A camp for internally displaced people in Syria. The EU may soon have to cut its humanitarian aid to Syria. Photo:Getty.
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Why aren’t EU states delivering on their humanitarian aid pledges?

The EU is the world’s largest humanitarian donor, and it is facing a funding gap of almost half a billion euros.

The EU is the world’s largest humanitarian aid donor, funding over 50 per cent of humanitarian aid projects. It is currently facing a worrying funding crunch, with the Guardian reporting it is facing a €480m shortfall. Unless member states respond quickly by releasing funds, this means the EU will have to make further cutbacks to its projects, may have to lay off staff and will be less able to respond to new emergencies. So what has gone wrong?

The EU humanitarian fund was already €130m in the red at the start of 2014, having overspent last year, and it is responding to an almost unprecedented number of high-level emergencies at the same time: the civil war in Syria, violence in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, and the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

The other problem is that there is a gap between what EU member states have pledged in aid, and what they have actually delivered to date. Member states are reluctant to fund EU aid projects when they face public spending squeezes at home.  The resources director of the EU’s humanitarian aid directorate (DG Echo), Walter Schwarzenbrunner, told the Guardian he needs to receive another €400m, with €150m arriving before the summer to avoid “real crisis”. He has already made cuts to humanitarian relief to the drought-prone Sahel, and unless this money arrives by July, Schwarzenbrunner believes they will have to cut back on life-saving projects in priority areas, including Syria, CAR and South Sudan.

The global recession might have dampened support for humanitarian aid projects among Europeans who feel they want to see the money spent at home, but a recent survey found that 8 out of 10 EU citizens still believe humanitarian funding is important (although one in four would rather more of this funding was directed through individual member states rather than the EU). 

They are right, too. For a start there’s a strong moral imperative to support victims of natural disasters or war. But if you prefer to take a more pragmatic (or cynical) approach to international affairs there’s a strategic case to be made for humanitarian aid: it is a powerful source of “soft power”, a tool for diplomacy and a way of projecting values such as respect for human rights overseas. Humanitarian aid can promote stability and security, too. At a time when the EU’s foreign policy response to crises like Syria and Ukraine has exposed the bloc as weak, indecisive and short-sighted, decisive action on humanitarian funding is even more important. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.