Jean Claude Juncker seems to have reached a plane of serene optimism – at least that seems to be the message of his State of the Union speech, delivered in September ‘The wind is back’, he said, ‘in Europe’s sails’.
Whether the serenity or the optimism will have survived the events since September is moot. Never mind the trials and tribulations of Brexit. What about the inconclusive outcome of the German election? The entry of a far right party into Government in Austria? The launch of conflicting visions by EU leaders? The problems in Poland? And the multiplicity of external crises facing the EU? Jean Claude Junker might be forgiven for dreaming about the end of his mandate, at the end of 2019.
In fact, serene on the surface or not, there is some energetic paddling below the surface to be done before the moment of retirement. 2018, in particular, looks like a year of delivery and consolidation, preparing for Brexit in March 2019 and, immediately thereafter, the Romania Summit, designed to set Europe on a new course. The Commission has adopted a work programme for 2018. It contains items designed to be tucked up and put to bed before the mandate expires; and others designed to set a path to 2025.
From a development perspective, both horizons are relevant. Notable events in 2018 include; a raft of trade initiatives; further work on a successor agreement to the Cotonou Agreement with developing countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific; the publication of a ‘Reflection Paper’ on the Sustainable Development Goals, scheduled for May; and the launch of discussions on a new Multi-Annual Financial Framework, setting spending limits, including for aid, to 2027. The UN will adopt a Compact on Migration, probably at the General Assembly in the autumn. And coming rapidly down the track is the Facilitative Dialogue on the next round of climate pledges, scheduled for 2018, to be followed by new pledges in 2020.
So, a lot of the paddling will concern internal matters, name-checked in the State of the Union or thrown into the debate by Emmanuel Macron, Martin Schulz and others: a single EU finance minister, for example, or a European Monetary Fund, or, believe this if you will, a United States of Europe by 2025. Of course, the internal issues have external repercussions, for example those related to the management of the euro or of financial crises. The internal market issues also resonate, for example on taxation or state support.
However, external affairs add a different dimension. The framing is set by the EU’s Global Strategy, agreed in 2016, and the new European Consensus on Development, adopted in 2017. The former reminds us that the world is ‘connected, contested and complex’. The latter makes the point that the SDGs provide essential framing for development work.
Does either go far enough? My own view is not. We are living through unprecedented turbulence which challenges the very notion of ‘development’. A generation ago, it was possible to think about development as providing basic social services and livelihood opportunities in a rather large group of former colonies and other ‘poor countries’. Today, there are only 30 or so poor countries left, and most of those are fragile states with complex political, economic and social problems. Tomorrow, the agenda will find itself traversing new swamps, as automation threatens jobs, and new industrial revolutions associated with action on climate change begin to sweep the world. There will be winners as innovation and disruption take hold, perhaps many winners. But there will also be losers, especially if countries look too narrowly at the development challenge of the current decade.
In this context, the SDGs provide an inspiring vision of the ‘future we want’, but a rather inadequate roadmap of possible ways of ‘how to get there’ while refraining from specifying what ‘there’ actually is and what priorities should be set within the SDGs and their 169 targets. . A development policy which simply ticks off action on various SDGs runs the risk of not seeing the wood for the trees. How will the automation revolution impact on jobs and on the potential for manufacturing-led development, for example? Or how will action on climate change impact on the global value chains which provide a route out of poverty for many developing countries? These are some of the questions which will dominate development debate in 2018.
This, then, presents a challenge to Jean Claude Juncker and his Vice Presidents and Commissioners – a challenge about framing, about how to bolster public support for development, and about how to ensure better and more effective delivery and about how to organise the instruments and policies of development cooperation. It is about their own record, but also the legacy they leave to their successors. To be blunt: there is an easy option and a hard one.
The easy option is to focus on individual SDGs and design programmes accordingly. An SDG on gender? We can have a programme on that. Primary education? By all means. Malnutrition? Health care? Education? Tick. Tick. Tick.
But the easy option misses the point, or at least a point. What do European leaders say about the tectonic forces which will reshape the world economy and the livelihoods of millions? How can rising in-country inequality be not just excoriated, but explained? How can deep decarbonisation be achieved without impoverishing millions? How can the root causes of conflict and forced migration be resolved, for good?
Faced by these questions, serenity is not enough. Even more serious paddling is required.
* Author: Simon Maxwell, ETTG Chair