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European Ideas on An Interview on the EU's Development Policy with Mirjam van Reisen

14th February 2013

Photo: European Commission / Jean-Paul Heerschap

Mirjam van Reisen is Professor of International Social Responsibility at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. She is the founder and director of Europe External Policy Advisors (EEPA), a group of experts on Europe’s relations with developing countries, based in Brussels, Belgium, and is a member of the coordinating committee of Social Watch. She was interviewed by Maximilian Baldinger (European Ideas Ambassador at King’s College London) and Ramin Amighi (European Ideas Ambassador at Sciences-Po Paris) contributed to the questions.

EU Development Policy?

How should the EU and its member states direct their development aid? Should we pay direct budgetary aid to the respective states or will this just entrench a corrupt oligopoly at the top? Or should we rather send our experts to the recipient countries to work on “the rule of law” and built basic infrastructure, despite the fact that this may foster dependence on Europeans to build a civil society?

The question suggests that developing countries are all corrupt. I do not agree that this is the right assumption and therefore the question posed in that way is not so helpful. We need to develop a more specific and historic perspective of what has happened to developing countries and how we relate to this. We have not yet fully come to terms with our role from Europe in colonisation, and post colonisation. Only if we develop a deeper understanding of these past processes and develop an understanding of how they are still present in today’s relationships, can we contribute to real change. 

Budgetary aid can help in creating a more mature environment of bilateral relationships between government. The danger with supporting civil society is that we create a dependency of civil society on the EU, which makes civil society more focused on the EU then on the relationship it has with its own government. I believe that generally speaking budget support helps create more accountable governance.

Where do you think should the focus of Europe’s foreign aid policy on in the coming years be? Which countries or regions? Which sectors and areas?

Europe has an interest in focusing globally, as this is an added value it has over the member states. It should especially aim to foster social democracy, its core values, and there is relevance for this approach everywhere. Europe should realise that through development aid it can build relationships of mutual interests and that these will be more sustainable for the long term. For instance by 2020 Europe will need a lot of migrant work, due to the demographic realities and the challenge of ageing. If we want these migrants to be educated and healthy we need to work on this now. We have a common interest with developing countries in setting up systems that can cater for future employment. But we also share an interest in increasing the purchasing power in developing countries so that we develop new markets for our exports. And finally we share common interests in developing low carbon economies, to protect the planet.

According to which standards should the European Union and the member states choose recipients of foreign aid? In an exclusive interview with European Ideas, Dr. Johannes Hübner, a right-wing MP from Austria, argues only to give budgetary aid to certain countries that have out of their own power proved some improvement in economic and social development. This is supposed to incentivise other states to “get their act together” in order to collect future aid from the EU. Do you agree with his opinion?

I do agree that budgetary aid to countries that look poorly after their own citizens is not a good idea. But budgetary Support is also provided to deal with Balance of Payments problems and debt problems are causing these problems. Debt problems usually arise from bad loan policies from the past and it would be unfair to punish the citizens of today. It might therefore be more useful to say that the policies of governments who receive budget support should encourage the fiscal spending to benefit their people and especially the poor.

You called Eritrea the “North Korea of Africa” and urged the EU to stop giving aid to the government, which you described as highly authoritarian, and instead focus on projects and programs that will directly benefit Eritreans. Given that you pointed out that Eritrea has “no democracy” and “no civil society”, how do you think should the EU channel aid in ways that bypass the government and directly reach the people of Eritrea? Also, do you see any prospects for the EU playing an active role in supporting the development of democratic governance in Eritrea, whether through aid or other means?

Eritrea has no press freedom and has no civil society. It has no published budget nor a parliament and it has never implemented the constitution. There are serious problems in terms of governance, human rights and the rule of law. Therefore the citizens do not enjoy any rights. I have therefore argued that the European Union contravenes its own legal requirements by extending aid that is agreed in conjunction with the Eritrean government.

In the case of Eritrea it would be more useful to look at how the EU can help build the future framework for democracy and support the education of the many Eritrea refugees. These are so vulnerable that many become subject to human trafficking and extortion and torture, especially in the Sinai. It is a serious ethical problem that people are sold against 50.000 USD or killed in the Sinai, in the neighbourhood of the EU and we are not capable of making an end to this scandal. And still we give aid to a government that according to the UN itself is involved in selling its own people.

