New EU leaders urged to push the ball together on global challenges

President Jean-Claude Juncker discusses the incoming commission's working program with MEPs. Photo by: European Union 2014 - European Parliament / CC BY

Following the final approval by the European Parliament in late October, the new European Commission led by President Jean-Claude Juncker officially started its term of office on Nov. 1.

Under the Commission’s new structure, development cooperation and aid policies will be shaped by the foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who is expected to work closely with both Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development Neven Mimica and Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides to ensure better integration and “make policy coherence for development a reality.”

But will the new Juncker commission be able to tackle the coordination challenge and display the necessary vigor required to face a range of urgent external crises?

According to Mikaela Gavas, EU program leader and research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, current workflows have failed to deliver the necessary changes.

“The commission has to change the way it works in addressing global challenges — development is not about aid today, it’s more about global challenges and the commission can’t look at each issue in isolation,” she told Devex.

European Center for Development Policy Management Director Paul Engel noted Brussels has so far been unable to truly link its foreign policy and development cooperation policies.

“The problem is that we had all these commissioners doing their own one-man show. We don’t need flamboyant leaders that are in the limelight all the time — that’s not very European. We need these leaders to operate beyond their own [directorates-general],” he told Devex. ”Instead of pushing in all kinds of different direction, they should team up and push the ball together in the future.”

An opportunity to transform

As pointed out by the European Think Tanks Group in its recent report “Our Collective Interest” that was presented to members of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee at the end of summer, the period to 2020 offers a real opportunity for transformation towards a more inclusive, peaceful, prosperous and equitable world — and Europe has a central role to play.

The bloc’s ambitions for prosperity, peace and environmental sustainability, the document argues, cannot be divorced from its global responsibilities and opportunities, making a strong case for a new development agenda that is both broader in its outlook and more robust in terms of its links to internal EU policy.

Gavas, a co-author of the report, noted the emphasis on a need to tackle shared problems of sustainable development in Juncker’s proposed structure and in his mission letters to the Commissioner-designates. But she said changes needed to go even further.  

“We are calling for a revised version of the Europe 2020 strategy [on smart, sustainable and inclusive growth]. The current strategy is very internally focused: You can’t look at internal problems in isolation from external problems — they are two sides of the same coin and Europe 2020 needs to link both effectively and with concrete targets. We don’t want EU leaders to talk about the EU economy separated from the global economy, the EU’s internal market isolated from the global trading market, and so on,” noted the ODI specialist.

Gavas noted the design of the new commission — which has seven vice presidents, including the high representative of the union for foreign policy and security policy, each leading clusters of commissioners to steer and coordinate work with the stated intention of ensuring a more dynamic interaction among members of the EU’s executive arm — breaking down silos and moving away from static structures.

“At the moment we have one commissioner per portfolio and this causes a lot of problems with a silo mentality: You can’t look at human rights in isolation from development, in isolation from conflict prevention and so on,” she insisted.

Gavas suggested having a cluster of external relations commissioners would ensure a much more coherent approach and urged the setting up of task forces to solve particular issues.

“These task forces should not be permanent structures, but they should be there to allow flexible working, for specific issues, with various commissioners sitting around the table. They would then fall away as solutions are generated and situation moves on,” she explained.  

According to the ODI expert, such task forces could contribute towards a mind shift at the commission: “So far we had commissioners not wanting to step on each other’s toes. This culture needs to be broken down, and everybody needs to get on the same page.”

Engel, meanwhile, suggested the new commission is an opportunity for the development sector to upgrade its effectiveness and come out of isolation, for example by not having to engage in battles with the directorate-general for trade.

“We need to remain critical inside the department itself, rather than only shouting from the sidelines,” he said, while Gavas gave the example of how such system works at national level: “In the U.K. we have the conflict pole, where the ministries of defense, development and foreign affairs sit together and work out a strategy in situations of potential conflict. We need that to happen a lot more at EU level.”

Indeed, she believes that having a cluster of external commissioners, with the high representative overseeing them, is feasible. Devex has learned that discussions among senior executive management at the Commission around the implementation of such a structure is ongoing and remains “an option on the table.”

“If it’s going to happen it has to happen within the first three weeks of the new commission entering into force. From our discussions with various people in the EEAS [it emerged] that for any reform of the new commission, when the new team comes in the time frame is very short,” Gavas said.

After this period, she explained, other issues are likely to take precedence for commissioners, notably tuning into the fine detail of their portfolios and trying to make their mark in the first 100 days in office. As Juncker said himself, it’s now time to roll up our sleeves and get down to work. Europe's challenges cannot wait.

Read more development aid news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive top international development headlines from the world’s leading donors, news sources and opinion leaders — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Eva Donelli

    As a correspondent based in Brussels, Eva Donelli covers EU development policy issues and actors, from the EU institutions to the international NGO community. Eva was previously at the United Nations Regional Information Center for Western Europe and in the European Parliament's press office. As a freelance reporter, she has contributed to Italian and international magazines covering a wide range of issues, including EU affairs, development policy, social protection and nuclear energy. She speaks fluent English, French and Spanish in addition to her native Italian.