Tuesday

13th Apr 2021

Opinion

EU name change masks new restrictions in development sector

  • A partnership of equals requires more than changes in labels, or replacing grants to developing countries with loans – a growing trend in the EU budget for international cooperation (Photo: Flickr)

Since the European Commission took office more than a year ago, there is a strong willingness to move away from a "donor-recipient relationship" to "partnerships of equals" with developing countries.

A symbol of this shift is the renaming of the European Commission's Directorate for Cooperation and Development (DG DEVCO) into the Directorate General for International Partnerships this week.

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This happens in a context of major geopolitical power shifts at global level, whereby early-industrialised countries seem to be losing influence to the benefit of some emerging countries.

Beyond symbols and words, is Europe ready to take the turn?

A partnership of equals requires more than changes in labels, or replacing grants to developing countries with loans – a growing trend in the EU budget for international cooperation.

It requires accepting to share more fairly resources and power.

It is of course extremely challenging to relinquish some power and wealth, but whether we like it or not, it is going to happen anyway.

China, for example, whose mishandling of the initial outbreak of Covid-19 contributed to the global pandemic, is now seen as an ally in many parts of the world, making its vaccines accessible quickly, at low prices and with promises of technology transfer.

Africa delay

The EU-Africa Summit, postponed due to the pandemic, does not seem to be a priority for African countries at the moment.

There are stumbling blocks on the way, such as the demand by European countries that African countries take their irregular migrants back, or even stop them from leaving to reach Europe's shores.

The European Commission is currently working on a policy proposal to strengthen the EU's contribution to multilateralism. Why?

Precisely because "certain emerging powers attempt to influence the multilateral system according to their interests or set up new initiatives and structures to pursue their priorities".

This upcoming policy proposal to be adopted in first quarter of this year is an opportunity in two regards:

First, the EU will be able to flagship its distinctiveness, compared to China, but also to many other countries: a multilateral order with human rights and civic participation at its core, and a commitment to champion the role of independent civil society organisations (CSO).

CSOs are indeed facing growing restrictions on their participation in multilateral spaces.

In parallel, large corporations' influence in those spaces is growing, as exemplified by the partnership between the World Economic Forum and the United Nations, or the upcoming World Food Systems Summit, whose agenda and ways of working prioritise large corporates' interest over citizens, small-scale farmers and consumers.

We need exclusion criteria and strong rules on conflict of interest to regulate companies' participation in multilateral decision-making processes. This is particularly striking in the field of climate change, where action urgently needed to achieve the sustainable development goals and the Paris Agreement is being slowed down because of vested private interests of big polluters.

Second, the EU should also use this opportunity to genuinely support developing countries' equal role in multilateral spaces where decisions are being made that affect them.

Multilateral institutions, with few exceptions, are dominated by early-industrialised countries, which perpetuates an unjust international order.

Developing countries are not taking part on an equal footing in the G20 and the OECD – which are making decisions on debt relief, global tax rules and financial regulation, that have deep impacts on them.

The IMF and the World Bank are making decisions that jeopardise the possibility for low-income countries to realise the Sustainable Development Goals and meet their human rights and climate commitments.

But developing countries are marginalised from the decision-making processes in these international financial institutions as well.

The EU should show the way by lending its support towards the establishment of a United Nations tax body able to reform global corporate tax rules, taking into account the interests of countries in the Global South.

The EU should also support a United Nations multilateral debt workout mechanism to restructure and cancel the debt of developing countries, when it prevents them from the resources they need to invest in the Sustainable Development Goals and adaptation to climate change.

It is legitimate for European countries to assert their interest in multilateral bodies, but it is ultimately also in their interest to build a more equal, fair and inclusive multilateral system. Based on partnerships of equals.

Author bio

Isabelle Brachet is senior EU advocacy advisor at ActionAid.

Disclaimer

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

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