Can the EU do less good in the world?

Understandably, European governments are rethinking their aid budgets in the light of the economic crisis. But any cuts to aid and foreign ministry budgets should be judged according to results rather than a simple cost calculation.  

Ever since “austerity” became a political buzzword, it hasn’t been much fun being a European foreign policy analyst.  If you try to make the case for investing in international issues, you can be sure that an economist will pop up to ask where the money is supposed to come from.  The EU’s members have entered a period of sustained retrenchment, in which foreign policy risks being judged solely according to expenses rather than results.

We have already seen this malaise settle over defence policy.  As NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen writes in the current edition of Foreign Affairs, cuts in military spending mean that European powers could struggle to mount another campaign like that over Libya.  But there are also signs that similar constraints will affect sources of Europe’s soft power, such as development aid and even funding for humanitarian relief.

Some European governments, notably the UK, and the European Commission have done their best to uphold their aid pledges since the financial crisis struck.  But last year the new coalition government in the Netherlands announced its intention to cut development spending by €400 million in 2011, with more reductions to follow.  Opinion polls suggested that voters approved.  Research for ECFR’s European Foreign Policy Scorecard found that France had cut its donations to UN humanitarian agencies by around 20% in 2009 and 2010.  This week, the human impact of such economising was brought home as Oxfam and other NGOs revealed that European donors including France and Germany had pledged miniscule sums of aid to address the drought in East Africa.

These are, aid experts worry, the initial signs of a deeper shift in Europe’s commitments to helping the poor and vulnerable beyond its borders.  Over the last decade, it has become a standard defence of the EU to note that whatever the bloc’s military and diplomatic weaknesses, it is at least the world’s biggest source of international aid.  But it hardly requires a mystical ability to see the future to predict that as EU members grapple with debt and domestic priorities, foreign aid budgets will be under recurrent pressure.

So while the troubles within the eurozone have inspired ECFR to launch a new series on the “reinvention of Europe”, it is worth asking how changes in the Union’s attitude to disbursing Euros further afield will affect its global leverage.  Europe’s aid spending has never been a selfless business, or even just good public relations.  It has also been an investment in stabilising weak states, especially the former European colonies in Africa.

Before the financial crisis, it was still common for European politicians and analysts to say that the EU had a “special responsibility” to Africa.  This was the moral argument not only for development aid but EU military missions in the Congo and Chad, as well as support to UN and African Union peacekeeping in trouble spots such as Darfur.  As the crises in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire showed, some European leaders still buy this argument.

Yet they are in a shrinking minority, and even those EU powers that favour engaging in African crises are selective.  France, having used force in Côte d’Ivoire, blocked talk of an EU security assistance mission in South Sudan, where it has fewer direct interests.  There may well be some sort of European post-conflict mission in Libya by the end of the year, but the likelihood of further EU operations south of the Sahara is rapidly receding.

As Daniel Korski and I argued in our ECFR report Can Europe Rebuild Failing States? in 2009, many of the EU’s security missions to Africa have been poorly-designed and ineffectual.  The same is true of a lot of the development projects the EU has funded across the continent (and elsewhere) whether bilaterally or via UN programmes or NGOs.

Nonetheless, if the EU’s members do reduce their aid spending in the years ahead, it could have unpredictable effects in cases including Somalia (home to both powerful Islamist militia and pirates) and the West African littoral (oil reserves and drug cartels).  China and India are both investing sizeable sums across Africa – India committed some €4 billion in assistance in May – but neither has a clear strategy to stabilize the continent’s weak-spots.  If the EU retrenches too quickly, it may leave chaos in its wake.

All of which may seem rather unimportant in the face of the euro’s woes.  The currency’s crisis has, after all, pushed Libya out of the headlines, not to mention Côte d’Ivoire (where there has been ongoing violence and repression since the French military action in April).  The media are only just catching up with the scale of the drought crisis in East Africa, which has resulted in full-scale famine in parts of Somalia.

Nonetheless, anyone concerned with what the EU will look like beyond the current crisis must have at least a passing interest in the ethics it will adopt – and aid and humanitarian issues surely play into that.  Moreover, this year’s explosion of popular anger across North Africa has been a good reminder of what happens when we neglect troubled states.

This is not necessarily an argument for blithely following pre-crisis aid policies.  The EU’s process of retrenchment is a reality.  But there is a difference between just cutting back our commitments in the name of austerity and an honest and intelligent reckoning of what we can achieve through our aid policies and support to entities like the UN and AU.  

European countries have got retrenchment wrong before – think of Britain’s inglorious, bloody departures from Palestine and India.  The current process is hardly of the same magnitude.  But if the EU needs to reinvent itself in world affairs, it should show due to care for those who face lives of abject misery rather than simply prolonged austerity.

For more on this debate, please also see Richard's recent article: “Europe's Humanitarian Dilemma,” published by World Politics Review.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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