BONN — As the open working group on the new sustainable development goals is nearing its last session in mid-July, the European Commission adopted a communication on June 2, outlining Europe’s priorities for the post-2015 development agenda. This work is part of the European Union’s effort to make a substantive contribution in shaping the new goals, an endeavor that may not get too far. Differences of opinion among European nations and disagreements over priorities or even what should be included are already getting in the way of a strong unified position.
The European Union is the world’s largest donor to international development cooperation. It is also the single-largest financial contributor to the UN as a bloc, providing 35 percent of the regular budget and half of all voluntary contributions to UN funds and programs. Yet Europe struggles to turn its financial might into political leverage in multilateral forums.
As Simon Koppers, head of the United Nations Division at the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, said: “Generally, the EU punches below its weight. In terms of economic weight or ODA [official development assistance] or contributions to the UN, the EU should be more influential.”
The most recent communication and the documents preceding it focused on the post-2015 development agenda may be taken as a sign of Europe’s ambition to assert itself as a major player, not just a payer, in multilateral development. Titled “A Decent Life for All: From Vision to Collective Action,” the document follows up on a communication from February 2013 as well as a conclusion adopted by the Council of Ministers in June 2013, meant to contribute to Europe’s position in international negotiations. Which member states support this position and what role they will play in international negotiations is, however, far from clear.
Representing 28 countries as well as various institutions, the European Union often struggles to speak in one voice in multiparty negotiations. Typically, it strives to establish a joint position through coordination among member states. Development cooperation, environmental affairs and foreign policy (of which development is also an official part) are all policy areas in which the Union has additional legitimacy — and therefore urgency — in seeking a unified stance.
Finding common ground among 28 countries, however, is cumbersome. More than 1,300 coordination meetings take place every year — in New York alone. This makes the process lengthy and inflexible: the communication in June, for example, came out the same day as a list of proposed goals were published by the UN’s working group on the sustainable development goals. Europe’s communication may be too late to contribute meaningfully to a European position or to serve as a basis for negotiation but rather reflects and endorses negotiation processes that have already taken place.
This is not the first time the European Union acted too slowly in preparing for development conferences: it happened in Doha in 2008 and at the Busan forum in 2011 in Korea.
Joint positions are only worth as much as the support they receive from member states. Bypassing a collective European viewpoint may allow an individual country to pursue a more ambitious agenda than the lowest common denominator agreed on within the Union, enabling the country to act faster and more flexibly or to assert divergent interests.
Malta has already criticized the inclusion of reproductive rights among the priorities outlined in the June communication. Ireland, Poland and Spain, all members with restrictions on abortion, might feel similarly slighted.
Once a unified standpoint is reached, how can Europe contribute to the sustainable development agenda? The EU holds observer status and even membership in several UN entities and can present common positions in the General Assembly. But the bulk of the important work on the post-2015 goals will likely come from its working group, a forum in which the European Union as a bloc is not represented.
More important, in the working group’s voting blocs, all European members share seats with non-EU states. France and Germany are paired with Switzerland; Britain and the Netherlands are doubled up with Australia; and Italy and Spain are coupled with Turkey. Their ability to find a common European position will be limited by their need to coordinate with the other members of their voting groups.
The European Union is also facing additional challenges speaking with one voice in international development. One specific challenge is financial: while the June communication restated the EU’s commitment to reach its official development assistance goal of 0.7 percent by 2015, most members are far off track. Since the economic crisis, Spain’s contributions, for example, have dwindled from 0.46 percent to 0.17 percent of gross national income. In light of lasting economic crises and austerity programs, this situation is unlikely to change soon for many countries. Similarly, the Union’s budget for 2014-2020 does not provide for any increases in its development cooperation programs.
The European Union must also deal with the rise of euroskepticism and the Ukrainian conflict along its eastern border. These issues are most likely to make Europe more inward looking and less focused on its role as a global actor. The far-right parties — which proved their popularity in the EU elections in May — are critical of a strong foreign policy infringing on member states’ sovereignty, which might further aggravate European Union coordination in multilateral negotiations.
Fragmentation is one of the most common criticisms lobbed against the UN. It limits the effectiveness of the organization, the argument goes, particularly in development work. The European Union could ideally overcome some of the fragmentation, at least in development agendas, if its members worked together. The months ahead will show whether this potential can be realized.