Commentary

What The European Parliamentary Elections Mean For International Development

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

 

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Experiences

Down & Out In Brussels

Last week I found myself making a rather difficult decision: do I buy a pack of cigarettes or do I instead invest it on a new scarf. It really was a ‘one or the other’ situation. My debit card had run dry and I had, for around twenty-four hours, just €7 to my name. I rationalised the situation in my head. Brussels is cold, and I scarf would alleviate that. But so do cigarettes, plus they give me the nicotine my body needs. It was a no-brainer.

Needless to say, my life in Brussels is far from glamorous. After work I return to a crowded house with a maggot-infested kitchen and tepid heating. I have moved from Sainsbury’s to Lidl and meticulously count pennies to pay for laundry. Much like university, everything is an investment, but without the student deals and ability to head home when you need a decent meal.

But Brussels is, for obvious reasons, an interns city, something which makes the feeling of relative poverty somewhat more bearable. You might not be able to afford that new pair of shoes you wanted, but there will always be someone else with even less than you.

You very quickly learn that ‘intern’ is a little more than just title, but an entire umbrella term which covers everything from the Twitter-savvy communications intern working at an NGO to the assistant of an MEP or Permanent Representative.

My house bears evidence of this. The dilapidated town house manages to squeeze in thirteen people. In the mix I find myself living with James, my British compatriot who works at Concord, an umbrella organisation of NGOs with whom my office works closely with, and Ana, a Portuguese girl whose agricultural lobbying group actively endorses biofuels, the product Oxfam spends a large amount of time campaigning against.

Naturally, the diversity of nationalities (my house alone has eight different ones) and range of jobs creates a very active intern culture which culminates every Thursday night for happy hour by the European Parliament.

Naturally, the event is a key opportunity for ‘networking’, one of the Brussels Bubble’s favourite words.

Upon first glance you can make key assertions as to what business people intern for. Suits with ties is emblematic of the private sector intern (almost always paid at least 800 euros a month), whilst slightly worse-fitting suits might represent the Brussels institutions. Then there are the NGO, think-tanks and small business interns, a significant minority within the city, wearing their shirts and jeans.

Rumours about the levels of debauchery these gatherings of interns can reach are far and wide, but I am yet to see it myself. Another intern in my office tells me the stories, but notes that – given the ambitious, dog-eat-dog world of interns – those who work in NGOs rarely find conversation with the expert networkers. “We stick to our own kind”, he said.

And so, come Thursday night, I find myself again with only loose change as I attempt to buy my half-priced beer. I watch as the private-sector lobbyists pull fifty-euro notes out of their wallets, laughing with glee as they had out another business card. As you sip your beer, you might even frown a little and wonder why, as a development intern working for an NGO which makes a considerable impact on the world, you feel like the bottom of the heap.

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Experiences

Press-ure Release

Within minutes of finding my new desk, my inbox is flooded with emails. ‘Here’s your password’, ‘Induction meeting with Angela’, ‘Biofuel protest Wednesday’ etc. I smile; my main worry was having nothing to do and it certainly looks like they’ve thought of some things to keep me busy for my first couple of days at least.

Biofuel Protest

Then I frown. Biofuel protest? I click on it and read that Oxfam – the organisation who has led the charge for climate change refugees – is against biofuels.

Maybe it’s the name or perhaps the media coverage these ‘sustainable’ miracle-crops received when they were first seen to be the answer for tackling car emissions, but I had always assumed (and please excuse my ignorance any climate change veterans out there) that they are a Good Thing. A quick read of the Oxfam report The Hunger Grains quickly corrects my misdemeanour. Not only do can ‘first-generation’ biofuels be accused of distracting a vital source of food from the world’s hungriest and causing human rights violations via ‘land-grabs’, but they are also actually bad for the planet. My education couldn’t be more perfectly timed: September 11th would mark an important vote in the European Parliament and the target of months of lobbying from Oxfam.

It is a little intimidating, of course, coming into an office with its war-face on. I have no experience – and clearly little knowledge – of this kind of environment. After a hour-long induction with the Media and Communications Officer, I’m excited but I feel that I won’t be too much of a help in a vote which, seemingly, is all to play for.

My first week and a half (the run up to the vote) is admittedly, a tad boring. My responsibilities are limited and everything is gently scrutinised by my boss. I am put in charge of media monitoring, highlighting important coverage of both sides campaigning. I tweet several times a day, carefully watching which #hashtags are trending. Hardly exhilarating work, I admit.

I am one of the lucky development interns though. Everyone seems to suggest that the first few weeks are tough, especially for a newbie whose only education of the subject comes are the few odd essays on ‘structural adjustment’ and Amartya Sen who finds themselves in some faraway corner of the developing world. I, however, am in Brussels, living with a handful of close friends in a country remarkably similar to my own (bar the on-going Flemish/French turf-war). Try the chips and mussels, they’re pretty good.

The day before the vote, however, my boss asks me to put together the press releases for the vote. Four different reactions for the four different scenarios the office’s ‘biofuel expert’ envisages. Having been a bit mopey for the past week about ‘not enough responsibility’, it all becomes very daunting. I research previous examples, penning several different options for each situation just in case she doesn’t like my favourite. Eventually I email them to her and, after a light bit of editing, she forwards them on to the head of Oxfam EU who, in effect, the quotes will be referenced to.

We don’t win the vote, but we don’t lose it either. Proposals don’t simply get accepted or rejected, but rather the ‘bill’ is scrutinised to the point of every amendment decided in committee. Biofuels are capped at 6% and ILUC will be acknowledged from 2020.

The next day I am doing my usual ‘media monitoring’, searching for articles which affect the myriad of issues Oxfam covers. And there it is, near the bottom of a Guardian article.

My very first press release credited to a man far more respectable than a lowly intern.

My boss says “you must be very proud”. I try to brush it off, but I am a bit. “Well,” she says, “Oxfam is releasing the austerity report tomorrow, and we expect a lot more press coverage than we got for biofuels”. She sends me a wad of papers to proof read with the instructions to make any changes I see fit. I make a number of changes, all are accepted. The report makes it into newspapers all over the world from the Telegraph to the front-page of Cuba’s La Granma and I like to think I had a part, albeit absolutely tiny, part in that.

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