In your article on the ACP-EU relations you criticise the EEAS (European External Action Service) regarding their development set-up. You mention the changing status of the European Development Fund and the lack of a liaison desk with the ACP countries. At the same time as the European institutions are handling a large development budget, the individual member states are also still conducting foreign aid operations. Please draw an “institutional map” for our readers of how development policy should be set up and what crucial policies it should be following to conduct its business most effectively; in short: What does your European development utopia look like?

I am arguing that the history of the EU is important and should be considered in how it handles its external relation. The ACP group is the group of countries from African, Caribbean and Pacific that contains the largest number of former colonies of the EU. This formation has therefore an historical relevance and a proximity with the EU, which also is visible in its identity and economy. It seems to me obvious that one of the largest assets of the EU is its global external reach and the shared history with so many countries of the developing world and newly emerging economies. The EU can only benefit from this special relation and should therefore cherish it. Shared memory is a strong basis for relationships and the EU is in need of identity that can be expressed in shared historical understanding. Therefore its history with the ACP is invaluable to strengthen the EU project, its identity and its external face.

The institutional structure should reflect the recognition that the ACP have a historic relevance and are an essential component of the current EU’s external face. The European Development Fund, which finances the special relation of the EU with the ACP, is more than half of the development budget and this is the largest fund of resources that can finance the EU’s external relations. If we do not explain to European citizens that this is very relevant, how can we expect them to prioritise it. We feel to communicate the importance of these relationships and then we are surprised that tje budgets are cut.

Hence the ideal structure of EU external relations would reflect the history of the EU, and therefore make the special relationship visible with  the ACP and also with the neighbourhood countries.

Do you think the EU is sufficiently leveraging the fact that it is the largest ODA donor (as of 2011) in international governance?

No it is not, and it is a strategic error. It has an opportunity to express its values and clarify its identity through this policy but in the last decade the EU has failed to understand the benefits which can be generated through a development policy that projects the EU values and identity abroad. It would not just benefit its external agenda and visibility, a strong external dimension would give impetus to the projection of the EU as a Global Player internally as well.

What can we take away from the European Development Days 2012?

The European Development Days are useful if they help to identify what is truely European about them. But we need to define this with our partners in developing countries. A European Development Days organised with the ACP jointly would be much more intesting as a concept to express this.

International Trade

In you the article on EU-ACP relations you seem to take a stance against free trade, which might well be described as mildly “protectionist”. You state that opening the domestic economies of the ACP countries to Europe and vice versa would hurt “African” producers while hardly helping the economy as ACP exports are mostly raw materials (ie no value added domestically) and that a loss of import tariff revenue would hurt public finances.

Playing advocatus diaboli, there is an argument to be made of whether you are not convinced that opening markets is- despite the always same concerns- almost always mutually beneficial? Could European know-how and foreign investment not help grow domestic sophisticated industries and supply cheap goods to African consumers while making sure that raw materials are there for European industries and the individual consumer?

Please explain your “economic and trade persuasion” regarding the future of EU-ACP relations vis à vis this background.

I am not against free trade. However, the reality is that the EU does protect its sensitive areas. So my argument that if you promote free trade for others, but you protect your industries or agriculture, then this is not a level playing field. Moreover, in the case of developing countries, they are already behind.

Developing countries can not develop commodity chains if they are competing with cheap products exported by the EU.

In general what is needed is a more sophisticated and flexible understanding of the economies and how they can be assisted. For instance the Dutch development agency SNV has supported the development of markets for pastoralists whic has helped them to link up with a domestic commodity chain of milk and no they provide for the growing market in Nairobi. That is more useful economically for Kenya then for it to important cheap milk powder from Europe.

You have been appointed as an advisor to the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) on tackling their future challenges. What are the opportunities for EU-ACP cooperation, especially after 2020 when the Cotonou Agreement, which regulates current trade relations between the EU and ACP countries, expires?

By 2020 the negotiations of trade agreements between the ACP and the EU should be over. Therefore the EU and ACP relationship will no longer be dominated by this difficult set of negotiations. This may allow the EU and the ACP to go back to its roots, which is a shared history, integrated economies as well as people who are linked and connected in many different ways. Hopefully the EU will come to understand that the relationship with the ACP is one from which it can benefit, not just by imposition with the aim to receive what it needs but by joint responsibility and in dialogue. Our histories are joint. Our peoples are connected by many family bonds. Many migrants in the EU originate from ACP countries. If we operate in this understanding in terms of our destiny we will all stand to benefit. This is why we need to teach the history of the EU. It allows us to see the present with more clarity. This will provide essential insights to chart out the EU’s future.

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