Promising signals for UK-EU aid partnerships post-Brexit

15 March 2018

For the last few weeks, a new so-called “non-paper” (The EU beyond 2020 Future Development Instruments: A UK Perspective [PDF]) has been circulating the recesses of the UK-Brussels “development community”. Although an unofficial paper, it is the first time we have seen anything specific from the UK on future UK-EU collaboration in development cooperation post-Brexit. 

Up to now the talk has been rather general and has been around seeking ongoing partnership in areas that promote security and prosperity, as in Theresa May’s speeches in Florence and at the Munich Security Conference. 

Positive signs

For the first time in this context, the UK government expresses shared values and commitment to the SDGs, the Paris Climate agenda and the Addis Ababa agreement on financing for development (moderating the previous stronger emphasis on security and global prosperity). 

The overall pitch from the UK – dangling potentially significant sums of money which could plug the hole in resources for EU external action created by Brexit - is to encourage the EU to make cooperation easier by making its financing instruments open to “third countries”. This builds on the European Community’s Humanitarian Office’s (ECHO) externally assigned revenues (EAR), which is already open to non-EU members to participate in specific programmes. ECHO coordinates, for example, EU and non-EU members in its programme in the Sahel.

There is also a hint of the UK’s interest in continuing to pay into the European Development Fund but on a “case by case basis” while still having a say over how the total fund is spent. This might call to mind the food metaphors of cherry picking used to criticise the UK’s negotiating tactics in other areas.  

Broadly speaking, for Bond, these are welcome signals from the UK. UK and European civil society organisations recognise the benefits of two of the world’s biggest donors continuing to cooperate and coordinate in the fight against global poverty, and in response to humanitarian crises. Cooperation also enables donors to attain value for money, share analysis, and reach more countries and help more poor people. 

Their commitment to the European Consensus on Development [PDF] should ensure they do not use aid resources that drift too far away from international development commitments and standards. Historically the UK, encouraged by the voice of its CSOs, has put a strong emphasis on poverty reduction, on aid to poorer countries and on sustainable development, compared to some of the member states, for whom the priorities are different. So the UK seat at the table is important for UK-based CSOs to continue our advocacy.

Potential risks

However, there are risks with too much “flexibility”. First is that you gain more flexibility in the allocation of aid resources by limiting scrutiny by parliament and the public (and transparency). There is also the potential related risk that open, flexible funding vehicles could circumvent the requirements on EU aid spending on development in the Lisbon Treaty, which keep the focus on poverty reduction and sustainable development. 

The big risk is that responses to “crisis” situations (migration, terrorism, declining market share in non-EU markets) could enable donors to re-orientate aid towards their domestic strategic priorities. CONCORD’s recent report, AidWatch 2018: Security Aid (Fostering development, or serving European donors’ national interests?) [PDF] explores the trade-offs. 

But focusing on the positives in the UK proposal for cooperation, it would be important for the EU to respond to the UK’s proposal with equivalent enthusiasm for continuing the partnership. Have they? Well the first signs aren’t very encouraging. 

The EU's negotiating position for the withdrawal from the EU [PDF] doesn’t say much – the only example is the EU-Turkey Trust Fund, where they are looking for resources now, and it is clear that there are no “seats at the table” even in the “transition period”. This is to an extent understandable - it's an initial negotiating position - but we hope that both sides will move closer to a shared position. Brexit should not adversely affect the shared SDGs agenda which should benefit poor people around the world. 

Tamsyn will be speaking today at a Joint Centre for European Policy Studies / British Council seminar on The Future Collaborative Framework for External Aid between the EU and the UK.

About the author

Tamsyn Barton

Dr Tamsyn Barton is the Chief Commissioner of ICAI and has 25 years' experience working in international development. Previously, Tamsyn was Bond's chief executive 2017-2018 and spent 13 years working for ODA/DFID.

Claire Godfrey

Claire Godfrey is interim director of policy, advocacy and research at Bond and has over 20 years' experience working on global poverty and social justice issues.