The financial crisis and its aftermath have brought to light the crisis of European integration, more precisely the crisis and potential demise of a certain approach to integration pursued since the early 1950s. The demise of an allegedly inevitable ‘ever closer Union’ pursued primarily in a technocratic way predates the turmoil which started in late 2008. The escalating struggle between European institutions and member states, buttressed by the rise of popular distrust, seems to emerge as one of the biggest challenges to European integration.
In development cooperation, an area of ‘shared’ competences between the EU institutions and the member states, it has remained unexplored how economic recession, the sovereign debt crisis, austerity, the struggle in the eurozone and increasing Euroscepticism have affected the relationship between the EU and its member states.
EU aid has undeniably been affected. Significant cuts to bilateral aid budgets due to the consolidation of public finances have reduced member states’ willingness to pool further resources and competences in Brussels. Instead, member states have shown an increasing tendency to operate on their own or in like-minded groups, and focus on inward-looking aid policiesdriven by national interests and priorities. Even countries such as Germany, where fiscal constraints have been less severe, faced increasing pressure on the visibility of national aid spending and have become more suspicious of channelling aid through multilateral channels, especially the EU. Furthermore, the immediate management of the crises has taken up attention and resources, which were diverted away from the Commission’s attempts at enhancing EU donor harmonisation, and led to delayed and often half-hearted implementation.
Yet, policy makers, think tankers and practitioners in Europe have called on the EU to make conceivable commitments to international development. Next year is the final deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the UN’s ambitious development agenda. This coincides with the beginning of a new, yet to be determined set of global development goals. The EU institutions have therefore announced 2015 to be the ‘European Year for Development’ to emphasis their claim of contributing to this international process.
This builds on considerable, unprecedented EU-level effort to improve the harmonisation of European aid practices in a decentralised way. EU donor harmonisation is set to follow a political agenda encompassing all EU institutions and member states, prescribing policy priorities and proposing measures to facilitate harmonisation such as coordinated division of labour, joint programming of aid, collective budget support and the initiation of a common results reporting framework. Thus, the impact of the crisis and its aftermath on Europe has not yet prevented ambitious EU-level efforts, which go beyond global commitments.
However, frustration about the lack of tangible harmonisation in EU development cooperation remains high despite ambitious commitments of institutions and member states in Brussels to harmonise Europe’s contribution to international development. Already prior to the financial crisis, since the early/mid-2000s, the Commission had attempted to coordinate European aid policies more closely for the sake of reducing fragmentation and enhancing their effectiveness by committing the EU institutions and member states to one common policy. Paradoxically, in recent years, considerable efforts to harmonise donor activities in the EU have been followed by an increase in the level of fragmentation of EU development cooperation rather than convergence.
Arguably, the multiple crises have not significantly altered the underlying challenge towards harmonisation in aid and development. Rather, the Commission’s efforts to pursue donor harmonisation during the years of crisis have buttressed the politicisation within EU aid. Political disagreements have been exemplified by the controversies regarding the role of democracy promotion in budget support during the ‘Arab Spring’, or the diverging views on how to engage with emerging international development actors such as China. This has challenged the EU’s efforts to reduce aid fragmentation for enhancing development effectiveness despite member states’ strong commitment towards these goals. Yet, after all, mediating intra-EU politicisation constitutes the only potential opportunity to achieve a meaningful European contribution to international development.