Can Europe Make It?

How to stop Christopher Columbus turning in his grave

The time is right for the EU to lead. No other agent in the multilateral sphere has the range of resources - financial resources, voice on trade, authority on human rights, role in foreign and security policy - available to the EU.

Margaret Jay Simon Maxwell
5 May 2014
Flickr/Rock Cohen. Some rights reserved.

Flickr/Rock Cohen. Some rights reserved.

Watching the first debate between the candidates for the Presidency of the European Commission, one could be forgiven for thinking that the world ended ten steps from Europe’s borders. Christopher Columbus would have been turning in his grave. In an hour and a half, there was hardly any reference to global issues; and international development received only two brief mentions. The foreign policy section of the debate concentrated almost exclusively on Ukraine.

Of course Ukraine matters, but so do many other external issues, including trade, climate change and international security. This is a point we have made in a new report from the Independent Vision Group on European Development Cooperation. With members from all parts of Europe and from different political perspectives, we argue that there are three big challenges facing the world, and that tackling these is both a moral responsibility and in Europe’s own self-interest. It would be sad indeed if the opportunity to highlight global issues were missed in the forthcoming elections and in the work programme of the EU’s new leadership. 

The first challenge is to build a world economy which creates livelihoods for all. Europe is making only a slow and tentative recovery from the financial crisis, and is fearful of external risks - economic, environmental and political. This is reflected in worries about migration, conflict and trade, all of which distort domestic policies.

At the same time, more than a billion people still live in absolute poverty, on less than $US 1.25 per day. Of all child deaths in the developing world, 45% can be attributed to malnutrition. And 300,000 women a year still die in childbirth.

This is one problem, not two. Just as developing countries can achieve sustainable development when the external environment is favourable, so can countries in the EU. Growth in developing countries creates markets. Low Income Countries alone constitute a market worth €20bn a year to the EU. There is evidence that aid to developing countries more than pays for itself in terms of additional exports.

However, in the words of a recent UNIDO report, ‘jobs do not fall like manna from heaven’. Europe will need to be robust about the shared benefits of growth, and regain the moral force of an approach to economic development based on human and social rights, the importance of a social compact, equality of opportunity, and the supremacy of democratic principles. The approach will need to play out internally and externally – in finance, trade and aid. It is not just the UK economy that needs re-balancing: there needs to be more symmetrical adjustment between Northern and Southern countries in Europe, and between Europe and the developing world. New trade arrangements, for example the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP) can boost growth and create jobs. They can also help to influence the norms guiding trade regimes elsewhere in the world. That is why new rules need to be transparent, fair and accountable, with due attention to social clauses and human rights. The EU can be a leader in this field.

The second challenge is that of sustainability, and especially the imperative of tackling climate change. It goes without saying that climate change will have the largest impacts on the poorest countries, Crop yields will fall and growth rates will be affected. Extreme weather linked to climate change will cause more disasters. Up to 325 million extremely poor people will be living in the 49 most hazard-prone countries in 2030, the majority in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

At the same time, Europe is vulnerable to the same pressures, and has put sustainability at the heart of its 2020 growth strategy. Floods, drought, and extreme heat are not the only risks. The world is transgressing all its planetary boundaries, including biodiversity, fresh water, ocean resources and air quality.

Europe has been progressive on climate change and a leader in international negotiations, from Copenhagen onwards. However, the crunch time in the UN climate talks is fast approaching, with the deadline for a new agreement set for Paris in 2015. Meanwhile, the EU is dithering on climate and clean energy targets, most recently having postponed agreement on a new framework. Climate finance to developing countries has stalled. The EU’s enthusiasm for biofuels risks damage to the environment and to food security in developing countries.

So new impetus is needed on climate, and all aspects of sustainability. These issues will be central to the new normative development framework for the period post-2015, the successor regime to the Millennium Development Goals. Importantly, the new goals, currently being debated in the United Nations in New York, will apply to both rich and poor countries: concrete evidence of inter-dependence, that we are all in this together.

The third challenge is security, not just Ukraine, but also Somalia, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the many other places around the world where violent conflict destroys lives, undermines development and spreads globally. More than 1.5 billion people, over a fifth of the world’s population, is affected.

More generally, the evidence is that respect for human rights leads to long term stability. Inversely, the denial of universal rights by small power circles eventually leads to the collapse of governments and economies. Strengthening democracy and its institutions starting at a grassroots level is even more urgent in a rapidly urbanising world, where people can no longer rely on the variety of more traditional forms of participatory decision-making schemes still in use in many rural areas. Likewise, in Europe we have to address the needs of vulnerable minorities better - take the Roma population as an example.

National interests are often dominant, but the Treaty on European Union gives the EU competence to define and implement a common foreign and security policy, including the progressive framing of a common defence policy. There have, for example, been more than 30 civilian crisis management missions in rule of law, security sector reform, border assistance or post-conflict monitoring –in locations ranging from Kosovo to Aceh in Indonesia.

Looking ahead, however, the EU will need to recognise that there will be no simple black-and-white dichotomy separating fragile from non-fragile states. It will need to explore a diverse range of aid instruments tailored to delivering support on a flexible basis.

These are not easy challenges to deal with, especially given the current scepticism of multilateralism. Seasoned observers have recently remarked that ‘global politics is grid-locked’ and that ‘the enduring viscosity of international decision-making puts into question the efficiency of the international system’.

At the same time, no other agent in the multilateral sphere has the range of resources available to the EU. The World Bank and the other multilateral development banks have the financial resources, but not the voice on trade, nor the authority to speak on human rights, nor the role in foreign and security policy. The UN has the normative and political role, but not the capacity to disburse on the same scale or with the variety of instruments available to the EU.

This gives the EU a unique role, and it brings many assets: shared values and approaches, long-standing partnerships with developing countries and regions, and significant resources for development. In addition, the structures established by the Lisbon treaty offer possibilities, especially the creation of the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, leading the European External Action Service (EEAS). 

The time is right, then, for the EU to lead. Europe’s history and culture lead it to be global in its outlook, motivated by altruism as well as by self-interest. As Europeans, we are inevitably members of a global community. As Europe begins to recover from the global financial crisis, slowly, unevenly and often inequitably, we see clearly that our well-being is more and more shaped by changes in the rest of the world. This could make us fearful and inward-looking – or determined to look outwards, building new partnerships and new global ways of working. Is that a choice? Christopher Columbus would not think so.  Nor do we.

For the full report, published today, on Re-shaping global development: Will Europe lead? An argument and a call to action, from the Independent Vision Group on European Development Cooperation see here.


Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData