From Development Policy to International Cooperation? Europe’s Evolving Agenda in a Geopolitical Era

By Pauline Veron and Andrew Sherriff / Part of the European Development Policy Outlook Series

The idea that the normative foundations of European development policy would be somewhat immune from geopolitics and national political shifts was always wishful thinking. As policy priorities are being rethought and rewritten, a more openly transactional and self-interested approach to foreign policy and economic relations is gaining momentum. Development policy (and ODA spending) in Europe is increasingly being presented as part of a wider approach to international cooperation rather than something distinct.

What are the drivers of these changes?

Off-the-record conversations with 14 senior officials helped us to better understand the drivers of these changes. To understand the interconnected nature of what is influencing international and development cooperation, ECDPM developed a diagram to illustrate the key influencing factors and how they are filtered through the governance system (see here).

It is clear that the single most important factor having a profound impact on all aspects of development and wider international cooperation is the shifting geopolitical landscape and increased power rivalry and competition. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian war in Ukraine particularly have brought geopolitics into traditional development policy. The geopolitical environment has pushed the EU and its member states to focus more on enhancing their visibility, standing, political leverage and tangible offers to partner countries, particularly in Africa. This evolving global order will continue to impact the character and nature of European development policy in the coming years.

Changing domestic politics is another key driver of change. It should not come as a surprise that domestic political considerations impact development cooperation priorities. However, the trend is increasing, and the concern is that this more narrowly self-interested and short-term approach (including on migration) crowds out other issues that hold more promise for mutually beneficial international cooperation, such as promoting human rights or addressing global poverty. A rightward shift in a number of EU member states, and within the EU institutions, has led to a greater focus on the private sector for development, trade, access to critical raw materials and migration management. 

The Russian war in Ukraine has also brought a renewed focus on core foreign policy and defence objectives, with some seeing a much clearer relationship between foreign policy, defence, economic interests and development cooperation as a positive development for European policy coherence and international influence. Yet, it is less clear where this leaves the Global South and achievement of the SDGs. Concern about the ability to maintain ODA levels in the face of defence spending looms large.

The EU and its member states also pursue economic, trade and commercial interests – often linked to the green transition – more openly through international cooperation. This is particularly evident in recent EU initiatives, such as the Global Gateway. Leveraging additional financial resources from the public and private sectors is becoming a key part of the global international cooperation agenda and an essential condition to achieve the SDGs. There are also concerns about the need to stay relevant and respond with economic cooperation to the demands of elites in partner countries.

In parallel, partner countries are becoming more assertive about their needs and priorities and have more options in terms of international partners to work with. The necessity to win a “battle of narratives” against Russia and China or at least have a better “qualitative offer” is quite palpable in Europe’s current development cooperation rhetoric.

Contrary to the above factors, the values agenda and global commitments such as the SDGs, are decreasing in prominence and – behind closed doors – are said to no longer be the dominant rationale of European international and development cooperation. The only exception is meeting global climate commitments which continues to wield significant influence on development policy and spend.

Finally, the role of the national and EU system of governance (including the available resources and budgetary processes) also filters the choices being made within individual member states and the EU institutions. Senior bureaucrats working in the EU and in member states (with a few exceptions) have been trying to do ‘more with less’, to align resources with fast-emerging “new” strategic priorities, as well as to have visible resources for crisis response as demanded by political leaders. Overall, there is a number of indications that overall European ODA budgets will shrink, as few European political leaders or parties seeking election are willing to justify increases in externally-focused budgets to domestic constituencies in Europe.

What now?

Despite this rather grim picture, for many in Europe, this evolution from a development cooperation agenda to an international cooperation agenda is a very necessary adaptation to a new reality and modernisation of relations between Europe and its partners in the majority of the rest of the world. Some hope that a more honest cooperation framed and undertaken beyond the limiting factor of aid, donor-recipient relations and all its associated postcolonial baggage could emerge.

However, European responses to recent crises have led to a breakdown of trust between Europe and traditional development partner countries in many parts of the world. Europeans are still being seen as paternalistic and implementing double standards, but also as adding layers of conditions in their cooperation agenda – yet not necessarily new layers of funding or attractive alternative forms of cooperation.

While shifting geopolitics and domestic politics will dictate the pace of change, the European political and institutional calendar presents some clear moments for change in 2024. These include the mid-term review of the EU’s financial framework and external financing instruments, the European Parliament election in June 2024 and change of European Commission leadership in the Autumn, both of which are likely to lead to a further rightward political shift.

A new era in which Europe’s revised approach to development cooperation policy is clearly defined and ‘road tested’ is still some way off. In a second brief, we explored what could constitute a way to approach a new agenda for Europe’s international cooperation in a rapidly changing world. The stakes for global peace and prosperity as well as within Europe have never been higher.

Pauline Veron is a Policy Officer working in the “think and do tank” the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM). At ECDPM Pauline works on the European foreign and development policy, migration and mobility and peace, security and resilience teams. Pauline specialises in the humanitarian-development-peace nexus and peacebuilding and conflict prevention, and has a number of policy publications on these related themes.

Andrew Sherriff is Associate Director for Institutional Relations and Partnerships at the “think and do tank” the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) based in Maastricht, the Netherlands.  A political scientist and policy analyst his specialism is where European foreign policy and development policy meet and has over 100 co-authored pieces on related themes. 

Image: geralt on Pixabay

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