‘Trust us, we’re the Commission’ won’t fly on EU foreign affairs budget

POLITICO Opinion
Marietje

With just days to go until the European Commission publishes plans for the EU’s next foreign affairs budget, key questions and concerns raised by the European Parliament remain unaddressed.

Yet with around €100 billion on the table, how the Commission’s plans are designed and overseen will have consequences from Accra to Aleppo, until at least 2027.

It’s hard not to conclude that the Commission has deliberately ignored Parliament’s questions. That is a missed opportunity. MEPs have been more than clear: They have concerns about transparency, they worry the new budget will not support human rights defenders enough and that member states will hijack it for their own political agendas. With a final say over the EU budget, the Parliament will not allow rights and principles to be traded away for short-term and populist interests such as “migration management.” Focusing on the hot topics of today will likely cause gaps to be created in the future.

So far, we hear the Commission’s plan for the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) foresees €100 billion for EU external action, to be divided between two “instruments” — one to provide financial support to pre-accession countries and another for everything else. This may sound like bold reform, but it’s about all we know so far.

Improvements to the foreign policy budget are certainly needed. At the moment, funds are disbursed via various different instruments: the Neighbourhood Instrument, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), and at least seven more, each with its own budget, beneficiaries, management and objectives. Management by different offices in the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the Commission has led to a sore lack of strategic oversight, coherence and efficiency. Perhaps this explains why, when MEPs ask for an overview of all money spent in a specific year in country X, we are met with shrugs and bewilderment.

But change alone is not a strategy. Spending must be based on a clear vision and strong principles.

The European Parliament has already laid out the ideas and principles that should guide EU foreign policy spending. Transparency, accountability, coherence, efficiency and flexibility are key aspects of the Parliament’s position, adopted in April. We also reiterated a willingness to work with the Commission to reform the foreign policy budget.

Yet, as the presentation of the new architecture for the foreign affairs budget approaches, we are not much wiser about how the Commission will ensure proper oversight of funds and policies. At the very least, the European Parliament should be informed about how parliamentary scrutiny will be assured and how our political guidance will be taken on board.

Parliamentary powers

The European Parliament has treaty-based powers of oversight over the implementation of the EU budget. Instead of seeing this as a mere box-ticking exercise, the Commission and the EEAS should draw upon Parliament’s expertise. Through delegations, missions and rapporteurships, there is extensive knowledge about many countries. A commitment and a mechanism to take European Parliament resolutions into account in budgetary programming would be logical. The Parliament should also be an integral part of political steering. Similarly, aligning consultations with annual programming and the yearly cycle of Parliamentary reports on third countries could be a way to translate oversight and steering into concrete budgetary actions.

Particular attention must be paid to human rights and democracy. These are among the core objectives of EU external action. The current EIDHR is designed to promote and protect human rights and their defenders, sometimes without the consent of third country governments. Funds and the ways in which they are distributed need to be ring-fenced — especially if they are to be merged into a single instrument that deals with a multitude of different objectives. A “strong focus on migration” — as mentioned in an annex when the Commission presented its overview in the MFF — is a vague theme at best and cannot be the focus of all EU foreign policy.

Now is also the time to increase transparency. A comprehensive database detailing all spending would go a long way to improving scrutiny. By integrating monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, we can assess whether money spent has the effect we want. If it does not, it can be withheld or rerouted until conditions are met.

The European Parliament stands ready to embrace reforms and to make sure that the EU is able to act as a global player. To do so, we expect answers and solutions from the Commission that take our concerns into account. We must know how funds and policies will be overseen. We need to be able to explain how public funds are spent.

And if the Commission doesn’t like our questions, wait until it hears from civil society and partner countries. “Trust us, we’re the Commission” surely won’t cut it.

Yet that is all we have heard so far.

Marietje Schaake is a liberal Member of the European Parliament from the Dutch Democratic Party (D66). She is a member of the Parliament’s foreign affairs committee (AFET) and chair of the AFET working group on the EU’s external financing instruments.

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Please also see:

My report on the EU's external financial instruments and the accompagnying press release.

Written questions about the protection of journalists under the next MFF.

Written questions about the Court of Auditor's report into pre-accession funding to Turkey.

EU budget battle kicks off amid single instrument concerns - DEVEX.