Opinion: Where does development cooperation fit in the EU Multiannual Financial Framework?

Photo by: Robyn Mack / CC BY

As the European Union and member states are busily designing the next EU Multiannual Financial Framework, development cooperation does not seem to have a place in the plan.

The MFF will shape the priorities of the EU’s official development aid until at least 2027. This is a vital opportunity for the EU to honor its commitments under the Sustainable Development Goals. The EU should be the global leader in promoting its founding and fundamental values of respect for human dignity and rights, freedom, democracy, equality, and the rule of law.

But right now, there is a worrying discrepancy between what the EU says, and what it does.  

Despite encouraging rhetoric, there is a growing trend whereby EU aid — intended to alleviate extreme poverty — is diverted in pursuit of European self-interest, disregarding the interests of the developing countries whom the aid is meant to support.

The single external instrument: Flexible, but not accountable

Current MFF discussions focus on the European Commission’s proposal to merge 12 existing external funding instruments, most of them with a dedicated focus on international development, into a single external instrument. The aim of this merger is to ensure simplification and flexibility.

While we welcome these aspects, there is little indication of how the new single instrument will address the EU’s development objectives. Instead, it appears to only address EU governments’ priorities, through its “prominent” EU Neighbourhood Window, and a “strong focus on migration.”

The proposed single external instrument reflects a major shift for the EU in how it implements its development policy. This shift has become more and more apparent in the past three years, as a response to what the EU calls the “migration crisis,” and European governments’ preoccupation with security.

Our concern is that the proposed, overly simplified, external funding architecture weakens the EU’s development cooperation policy to suit broader political priorities. This could lead to decisions being dictated by EU self-interest, rather than by the needs of local populations in developing countries. While development policy is a pillar of the EU’s foreign policy, it responds to a specific mandate, and should have partner countries’ needs at its core.

Short-sighted policies vs. long-term investment

The broad instrument also risks creating further tension between the short- and long-term objectives of the EU’s development commitments. We cannot expect to see quick solutions to complex global development challenges related to poverty and inequality. The EU’s security and migration containment objectives should not jeopardize its long-standing commitments to helping societies become democratic and self-reliant based on their national and regional interests.

For this, the EU needs to design a solid MFF architecture that makes an explicit commitment to rights-based development. This must include clear safeguards that allow the ring fencing of funds to particular regions (especially least-developed countries). Furthermore, themes such as human rights and social sector support must be clearly prioritized and given sufficient resources.

While the EU needs to be responsive to changing political realities under the next MFF, it must preserve and enhance the quality of its development engagement by putting in place sufficient checks and balances. This is to ensure that European domestic interests do not come before empowering partner countries to take control of their own development. This includes supporting the protection and promotion of human rights and actively breaking down barriers to participation and decision-making in developing countries by strengthening the citizen-state compact.

It is unlikely that the proposed external instrument, as it currently stands, will enable the EU to maintain the integrity of its development aid. There is a significant risk that the instrument will play to the politicized tune of the EU. Instead of being an effective tool to promote global equality and democratic governance, it will be used to curb migration and promote European self-interest.

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About the author

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    Hanna Saarinen

    Hanna Saarinen has more than 15 years’ experience in international development from both the private and public sectors. Five of those she spent in Southeast Asia dedicating herself to issues such as land rights and governance, with particular focus on strengthening local civil society. Currently, she is policy advisor at Oxfam EU, influencing the EU’s aid and development finance policies.