Last week’s EU elections resulted in a very different set of representatives being returned to the bloc’s parliament. For these newly-elected lawmakers, will international development remain a priority? Photo by: Rock Cohen / CC BY

Although summer may (belatedly) have arrived in Brussels, Shakespeare’s “Now is the winter of our discontent” may be a more appropriate apothegm — at least for Europe’s voters, if the results of last week’s European parliamentary elections are anything to go by.

In what was the second biggest democratic exercise on the planet — some  400 million people were eligible to cast their vote for a new European Parliament — the estimated 43.1 percent of eligible European voters that went to the polls across the European Union have returned a very different set of representatives to the bloc’s parliament.

From the perspective of Europe’s mainstream parties, at least, things did not go quite according to plan. Indeed, although mainstream politics still predominate, there were significant gains for euroskeptic and populist parties across the political spectrum in many of Europe’s 28 member states, with notable success for France’s far-right Front National and the United Kingdom’s UKIP.

In the face of what French Prime Minister Manuel Valls dubbed a “political earthquake,” European Council President Herman Van Rompuy acknowledged — following a gathering in Brussels on Wednesday — that voters had sent “a strong message” and that EU leaders would need to re-evaluate the bloc’s agenda.

But what impact will the makeup of the 751 MEPs taking up their seats in July have on the regional bloc’s international development cooperation? What might the results mean for the EU’s footprint abroad as it engages in an increasingly complex world, negotiates a new global development framework and navigates the choppy waters of climate change, governance, conflict and immigration from non-EU countries? And will the fallout from last week’s electoral earthquake cause long-lasting reverberations?

Potential threats

Although the EU’s multiannual financial framework — which cements international relations, especially with the global south, as a “top priority” — has been agreed to in principle, it is not yet set in stone. Eloise Todd, international advocacy director at the ONE Campaign, cautioned that the 2016 budget, which will be released, negotiated and voted upon next year, will be telling.

“It’s a big moment — an opportunity to make some revisions. Although the broad parameters are set, there’s always a bit of ‘push-pull’ year-on-year as to which priorities get how much money,” Todd said.

Therein lies the danger for the aid community, and we should therefore expect significant lobbying from civil society groups in the coming year to galvanize support around development. The global development community knows that it is often last in line when it comes to budget allocations, or top-ups in the case of shortfalls — as was seen in the recent aid funding crunch at ECHO, the European Commission’s humanitarian aid and civil protection arm.

Back in November, on the eve of the European Development Days in Brussels, I asked outgoing European Commission President José Manuel Barroso what consequences the election of political extremes could have on issues such as mobilizing the resources to get the Millennium Development Goals across the finishing line and for European development efforts post-2015.

“What is important to remember,” he said, “is the commitment made by member states and the European Parliament to support development aid and, on the other hand, the ongoing support by citizens to continue with our development programs.”

So will the commitment be honored? In times of continued European austerity, calls may grow louder to dedicate more resources within Europe rather than beyond its member state borders, and we could see a push-back from some MEPs against foreign spending, including on development cooperation.

Sabine Terlecki, head of policy at CONCORD, the European confederation of relief and development NGOs, thinks it is essential — given the EU’s strong record in international development and position as one of the world’s biggest aid donors — that all newly elected MEPs “realize the importance of having a strong development and humanitarian policy.”

Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development, believes that the challenge posed by some euroskeptic and far-right MEPs to international development is “significant.” With echoes of the conservative Republicans in the United States who forced Congress to cut support for family planning programs last year, Datta fears that European opposition may come in the form of opposition to the MDG on maternal mortality.

“A number of them have very socially conservative views and they link family planning with abortion,” Datta said. “They were obstructive in the past and now they will be stronger.”

EU to raise its game?

Andrew Sherriff, a program head at the European Center of Development Policy Management, believes the election results mean that the EU will have to “raise its game” to prove and communicate its added value.

“Development cooperation will not be immune from these pressures, despite being a relatively less high-profile area,” he cautioned.

