, despite making up just 22 percent of the world economy. “The fact that Europe remains generous is absolutely critical to us maintaining that consensus, where the Congress fortunately has the final say over the executive branch in determining what happens with US aid levels,” he said.

After evoking the importance of supporting better health and education in Africa to end extreme poverty, Gates said: “Your leadership on these issues allows me to go to all the other countries, including the United States, and maintain commitment to these things. You should be proud of the generosity you’ve provided and I hope as you consider that next seven-year framework, you’ll bring that to a new level.”

The EU’s 2021-2027 budget is now being negotiated between the European Commission, Parliament, and EU member states in the Council. Federica Mogherini, the bloc’s foreign affairs chief, told the committee that the commission proposal “is 30 percent higher than the previous one on external action, with the lion’s share on Africa.” She added that, “30 percent more in times of Brexit and budgetary restraints, you understand, it’s a revolution, it’s not a progression.”  

But NGOs have raised concerns, saying the commission’s plan neglects poverty eradication, favors the private sector, gives too much leeway for spending on migration issues, and is not ambitious enough on spending designed to tackle climate change.

Gates’ comments came as the annual AidWatch report from the European NGO confederation CONCORD found that 19 percent, or about €14 billion ($16.20 billion), of aid from European countries was “inflated” in 2017, meaning it was spent on in-country refugee costs and debt relief, rather than assisting least-developed countries. Some 14 percent of CONCORD’s income (€221,099) in 2017 came as part of a three-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Gates was also in town to launch Breakthrough Energy Europe, a joint investment fund designed to bring clean energy innovations to market more quickly. A commission spokesperson said Gates will meet EU Development Commissioner Neven Mimica Thursday to discuss and sign a significant contribution of the Gates Foundation to the EU's External Investment Plan, focused on strengthening diagnostic health services in sub-Saharan Africa.

About the author

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.