UKIP is right about something: whether you agree with it or not, the European Union has a lot of power. Whilst some of it can be narrowed down to regulating the shape of bananas or allowing immigrants to wander in and out of countries as they please, much of the discussion over this week’s European Parliament election has avoided the more intricate, far-reaching policies and ideas the institutions have moulded in the past five years.
Seldom have we heard about the comparatively progressive EU 2030 Energy & Climate package or ongoing negotiations on the EU-US free trade agreement (TTIP) which, if realised, will be the most expansive of its type in history. Not once has the EU’s investment in humanitarian assistance or international aid been called to question despite it being the largest, most far-reaching budget of its kind in the world. Instead, voters have been left with a more black-and-white choice: Europe is either good, or bad.
This is an idea some NGOs have been keen to brush aside. The implication of a stagnant European Union is tough to swallow when success is measured by the scope of the Institution’s ambitions. If polls are correct in predicting a Parliament split down the middle in their approach to Europe, it is likely the Commission will adapt to this seismic shift. Issues such as controlling tax avoidance and funding for refugees, already politically sensitive, will come under greater scrutiny, particularly if Europe finds itself jolted to the right and newly isolationist.
In a similar vein, a Europe which is unaccountable and constructed on pessimism is less likely to be bold in its mission of creating a confident, global Europe. It has been five years since the European External Action Service was born which, despite a greatly criticised start, has recently become more confident in itself with the institution become a more recognisable face of joint EU foreign policy. Europe is shaping itself into a rational actor in diplomacy, alongside a series of peacekeeping and training missions in unstable countries; all of which are a product of newly found confidence, something which can only deteriorate in this political climate.
Generally speaking, NGOs avoid taking a position on Europe but rather stick to the mantra that if the tools are in place, they should be used productively . This is why CONCORD, a confederation of over 1,800 NGOs from across Europe, has launched the #EuropeWeWant campaign. By highlighting that the European Institutions can be key in unlocking pan-European and global issues including inequality, poverty and environmental degradation, it hopes to influence not just the way voters look at the ballot but also how perspective Members of the European Parliament choose to use their tenure.
The next five years are decisive in formulating Europe’s international development policy. A shift in private-sector based aid is a clear example of this; whilst NGOs are cautiously accepting the idea, doubts remain in whether this kind of growth can ever be entirely ‘pro-poor’. This fits into the overarching concern which plagues the Brussels-based third sector: the European Union might be exemplary in some aspects, but often falls short in ensuring it’s broader, free-trade based foundations are truly coherent with international development.
If Europe finds itself taking a step back on such development issues, it is unlikely that it will do on the policies which directly affect these. A more right-wing Europe could continue to push trade deals, support the private-sector, including oil and gas, and give preference to European industry, but – if the worst fears are realised – with a less global, ambitious rhetoric to match