Indeed, the new Commission will certainly want to answer the questions raised “loud and clear” by the election results. To do so, it would need to show the political will to engage more wholeheartedly on issues such as immigration. But we might realistically expect to see measures such as a realignment of EU development and neighborhood policies to pacify disenchanted voters and to control borders more effectively.

Speaking under condition of anonymity, a senior official at EuropeAid said that management had this week encouraged staff members to continue the work of reducing poverty “with commitment and dedication,” while reminding everyone connected with the institutions of the need to continue to explain what Europe means and what benefits it can offer to both EU and non-EU citizens.

Indeed, some have argued that — far from being a disaster — the situation might provide an opportunity for European institutions to redefine their approach to the outside world and to try harder to win the argument for a type of engagement in foreign policy that resonates with European citizens of all political creeds.

Would a concentration on having constantly to “win the argument” be a source of frustration for staff members and detract from the development work that their partners and recipients expect — and need — them to do? While an exodus of EuropeAid or ECHO staff is highly unlikely, a sense of resentment at MEPs for “throwing stones” at them at every opportunity could prompt the EU’s international development-focused staff to withdraw further to a position of isolation — a “silo mentality” that would provide some insulation, but invite further criticism.

Business as usual?

However, despite anti-EU groups gaining ground, pro-European parties still won the most votes overall and the threat of the election result to the EU may be overstated. So can fears be allayed within the development community and the election results dismissed as an anomaly, an expression of protest, or even a tempest in a teapot?

The main center-right and left groupings still hold the majority of seats between them. Taking into account the liberals and the greens, parliament will be overwhelmingly pro-EU and largely pro-development. This relative continuity from the previous parliament is a source of reassurance to many and, as stressed by European Commission President Barroso, these pro-EU blocs will likely have a “very solid and workable majority.”

ONE’s Eloise Todd is optimistic that the coming parliament will be a steadier ship than this week’s news reports may suggest. Still, she cautions, it will take time to assess the lay of the land.

“It’s like being a football pundit pre-World Cup — a great time for indulgence and projection, but it will take a couple of ‘matches’ to see how the teams shake down,” she said.

Then, she argued, it will be a case of “holding the line” on a year-by-year basis as anti-poverty advocates seek mainstream support from across the spectrum. Looking at the support for the ONE Vote 2014 campaign, for example, to which more than 100 MEPs are already signatories, Todd is “pretty optimistic” of building a broad coalition committed to ending extreme poverty by 2030.

Rule by committee

Taking a “temperature check” in late July or September, when parliamentary committees will have been apportioned, is going to be helpful.

“The delicate balances on committees like the budget, foreign affairs and development committees will be very important in shaping the detail and direction of legislation that will then be put to the parliament,” Todd said.

It is only when we see the makeup of these committees, she added — after the “horse-trading” around the margins — that we’ll get a better sense of “how hard some of these fights will be.”

ECDPM’s Andrew Sherriff believes a lot will depend on the “background, knowledge and interests of individual MEPs,” and warned that savvy MEPs willing to put in the work on the issues could have an impact on international development cooperation more widely.  

But despite the ability or parliamentarians to throw the proverbial spanner into the works, the parliament will not block development policies en masse, first because it is not a priority area of dissent and second, because they will not have the clout to do so unless they align themselves with rag-tag groups from across the political spectrum, united only in their opposition to the European project.

There’ll be a lot of anxious glances as we wait to see the groupings in parliament, the makeup of the European development committee and the nomination of a new European Commission president and commissioners for development and humanitarian aid in the coming weeks. Stay tuned to Devex for more exclusive news, analysis and commentary.

Will far-right groups try to cut the EU’s foreign aid budget or influence an attempt to divert funding to halt immigration? Let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.

About the author

  • Richard Jones

    In his role as Editorial Director Richard oversees content for digital series, reports and events, leading a talented team of writers and editors, conducting high-level video interviews and moderating panels at events. Previously partnerships editor and an associate editor at Devex, Richard brings to bear 15 years of experience as an editor in institutional communications, public affairs and international development. Based in Barcelona, his development experience includes stints in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as extensive work travel in Africa and Asia.