Thursday

28th Jan 2021

Opinion

Tough questions for new EU 'development' commissioner

  • EU development funds in Senegal. 'At first sight, the abandonment of the term 'development' should be applauded' (Photo: Matt Tempest/Flickr)

While much ink has been spilled on the naming of the "European Way of Life" commissioner, another such shift has gone largely unnoticed.

The new European Commission will no longer include a commissioner for "Development". Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen proposes that the Finnish Jutta Urpilainen takes up the portfolio of "International Partnerships", which the European Parliament will likely endorse during the hearing on 1st October.

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  • Finnish Jutta Urpilainen will be grilled on Tuesday on her portfolio of "international partnerships" - formerly "development" (Photo: European Commission)

We earlier argued in EUobserver that the development commissioner should be abolished. So, are we happy now?

On first sight, the abandonment of the term 'development' should be applauded.

Von der Leyen's urge to adapt the "European model of development" to "new global realities" might signal a mounting realisation that this model is not universal and omnipotent and even a recognition that the term 'development' can be problematic.

Hence, this re-name could be read as an opportunity to fundamentally reconsider the EU's engagement with the rest of the world.

However, the rebranding of the development portfolio into international partnerships needs to be met with some caution.

First, the term 'partnership' does not really excel in originality.

It takes us back to 1975, when the Lome Convention between the EU and the member states' former colonies of the Africa-Caribbean-Pacific (ACP) was heralded as a new era, installing a true partnership of equals.

Ever since, "partnership" principles have characterised the EU's development discourse, serving as a disguise for asymmetric power relations and continuing neo-colonial agendas.

Second, von der Leyen's mission letter confirms rather than rectifies suspicions that "development" objectives are subordinated to European interests.

The previous commission already linked development aid to private sector interests, under the regional blending facilities and the European Fund for Sustainable Development, and to migration management, under the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa.

Von der Leyen seems to put less energy in selling this as a development project.

She is more straightforward (and honest) in arguing that the EU expects "value for money", that "political, economic and investment opportunities in Africa" should be pursued, and that the EU should leverage aid for private investment.

The ambition of a "geopolitical commission", the focus on "countries of migration origin and transit", and the task to "adapt bilateral funding to achieve our objectives on migration management", give an extra push to the instrumentalisation of EU aid for geopolitical and migration management purposes.

This has the benefit of clarity.

However, it also remains problematic from an ethical standpoint.

Colonial legacy

There is no sign of reflection on the flaws of the "European model of development" and its colonial legacy as such.

It does not matter whether the label is, "development" or "partnership", if the core features remain the same: the belief in endless economic growth, the rhetoric of progress according to the European standard setting, and a destructive anthropocentric worldview.

If this mission letter is a missed chance for truly re-setting the way the EU interacts beyond its borders, then what are the issues Urpilainen should rather be speaking on during her hearing on Tuesday (1 October)?

First, the EU should take this opportunity to thoroughly reflect on the "European model of development", its impacts and acknowledge the ever louder calls to 'undevelop' and 'degrow' the North.

Second, instead of focusing on rebranding 'development' into 'international partnership', the EU should shift its attention to tackling global structural injustices and inequalities:

Fair Trade: as one of the strongest trade actors in the world, the EU could take the lead in structural reforms that make the global trading system truly fair.

These should provide sufficient policy space for all countries and allow governments to restrict trade with a view to legitimate domestic needs.

Concretely, in the context of ongoing negotiations on a post-Cotonou ACP-EU Partnership after 2020, the EU could reconsider the free trade orthodoxy of the Economic Partnership Agreements.

Tax Justice

Developing countries lose more from tax evasion, avoidance and competition than what they earn from developing aid.

As one of the largest supporters of improving developing countries' macro-economic frameworks and public finance management and promoting the mobilisation of domestic financial resources in developing countries, the EU should continue pushing for global tax justice.

It may also be time to tackle these issues at EU level and discuss the responsibility of European companies and the impact of European member states' bilateral tax agreements with developing countries.

Climate Justice

As one of the leading actors in the international climate change regime, the EU should not only make binding commitments to reducing its own energy demands, emissions and carbon footprints, it should also step up its commitment to international climate justice.

It should compensate for the damages done and make sure its climate finance is additional, reliable and sustainable, and focused on the most vulnerable countries.

Reparative action

The silence on the continuing impact of our colonial past is striking.

Europe must assume responsibility of its colonial past.

While within some member states debates have been initiated on the need for decolonising relations with developing countries, it is time that discussions on postcolonial reparative action are brought to the European level.

It is likely that the hearing will focus on "development" and "partnership" within the confinements of established development narratives.

Nevertheless, we hope that it may also be an opportunity for MEPs to discuss the EU's responsibility in addressing systemic issues of injustice to fundamentally redress global inequalites.

Author bio

Sarah Delputte is assistant professor and Jan Orbie is associate professor at the Centre for EU Studies, Ghent University. Julia Schöneberg is post-doctoral fellow at the department for development and postcolonial studies, Kassel University.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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