New instruments proposed for EU external action – do we know enough about what worked with the old ones?
No, we don’t know enough about the results achieved through the EU’s old external action instruments. But that does not inhibit an evidence-based discussion on the future instruments, which can still be revised as they are currently subject of debate between the different EU institutions.
On Wednesday, the European Commission presented proposals to amend the rules guiding the spending for EU external action from 2014-2020, the timeframe of the next EU budget. In expert jargon, these rules are called “financial instruments”, and there are 10 such instruments, each for a specific area of intervention. The total amount proposed for this external relations package is €96,249.4 million, including the European Development Fund, which the Commission proposes to keep outside the EU budget. The proposals for eight of the instruments aim to “(…) adjust [the instruments] to the new realities, be more strategic and easy to use.”
A separate Joint Communication by the Commission and the EU External Action Service, also published on Wednesday, seeks to clarify the added value of EU external assistance – beyond development cooperation. Compared to earlier draft texts, the arguments put forward in this joint communication seem to be adapted to the ‘crisis-times’. For instance, it notes that the EU can actually save money by focusing its action on prevention as opposed to cure. This is particularly relevant in the fields of international migration, climate change, food security, piracy, or sexual violence in conflict situations.
Five key principles
In a Memo, the Commission indicates that the most significant changes have been made in the principles underpinning these new instruments. The EC introduces five key principles, which are in line with those put forward in the “Agenda for Change”, a recent proposal to reform EU development cooperation policy. These principles can be summarised as follows:
- A differentiated approach with different forms of cooperation: the EU will seek to target its resources where they are needed, most and where they could make the most difference. Assistance will be allocated on the basis of country needs, capacities, commitments, performance and potential impact of EU action. Differentiation between countries will allow for different forms of cooperation such as grants or loans from international financial institutions, including the European Investment Bank, and some blending between them.
- Concentration of spending: the EU will also ensure stricter concentration of external spending on fewer countries to avoid the inefficiencies resulting from sectorial dispersion and aid fragmentation.
- More flexibility: In the past, EU financial instruments have been hampered by a lack of flexibility. In order to increase the EU’s capacity to respond to unforeseen events, such as the upheavals in Northern Africa and the Middle East this spring, new mechanisms have been introduced for revision of the instruments to increase flexibility.
- Simplification of rules: easier rules and procedures for programming and delivering EU assistance are proposed for all external instruments to ensure more effectiveness in delivery.
- Greater focus on human rights, democracy and good governance: in giving shape to these new thematic priorities, the EU will aim for mutual accountability in allocating and disbursing funds, the new instruments will allow for a stronger involvement of the European Parliament, and the instruments are geared towards improved coordination between the EU and Member States.
The EC’s proposals also introduce a new ‘Partnership Instrument’, which replaces the ‘Industrial Cooperation Instrument’. The Memo states that this instrument’s overall objective is to advance and promote EU interests by supporting the external dimension of internal policies (e.g. competiveness, research and innovation, migration) to help address major global challenges such as energy security, climate change and environmental issues.
An informed decision?
Before the European Commission proposes new initiatives it assesses the potential economic, social and environmental consequences that they may have by means of an Impact Assessment. While the short introductions in each of the proposed Regulations include a section called ‘impact assessment’, this is on average between 1 and 2 pages long and does not specify what types of data have been analysed to inform the different options. For example, the proposed Development Cooperation Instrument Regulation refers to a review of documents, but doesn’t say what was reviewed. The EC’s DEVCO website and central Impact Assessment website do not reveal any more detailed Impact Assessment in relation to the proposed instruments. There is a temptation to conclude that the Commission has used a rather narrow evidence base in putting forward these quite substantially funded instruments (or at least has not been very transparent about what it has analysed).
One possible evidence base the EC may have used for drawing up the new instruments, is a recent ECDPM study analysing what lessons could be learnt from the past experience with EU 6 of the 10 external relations financial instruments. The study looked at two separate bodies of evidence: preparatory documents and EU Regulations that explain what the 6 legal instruments set out to reach, as well as 57 EC evaluation reports describing whether these expected results were actually achieved. It finds that the 6 instruments are in themselves not always clear and that they have not been designed in a manner that facilitates their evaluation. Key conclusions from this study could inform the design and ‘evaluability’ of the EU’s new legal instruments.
Impact assessments and other evaluation investments are necessary both for accountability and policy learning, and to help verify whether the results achieved promote the required impact that ultimately justifies the financial investments made. If the Commission wishes to better ‘sell’ the added-value of EU external assistance, then improving this result orientation and evaluation practices (particularly in the non-development parts of external assistance, as our study noted) should be at the top of its list. These are issues that the European Parliament and EU Members States may want to also consider, when they debate towards the adoption of these instruments.
This blog post features the author’s personal view and does not represent the view of ECDPM.