Federica Mogherini, high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy. Photo by: European Union

BRUSSELS — Representatives from European Union countries met Thursday to discuss development issues including the Sahel, youth engagement, and coordinating the bloc’s investments abroad — but most member states’ top aid officials were absent from the meeting.

Chaired by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, the forum is meant to be a twice-yearly exchange between countries’ most senior development ministers, but many sent deputies or EU ambassadors instead. From 28 member states, only around half a dozen sent their top-ranking development official.

The new head of the United Kingdom development department, Rory Stewart, was among the no-shows. A spokesperson for the Department for International Development said cabinet ministers do not usually attend the meetings and that Harriett Baldwin, a more junior DFID minister, represented the U.K.

A spokesperson for the French government said development secretary Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne did not attend due to a meeting with the prime minister “that could not be missed.”

The low-powered turnout did not go unnoticed by EU aid watchers, in a vital year for European development policy. “Of course we are also not happy with such a low level of ministers,” a senior EU official told Devex.

Attendance was so low that the EU’s in-house lawyers decided that three items on the agenda concerning fisheries could not be approved and must instead be handled Friday by finance ministers. The EU official said the lack of a quorum — the minimum number of ministers needed to be present to validate decisions — was “embarrassing” but that the poor attendance “doesn’t seem to be trend … Let’s hope [it’s] a one-off.”

Member states’ governments are in the process of agreeing a position on the bloc’s 2021-2027 budget amid an ongoing turf war between the European Investment Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the European Commission over who coordinates EU investments overseas. EIB Vice-President Ambroise Fayolle briefed countries Thursday on the bank’s position, while Neven Mimica, the commission’s top aid official, also attended.

Those present discussed the need to champion the Sustainable Development Goals at a series of high-level events this year; how to drive private investment in least-developed countries; and how to better involve young people in development.

They met with Jayathma Wickramanayake, the U.N. secretary-general’s envoy on youth, who told reporters that officials had said they would work on some of her proposals ahead of the U.N.’s High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in July. These include involving youth in monitoring the SDGs.

The Sri Lankan national said there was a “lack of trust” from donors in youth-led civil society organizations, which are often ineligible for funding due to a lack of documentation and years of experience. She pointed to the AU-EU Youth Cooperation Hub as an example to follow, where youth organizations can apply for funding for initiatives in areas such as culture, peace, and governance.  

Member states registered concern at the drop in the EU’s collective official development assistance, which fell for the second year in a row to €74.4 billion ($83.1 billion) in 2018, or 0.47% of EU gross national income, down from 0.5% the year before. And they called on the European Commission to do more to ensure its trade, agriculture, and development policies are aligned.

Development officials also discussed the Sahel, amid calls for the EU to do more to stabilize the region. They issued their response to the European Court of Auditors report on the controversial EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which has already mobilized €930 million ($1.04 billion) for the Sahel. They stressed the importance of the auditors’ recommendation to make the fund’s priorities more “focused and achievable,” revising the selection procedure for projects, speeding up implementation, and improving monitoring.

A European Commission spokesperson said an independent, mid-term evaluation of the trust fund is underway to identify key lessons and produce recommendations. Country visits are planned this fall, with the final report expected at the beginning of 2020.

Meanwhile, member states are set to hold a public debate on the EU’s overseas budget next Tuesday, likely among ambassadors and ministers responsible for European affairs.

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.