13th Apr 2024

European elections: What’s at stake for EU humanitarian aid?

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Editor's note: We've partnered with the newsletter Brussels Dispatches, launched by Wilf King and Pierre Minoves, respectively working for the European Parliament and Commission. The newsletter provides an accessible, personable, high-level overview of why the upcoming EP elections matter and what's at stake for people who might not know why it matters. We thought it important to share this point of view as well. Below you'll find a new dispatch, by Susie Fogarty, policy advisor on EU development and humanitarian aid policies to MEP Barry Andrews.

In most elections, voters tend to focus on the so-called 'bread and butter' issues of politics — the tangible things that affect people's daily lives, such as housing, employment and agriculture. European elections have been no different. This was, and is, legitimate, even if the EU had little capacity to influence rent prices or tax rates.

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Nevertheless, citizens are not only becoming better acquainted with the European Union and its powers, they are also increasingly sensitive to the EU's role on the world stage, as evidenced by the fact that climate change, migration and Ukraine have risen to the top of the electoral agenda.

What may not be taken into account by many election predictions for this June — due to timing more than anything else — is the impact the current crisis in the Middle East is having on public opinion.

For instance, the latest Eurobarometer survey — the gold standard when it comes to measuring EU public opinion — was conducted from September to October 2023, prior to the full escalation of the crisis in Gaza. However, a quick cursory Google search on the impact of this crisis on public opinion shows that such data is hard to come by, as such, we do not yet know how this issue will impact the ballot boxes.

One hopeful finding of the latest Eurobarometer survey is that 78 percent of respondents were aware that the EU funds humanitarian aid activities, while 91percent think that it is important that the EU does so.

What is the EU's humanitarian assistance?

Over the past 32 years, the EU and its member states have collectively become a leading humanitarian donor, responding to both natural and man-made disasters with life-saving assistance in the form of food, cash, shelter, healthcare, water and sanitation and education in emergencies.

The EU began providing humanitarian aid to crises beyond the EU's borders in 1992 in response to the Kurdish refugee crisis, a looming famine in Africa and the escalating tensions in the Balkans.

EU Humanitarian Air Bridge (Photo: Olivier Chassignole / European Union, 2020)

The EU's aid accounts for one percent of the EU's total annual budget — around €4 per EU citizen — a price it seems most are willing to pay to help save lives around the world.

It is important to note that the EU is primarily a 'donor', meaning that the EU funds other local and international organisations (such as NGOs and the UN) whose staff use these resources to do much of the work on the ground — driving aid convoys, distributing food packages, and working in hospitals, for example.

This division of labour is effective as it ensures that humanitarian workers with the most understanding of local dynamics are the ones interacting face-to-face with recipients.

The defining feature of humanitarian assistance is that it must respect the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence, as endorsed by two UN General Assembly resolutions (46/182 and 58/114).

This implies that aid must be allocated on the basis of need, wherever human suffering is found, and that those providing aid must not discriminate or take sides in an armed conflict or another dispute — i.e. they must be neutral.

This requirement of neutrality may come as a surprise to many, given that the EU and the Member States often play active roles in conflicts around the world.

Von der Leyen's Geopolitical Commission

A key objective of President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen's term of office was to create a "geopolitical Commission", to give the commission more of a leadership role in international affairs, or at least, make EU policymaking more adaptive to geopolitical realities.

Until recently, the European Commission was the core decision maker in policy areas such as competition, trade and the single market — the idea being that it can govern and execute these policies in an apolitical way, given their 'technical' nature.

EU humanitarian assistance was no exception — aid was perceived as apolitical, so the commission would easily be able to respect the principles of neutrality and impartiality when deciding where and how to provide humanitarian aid. This is in direct contrast to foreign policy, which has remained solely in the hands of member state governments.

In essence, the commission handled the less political 'external' policies such as trade, development aid and humanitarian aid, while issues such as which stance to take on a conflict and whether to send personnel were handled by the member states.

This distinction provided a safeguard for EU humanitarian assistance, but remained a source of confusion on the international stage. Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger once famously asked "Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?", a reflection of the fact that the EU is often seen as fragmented and incoherent by outsiders.

