UK pushes for closer EU aid 'accord' after Brexit

British Prime Minister Theresa May greets President of the European Council Donald Tusk in Downing Street on March 1, 2018 in London, England. Photo by: EU / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — The government of the United Kingdom has proposed a new “overseas development assistance and international action accord” with the European Union after it leaves the bloc, in a white paper released Thursday outlining its preferences for a future relationship.

The accord appears to suggest closer, more routine access to EU development instruments beyond a “case-by-case basis” — the model previously put forward — and suggests continued “UK participation in EU development programmes and instruments,” as well as “EU external spending programmes.”

It is one of several such accords proposed in the paper, covering areas such as science and defense research, as well as development assistance. “The UK proposes to [continue EU/U.K. cooperation] through new cooperative accords that provide for a more strategic approach than simply agreeing the UK’s participation in individual EU programmes on a case-by-case basis,” the document reads.

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In a section on the development accord, it adds that this would require “appropriate influence and oversight” of the use of its funds, and that the accord would “be enhanced by the reciprocal exchange of expertise and personnel between UK and EU institutions.” In addition, U.K. organizations should be able to work on the programmes to which it contributes on a “fair and open” basis.

Johannes Trimmel, president of CONCORD Europe, a confederation of European aid NGOs, told Devex that, “in principle it’s good to see that the U.K. still holds its position to want to continue to participate in EU development programs, instruments, and external funding instruments.”

“To have an appropriate level of influence and oversight, as well as for U.K. stakeholders to have the right to access programs where the U.K. provides support, are reasonable [conditions],” Trimmel added.

Still, he raised concerns that the proposals are too heavily rooted in foreign policy, defense, and migration interests, with the white paper stating “there is a strong case for close collaboration in the areas of peace and security, humanitarian aid and migration.”

Trimmel commented, “This is not surprising, as the securitization of aid and pushing upfront [of] domestic political interests is a trend across donor countries, including the EU ... Civil society will play a critical watchdog role.”

The U.K. currently spends around 11 percent of its £13 billion ($17.06 billion) aid budget through the EU. Previous statements describing the U.K.’s aspirations for post-Brexit cooperation on aid have restricted the flow of these funds to programs and instruments on “a case-by-case basis.” The new language suggests the U.K. now hopes for a closer aid relationship more akin to current levels of access.

“This strategic approach [of cooperative accords] would ensure that the UK and the EU could build on existing activity or develop new forms of cooperation, taking advantage of emerging opportunities and responding to global challenges, where it was in both parties’ mutual interest,” the paper reads.

However, it does not provide full detail on the proposed shape of the development accord. “Cooperation under this accord could take various forms,” it reads. “As well as UK participation in specific EU programmes and instruments, this could include involvement in individual projects under the framework of such programmes and instruments.”

Romilly Greenhill, U.K. director of the ONE Campaign, told Devex that one possibility already floated by the U.K. — establishing external trust funds specifically to channel U.K. aid — would be detrimental to poverty reduction.

“Partnering on instruments with the EU should be done in ways that ensure aid effectiveness. In particular, the creation of new trust funds to give the U.K. a voice should be avoided,” Greenhill said. “Research has shown that trust funds can promote donors’ political agendas ahead of the needs of recipients, ultimately undermining aid effectiveness,” she said, pointing to recent findings from the Overseas Development Institute.

Claire Godfrey, head of policy and campaigns at Bond, the UK’s network of international development NGOs, said another top concern would be maintaining financial and policy oversight of any instruments the U.K. contributes to, old and new.

“The U.K. must have oversight over the funds it contributes, with U.K. civil society having a meaningful role in the policy formulation, design, and delivery of those programs,” Godfrey told Devex. “Our concern is that if any future collaboration focuses primarily in response to ‘crisis’ situations such as migration, we will lose sight of what development is there to do — to alleviate poverty and suffering. Brexit has to work for the world’s poorest people.”

The EU has established several trust funds “to address the root causes of migration” in recent years, an issue that is controversial in the aid sector.

The proposed accord also seeks some security for U.K. aid organizations who are at risk of losing access to EU contracts following Brexit. The paper suggests that “UK organizations should also be able to deliver EU programmes and apply for funding on an open and fair basis from programmes to which the UK contributes.”

It follows recent concerns among U.K. aid organizations over the appearance of new terms in EU calls for proposals which threatened to cut off funding if the U.K. and EU fail to complete Brexit negotiations by the March 2019 deadline.

For calls through DEVCO, the European Commission’s development arm, the clause states that if negotiations around access are not concluded by the deadline, “the rules of access to EU procurement procedures of economic operators established in third countries will apply to candidates or tenderers from the United Kingdom depending on the outcome of negotiations. In case such access is not provided by legal provisions in force at the time of contract award, candidates or tenderers from the United Kingdom could be rejected from the procurement procedure.”

For contracts through ECHO, the EC’s humanitarian arm, which works with organizations through Framework Partnership Agreements, the EU has stated that “Specifically, for UK-based Partners the FPA will cease to have any effect on the date on which the United Kingdom withdraws from the European Union, save where arrangements have been concluded in due time between the United Kingdom and the European Union allowing a different approach.”

Trimmel warned that the “lack of clarity” around this “puts organizations who have grant agreements at risk — but even more so the people [who] are to be reached” through those agreements.

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.