International partnerships in a competitive world

Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team 

The European Union, through its institutions, are the third largest donors of aid and project funded programmes, after the US and Germany, and the second largest grant aid pool, in terms of volume, after the World Bank. These funds, supplied by European taxpayers, are to shore up the EU’s standing in the world. Despite huge amounts of financing given to third countries, and particularly developing ones, the European Union remains little known or understood. The EU lacks in power and in influence in comparison to certain individual global players such as the US, Russia, India or China. 

Up until the change of European Commission at the end of 2019, the EU’s international cooperation policy was largely seen as a “donor-recipient relationship”. A re-evaluation has taken place and the European Union now wishes to position itself as a “partnerships of equals”. In order to do this, the Commission has revamped the Directorate for Cooperation and Development (DG DEVCO) into a new body, the EU Directorate-General for International Partnerships (DG INTPA) as part of its International Cooperation. INTPA is headed by European Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen. Whilst International Cooperation focuses on geopolitics, the newly formed International Partnerships section will be mandated to cover bilateral cooperations and the Team Europe programmes.

EU external spending has always been extremely complex and fragmented, and has lacked transparency and accountability. Geographic programmes will now constitute the main source of development funding, accounting for 75% of the total financial envelope. The overall budget will equate to €79.5 billion for EU cooperation with all developing nations. €60.38 billion will be apportioned specifically for geographic programmes: €19.3 billion for the Neighbourhood, €29.18 for sub-Saharan Africa, €8.48 billion for Asia and the Pacific and €3.39 billion for the Americas and the Caribbean.

€6.36 billion is provided for thematic programmes: Human Rights and Democracy, Civil Society Organisations, Peace, Stability and Peace Conflict Prevention and Global Challenges. €3.18 billion for rapid response actions, €9.5 billion is set aside for unforeseen events, emerging challenges, and new priorities and €3.18 billion for crisis response.

Reinventing the wheel has not brought with it any clarity and whilst it was easy to understand “Development” in the directorate title, there will no doubt be great confusion between the roles of International Partnerships and International Cooperation. 

Commissioner Urpilainen, will be responsible for building inclusive and equitable partnerships to reduce global poverty and support sustainable development but only through geographic spending programmes. Gone are the global thematics, which may mean that some of the big global challenges are missed when collective cooperation is less relevant than geographically localised funding. 

It is not clear where the EU’s international commitments now sit either. Can the Paris Agreement on Climate Change be addressed on a geographical basis only? The same concerns can be assigned to the Sustainable Development Goals and to migration, poverty and socio-economic concerns like health, equality and education. The Covid-19 pandemic itself has had global impacts, not geographical ones. 

Commissioner Urpilainen has stated that “the European Commission should scale up its ambition of being a geopolitical actor”. This is not the role of her Directorate for International Partnerships but of the European External Action Service (EEAS) which then raises the question, which of these two bodies will determine the “partnership of equals” the European Union now wants to portray?

In an extremely competitive, and, frankly speaking, selfish world, with China emerging as the most desperate to win the title of global Superpower, the European Union cannot afford to dither and keep changing direction. Leadership and focus, especially in terms of foreign policy, are lacking in the European Union. The world is becoming increasingly complex, with greater speed of transition in relation to development and increasing insecurity. This means communication needs to be strong and determined. It is true, that money talks, but strength of character and of mission has a higher standing in the 21st century. 

The European Union must seek the individual who can not only line up the 27 Member States to stand centre stage on today’s global platform, but who can also compete, and collaborate, with Joe Bidden of the United States, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Narendra Modi of India or Xi Jinping of China to prove that the “partnership of equals’ is achievable. Europe needs a modern day Jean Monnet. 

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