Tanya Cox
Director at CONCORD Europe

The European Development Days, or EDD, is a development fair that is particularly useful to meet and to network, but also to exchange ideas and – hopefully – to learn. I’ll come back to exchange of ideas, but on the learning front, this year’s EDD was certainly a missed opportunity to demystify the Global Gateway – or rather, to go beyond the slogans. Civil society came to find some answers that are not available on websites or in public documents. We were disappointed.

One of the aspects I’d been keen to hear more about was how civil society may get involved. Because despite the clear promise to the private sector that they would play a key role via a Business Advisory Group – and of course we all know that European companies will be important in contributing to the flagship Team Europe Initiatives – it is far less clear how civil society may contribute its expertise. Despite the Commission creating a Multi-stakeholder Forum in its Digital4Development (D4D) Hub, no such promises are made for the Global Gateway. And in any case, one might wonder what is the purpose of the multiplication of different bodies, especially if silo’d by actor.

I had also assumed that I would  learn how guaranteeing digital civic space can be part of Global Gateway plans, given the degree to which digital tech is reshaping our world and particularly our ability to organise and to exercise our rights.  How will the EU ensure that the companies and governments they work with are not complicit – or directly involved – in shutting down that space? I felt sure that civil society representatives would be raising this – in panels and in their questions to panelists.

But I soon realised that the panels were largely constituted of the ‘usual suspects’ – there was little civil society representation and therefore the voices of the most marginalised and those who do their best to represent them were absent. While the term human-centric, or people-centred, approach has been adopted by the institutions and governments, and indeed is bandied around quite readily, it still remains unclear how this is – or will be – implemented in practice or whether there is even a common understanding of what taking a ‘people-centred approach’ should involve. However, whenever the subject of respecting digital rights is broached, this is the standard answer.

So, unfortunately, few of my questions were answered. Worse still, when a civil society colleague tried to explore the opportunities, she got rudely and aggressively shut down by German MEP Reinhard Butikofer. Where were EU values such as tolerance and freedom of expression? As we mentioned on Twitter, this sent a very negative signal – and reinforced our impression that the Global Gateway is only for the privileged few ‘on the inside’.

A few months ago, I wrote about how the fundamental role of civil society is put into question – or even actively undermined. If the EDDs are to remain relevant, and if a people-centered approach is the aim, then next year’s edition must include conscious actions to ensure that the voices of all people and all sectors of society are represented. This is important no matter the subject under discussion. There are no subjects which have no impacts on people!