The commission's attempts to solidify its status as a "grown-up" in the international sphere have received mixed support from onlookers over the previous four years. While president von der Leyen received positive views for her strong support for Ukraine, her support for Israel has been seen as problematic by some EU member states as well as 800 EU officials.

Beyond criticisms that she was overstepping her mandate, this stance was clearly at odds with the official EU position, as agreed by Member States, which advocates for a negotiated two-state solution.

EU commissioner for crisis management Janez Lenarčič was, for his part, at pains to stress that humanitarian aid to Gaza would not only continue, but increase significantly, and it did.

The dilemma of neutrality

This geopolitical shift has generated a true dilemma for the EU's humanitarian aid, not just in Gaza, but around the world.

On the one hand, for those who desire a commission better able to respond to international threats and act decisively, the EU's significant humanitarian assistance may be seen as an unnecessary expenditure, or even a liability.

According to this view, it gives the EU less 'leverage', as humanitarian assistance cannot be used as a bargaining chip with which to wield influence.

For example, the EU cannot threaten to cut its assistance to Gaza so that Hamas release hostages — the principle of humanity dictates that human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found, regardless of circumstances.

For those who support the EU's role as a humanitarian actor, a more geopolitical commission which takes a stance on conflicts around the world could negatively impact how the EU is perceived externally. Even if the EU maintains strict legal safeguards to protect its humanitarian aid, it is not easy to explain to partners how it is possible to simultaneously take a side politically while remaining neutral with humanitarian aid.

This dilemma is currently playing out in real-time as donors from various countries consider whether or not to keep funding UNRWA, the main humanitarian agency in Gaza, in light of, so far, unsubstantiated allegations against a number of its staff members.

If the European Commission does abandon the humanitarian principles, the EU then has very little authority to speak on the sensitive and serious topic of humanitarian access — that is, securing safe passage for aid workers and facilitating the delivery of aid, often amidst intense fighting and warfare.

The more politicised aid becomes and the more the EU strays from humanitarian principles, the deadlier it is for humanitarian workers and those who are suffering the most.

This is particularly concerning at a time when humanitarian needs have never been higher and millions of people are currently dependent on the EU's life-saving aid.

Now would not be a good moment to pull the plug, or for the EU to undermine itself.

(Photo: Global Humanitarian Overview)

What can voters do?

The European elections will undoubtedly impact the future EU humanitarian aid, even if indirectly.

With 720 MEPs to choose from, it can be difficult to know what to look for in EU candidates and to understand how your vote connects with issues such as humanitarian assistance.

My advice is to look at Group alignment — that is, where each candidate or party sits in the European Parliament. For the most part, political groups stick together on key political issues, and this is, by and large, determined by leadership.

You may not encounter much about humanitarian aid in different party or Group manifestoes, but you will certainly get a sense of a group's view on Europe's place in the world. There will certainly be language on the future of European defence, decision-making in foreign policy, and the nature of relations with third countries — all of these things have implications for the EU's humanitarian policy.

Moreover, the results of the European Parliament elections determine who will run the commission for the next five years.

As is tradition, the party that gains the most seats in the European Parliament gets its pick of commission president. If the European People's Party (EPP) are once again the largest party, as the polls suggest, von der Leyen will most probably serve another term.

This, coupled with a surge in support for the right-wing ECR and ID groups, as highlighted by Wilf in his last newsletter, could give credence to a more assertive and less charitable foreign policy.

If you, like the 91 percent of the Eurobarometer respondents mentioned above, like that the EU provides humanitarian assistance but are not sure whether to vote, consider that an abstention could mean that there are fewer representatives left to defend this policy down the line.

If you want to receive the newsletter straight in your inbox, subscribe to Wilf and Pierre's Substack here.

Author bio

Susie Fogarty is Policy Advisor for MEP Barry Andrews since 2021, focusing on EU development and humanitarian aid policies. A manager of the European Parliament's SDG Alliance and a former researcher at the College of Europe.

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