The Director of Dóchas talks about the priorities of EU aid as it struggles to come to an agreement over the Budget.

European leaders negotiating the bloc’s budget must not lose sight of the project’s overarching purpose, argues Hans Zomer.

When EU leaders come together on Nov 22, they have one topic to discuss — the shape of the EU budget and the continent’s priorities for seven years up to 2020. And in these talks there is more at stake for Ireland than the bank debts, as the negotiations come just weeks before Ireland takes up the Presidency of the Council of the EU.

In the first six months of 2013, we will be tasked with implementing the deals struck at this summit meeting — which should be reason enough for all of us to have a good discussion about the issues on the table.

The importance of rules and co-operation: When the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the EU, it served as an important reminder that the EU is a unique project, built on the premise that states can learn to work together peacefully, through a transparent, rules-based system of decision-making and international co-operation. The Nobel committee noted that internal solidarity within the EU is at risk, and chose to highlight what it called “the EU’s most important result: the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights”.

But peace and reconciliation need constant attention. The values of democracy, diversity, and solidarity that bind EU members together are increasingly being challenged in the face of an economic and financial crisis that is testing the very foundations of ‘the European project’.

International co-operation, the bedrock of the EU, is being questioned by politicians in many countries. It is against this background that the discussions about the EU’s seven-year budget take on a meaning well beyond what may seem a technical discussion far removed from our daily lives: our leaders will decide on the shape and priorities of Europe for many years to come.

A safer, more secure world is good for Ireland, too: And these decisions will have ramifications far beyond the borders of the EU. The promotion of “stability, security, and prosperity” are at the heart of Europe’s foreign policy objectives and as the Nobel committee indicated, the EU has also had great success in planting the seeds of prosperity and peace outside its borders, and has reaped the rewards. Supporting health, democracy, and civil society in distant countries may seem like a priority far removed from our everyday lives, but our good deeds come back to us manyfold. Fostering better standards of living abroad is not just the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do: Inequality, repression, and social unrest in other countries can impact on our own lives, and by supporting countries with which we have strategic relationships, we are not only improving the lives of millions, but we are ensuring that our trading partners have a brighter future.

As a small, open economy, highly vulnerable to global shocks, Ireland needs a fairer, more stable, more prosperous global community. And this is true not just when it comes to commodities like oil — it’s also the little things.

When civil war rocked Cote d’Ivoire in 2011 after a fraught election, for example, its cocoa industry was hit hard. Cocoa forms 25% of Cote d’Ivoire’s economy, and that country’s exports represent a third of the world’s supply. Instability in the Ivory Coast thus had a direct effect on the cost of Ireland’s sweet tooth.

And it is precisely for that reason that Ireland and its EU counterparts invest in overseas aid: to help create the conditions that help decrease the likelihood, the frequency, and the severity of disruptions in countries on which our future depends.

EU aid works and is worth protecting: EU aid is also remarkably efficient. European aid has helped the global community reach two of the Millennium Development Goals ahead of their 2015 deadline, including access to clean water. Projects funded by the EU, for example, connected 31m people to safe water for the first time between 2004 and 2009. Thanks to EU aid, more than seven times the population of Ireland turned on the tap for the first time ever and saw clear, clean drinking water tumble out.

Thanks to EU aid, more than 9m children were enrolled in primary education over the 2004-2009 period, and 5.5m children were vaccinated against measles. Examples like this demonstrate what Europe can do if it retains a focus of what it wants to achieve, collectively, in the long term.

Such strategic perspective seems, unfortunately, to be absent in the discussions about Europe’s future. To date, EU leaders have reduced the critical discussions about the long- term EU budget to a squabble about what immediate return individual countries can expect.

To be effective, EU leaders must remember the wider vision which drives the EU, and agree on what a democratic union of European nations wants to achieve in the world.

As we prepare for our turn at the helm, Ireland’s politicians must make sure that Europe makes the right strategic choices, and chooses to resource those areas that ensure our collective future.

The portion of the EU budget which enables it to act as a ‘global partner’ — just 5.7% of the total — is essential for Europe’s long-term future. Andris Piebalgs, EU commissioner for development, is calling for an increase in the portion of this budget — roughly one-third of the total foreign policy budget — dedicated to international development co-operation. His calls, however, contrast with those from some EU states who want to see their contributions to the EU frozen, or even decrease below inflation rates.

What is perhaps most surprising is that these discussions about the future priorities of the EU as a whole seem to be happening in a near-total silence. There is virtually no public debate, or media attention, for what is likely to be one of the biggest decisions to be taken in the coming years. And particularly in Ireland, the country charged with implementing the decisions to be taken in the next few weeks, there should be a great deal more awareness of the issues at stake.

As Ireland prepares to take a leadership role in Europe, we owe it to ourselves that we debate the priorities we want to set for the future of Europe. Now is the time to remind Europe’s leaders of the historic significance of their decisions. And of the opportunities that they have to set a new path for the citizens of Europe, and for the wider world.  International cooperation is not about generosity for when times are good, but an investment in the type of fair, rules- based and prosperous world that we ourselves depend on.

Hans Zomer is director of Dóchas, the network of Ireland’s Development NGOs.

A briefing document on the EU’s multi-annual budget is available here

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner

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