The EU as a Global Development Actor – Three Challenges

The EU as a Global Development Actor – Three Challenges

In 2015, the international community agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a new framework for global development. Against this background, the EU is currently revising its own development policies. The review of its Consensus on Development provides an opportunity for the Union to reflect on how to define its self-proclaimed role as one of the principal global development actors in the future. This is no easy task, as it comes amidst several daunting challenges.

First, the comprehensive nature of the SDGs makes it important to ensure policy coherence across different issue areas in the EU’s external actions. The most pressing topic for the EU in this respect is to reconcile its activities in the field of development on the one hand and migration and security on the other. There is no denying that parts of the EU’s current policies to restrict refugee influx from Africa in the Migration Partnership Framework are in tension with its longstanding commitment to promoting development through regional integration and the freedom of movement. Can the EU really afford subordinating long-term development to putative short-term security interests?

Second, the international development landscape is changing. Rising powers are exploring new models of South-South development cooperation. This is an opportunity for the EU to win new partners, but also a challenge because the new players have different approaches to development. Issues such as human rights and gender equality do not feature high on the Chinese agenda. As the BRICs connect their activism to demands for reforming old institutions, and have even created altogether new ones such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, both the normative underpinnings of development governance and its current institutional architecture are in question.

Third, the current anti-integrationist momentum and the internal legitimacy crisis impinge on the EU’s ability to ‘punch its weight’ externally, not only because it makes it harder to foster support for supranational solutions but also because it undermines what is arguably its main asset in bi- and multilateral interaction contexts: the ‘soft’ or ‘normative power’ so liberally invoked by EU supporters. The field of development is particularly sensitive to centrifugal tendencies because it is a policy area where the benefits of acting jointly may not be as evident as with, say, the common market. This means that the fight over policy priorities and resources will become even more challenging for development stakeholders than it already is.

How can the EU address these challenges? To strengthen policy coherence under the conditions of the current EU-sceptical climate, it should create informal mechanisms for coordination between EU institutions and member states on the one hand and across policy-fields on the other. The plans for joint policy-development in the new Development Consensus are a step in the right direction but need to be complemented by increased mainstreaming of development considerations into all areas of external action.

European policy-makers also need to communicate better the links between development and issues of ‘high politics’ to foster public support for its policies, while at the same time making sure a security logic doesn’t get to dominate cooperation with African countries. Development policies must not be diverted from their primary goal of improving the livelihood of individuals and communities. Analysts therefore must critically accompany the further development of the Migration Partnerships.

Finally, the EU and its member states should help build new international institutions and reform existing ones in a way that acknowledges the emerging powers’ demand for equal partnerships. It must finally put the rhetoric of mutual learning into practice. At the same time, the EU should stay committed to its own unique approach to development. Instead of entering a race to the bottom in terms of normative standards, it should confidently market the benefits of comprehensive development including good governance and human rights.

This article was published in June’s issue of the Diplomatic Magazine.

© Picture:  Thijs ter Haar (