The new European Parliament will convene in Strasbourg in the first week of July. As a newly- or re-elected member of the European Parliament (MEP), your first priority should be to elbow your way onto the Development Committee. This is a higher priority than buying a return ticket to Brussels, finding a flat, sorting out your office, or hiring staff.
First, you really care – of course you do – about poverty and inequality in the developing world, and about the potential for good of EU development programmes. You are affronted that 800 million people still live in extreme poverty, that over 150 million children are stunted by ill-health and under-nutrition, and that 300,000 women every year die as a result of complications from pregnancy or childbirth.
You have probably met some of these people on your travels. If not, you will have been haunted by images from countries like Somalia, Yemen, or the refugee camps of Bangladesh. The EU spends nearly €15 billion a year in aid to developing countries. You want to make sure every cent of that is well-spent and contributes to development outcomes.
Second, you know that your own constituents in Europe can only benefit from prosperity and peace in developing countries. You also know that one job in seven in Europe depends on exports (36 million jobs in total).
Countries like China, India and Turkey are essential and growing markets for EU workers in all sectors. You hate to see terrorism exported to the streets of Europe. And, as a responsible politician, you want to see both a humane treatment of refugees and well-managed migration flows.
Third, you are very aware that ‘we are all in this together’. The Sustainable Development Goals apply to all countries, rich and poor. More importantly, they set 17 goals for 2030, with 169 specific targets, which can only be achieved if developed and developing countries work together.
EU initiatives on climate change will be ineffectual unless we work with China and other large emerging countries. Fish stocks and plastic in the oceans, ditto. Biodiversity also. Floods, droughts and heat waves affect your constituents but have their roots in a collective failure to tackle a global crisis.
Fourth –and this may be the clincher – development needs the best people, with the broadest vision and the greatest capacity to get things done. Your passion and your skills will be in demand across the board but nowhere will they have the potential to make a bigger difference.
Let us hope your sharp elbows do the trick.
If they do, an early priority will be to make sure that development and humanitarian Commissioners live up to the high standards you have set yourself. The candidate Commissioners face hearings in the Parliament, probably in September.
Past incumbents have brought different skills and priorities. For example, the present Development Commissioner, Neven Mimica, has distinguished himself by a strong commitment to gender issues. His replacement will need to have the oratorical skill of Demosthenes, the political dexterity of Machiavelli and above all the vision to recalibrate development cooperation for a new decade of disruption and change.
How will development policy change as the advocates of globalisation face a new wave of nationalism? How will the pressure on jobs of automation and big data change the prospects of the world’s poor? And how can the new industrial revolution associated with action on climate change be managed?
Remember that the EU Development Commissioner is one of the three titans of the global system, alongside the President of the World Bank and the Head of United Nations Development Programme.
Budget for development will be on your agenda
Decisions about the budget will lumber over the horizon. You may well have asked why the EU’s financial planning is completely disconnected from the electoral and Commissioner cycle. Never mind. You will need to approve the Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021-27, a period covering the second half of your mandate and the first half of the mandate of the next Parliament.
You will be tempted to dive into the detail of instruments and earmarks, into whether a new single instrument should be agreed, or whether the European Development Fund should be incorporated into the budget. Focus first, however, on defending development spending overall (Heading 6 of the € 1.1 trillion budget, in 2018 prices).
The Commission has proposed a budget of € 108 billion (in 2018 prices), mostly for development and humanitarian assistance. This increase corresponds to the scale of need. Do not let member states governments cut it back.
Once the budget is agreed, you will be able to turn your attention to spending. The main purpose of EU development spending is poverty reduction. It says so in EU Treaties. But it will not have escaped your attention that over 40% of European aid is spent in upper middle income countries. Further, the EU has failed to meet its target of spending 20% of aid on health, education, and social protection. You will be determined to be a champion of poverty-focused ‘real aid’.
Two other issues will be on your agenda early on
You will have noticed that the remit of the development committee extends beyond aid, to include what is known as ‘policy coherence’. Probably, you will have read the 2019 Report from the Commission on Policy Coherence for Development.
Health, food security, migration, trade, peace are all areas you care about. You will want to make sure that the Development Committee has a mechanism for dealing with all of them.
For example, the EU policy on trade and development, back in 2015, made specific commitments on transparency, human rights and regulation. Have those survived the new realist approach to trade in the world? And should they? Trade is too important to be left for the Committee on International Trade to follow on its own.
The Development Committee is also responsible for overseeing political dialogue with developing countries. That could be a big topic, as the Cotonou Agreement between the EU and the 79 countries of the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of states (ACP) comes up for renegotiation.
You have probably talked a good deal about ‘partnership’ in your election rallies. How can that concept be renewed for a new era, in which new powers are beginning to dominate, and new configurations, like the African Union, assume greater prominence? It will not help if the European Development Fund, at present an instrument linked to Cotonou, becomes subsumed in the budget, and removed from oversight by the joint institutions of the EU and the ACP.
So, no time to slouch. It can be frustrating being an MEP as you don’t exactly ‘own’ any of the issues on your agenda. Negotiation with the other institutions, including the Council, the Commission and the External Action Service, will be a fact of life. And never mind your commitment to working closely with people in developing countries who either benefit or not from EU actions. But do not underestimate what you can achieve, by setting an agenda and pursuing it relentlessly in plenary as well as in Committee.
We will be watching. Good luck.
Author: Simon Maxwell
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the European Think Tanks Group.