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3 June 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:43am

To lead on international development, it is vital that Britain does not isolate itself from the EU

The idea that Britain is an island that can insulate itself from the fallout that comes with failing states, armed conflict, and poverty is an anachronism.

By Kevin Watkins

We’ve had everything from Hitler and house prices, to migration, terrorism and economic growth, but in the frenzied exchanges that have marked the EU referendum campaign international development has received scant attention.

The omission is unfortunate. Under successive governments the UK has emerged as a global leader on development. For better or worse, the outcome of the referendum campaign will influence the scope for future leadership. It will determine whether or not Britain is able to use its influence to leverage the vast economic, technical and institutional resources that can be mobilised through the EU on behalf of the world’s poorest countries and people.

Not that you would have picked this up from the referendum campaign. What should have been a national conversation about the UK’s place in an increasingly interconnected world, and about the place of Europe in Britain’s strategy for global engagement and poverty reduction, has failed to address some of the really important questions.

What role can the EU play in seizing the opportunities that come with globalisation, while addressing the very real threats posed by conflict, the breakdown of states, climate change and cross-border crime? And at a time when unaccountable institutions and currency arrangement are trapping millions of Europeans in austerity, recession and youth unemployment, how can Europe become a more effective champion for global social justice and poverty reduction?

Prime Minister David Cameron has come under acute pressure from UKIP and his own back-benches for adhering to the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on aid. He has rightly made the case that, in our interdependent world, the ethical imperative to combat the global poverty that blights 800 million lives and kills 16,000 children every day is reinforced by considerations of national security and economic self-interest.

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The idea that Britain is an island that can insulate itself from the fallout that comes with failing states, armed conflict, and poverty is an anachronism. So is the appeal for a return to a pax Americana. If Britain is to play a global leadership role in building the shared prosperity and security vital to national interests, it must do so by leveraging its influence as an EU member.

Take the case of climate change. EU member states played a vital collective leadership role in the negotiations with the US, China and India that led to the successful Paris climate summit last year. The UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act sets some of the most far-reaching targets for cutting emissions globally. By promoting the development of an integrated European renewable energy grid, the UK could step-up its ambitions at home while addressing a global challenge.

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The EU already plays an important role in advancing Britain’s international development efforts. Collectively, the EU’s 28 member states are the world’s largest aid donor. The €55bn they provide in aid represents over half global development assistance – and EU institutions are the largest source of multilateral aid, delivering far more than the World Bank and UN agencies.

Participation in the wider EU aid effort greatly extends the reach of Britain’s own aid programme. While Europe (thankfully) lacks a standing army, it currently supports 17 peace-keeping initiatives. In Mali and the Sahel, EU aid is protecting civilians and strengthening security forces in a region where Islamic extremist forces are exploiting state failure. In the Horn of Africa, an EU mission to counter piracy has disrupted financing for Al-Shabaab and affiliated groups.

The EU’s humanitarian programme also has a global reach. Europe is by some distance the biggest source of support for the Syrian crisis, for example, mobilising over €3bn in support since 2011.

None of this is to overstate the impact of EU aid. When it comes to development cooperation, the Europe punches well below its weight – and UK engagement could make a difference.

Persuading other member states to follow Britain’s lead is an obvious starting point. Only five EU member states, including the UK, reached the 0.7 per cent aid target in 2015, and neither Germany nor France are on the list.

Aid quantity is just one part of the problem. Last year, European governments signed up for an ambitious set of goals – the Sustainable Development Goals – for 2030. They include eradicating extreme poverty, ending avoidable child deaths, and delivering universal education, alongside a raft of environmental goals. Achieving these goals will require a greatly strengthened EU aid focus on inequality and the most disadvantaged citizens.

Here, too, the UK is well-placed to lead. The Department for International Development (DfID) is widely regarded as one of the world’s most effective aid agencies – and it was the UK that put the principle of ‘leaving no one behind’ at the heart of the SDG agenda.

Delivering on that commitment will require an unrelenting commitment to equity. The EU could be doing far more to tackle the social disparities in health and education that are holding back social progress. But sustained poverty reduction will also require more inclusive growth and support for investment in infrastructure – areas in which European aid suffers from fragmentation and excessive bureaucratisation.

Once the dust has settled on the referendum debate, the UK will have to engage more credibly with Europe on the migration crisis. Here, too, there is scope for leveraging a more effective aid response.

At the London conference on Syria earlier this year, Britain rightly highlighted the critical importance of providing jobs and education for Syrian refugees. Restricted opportunities for education are among the most powerful drivers prompting displaced Syrians to embark on the journey to Europe. The EU could lead a global drive to ensure that no refugee child is without education for more than one month, as advocated by Save the Children.

But the migration crisis goes beyond Syria. The collapse of states, youth unemployment, human rights violations, poverty and the aspirations of people who look to Europe and see the hope of a better life all combine to act as a magnet for migration. Building barricades, erecting razor wire and negotiating shabby deals with regimes in Turkey and Africa will not stop the flow of people, even it panders to xenophobic right-wing politics.

The UK needs to guide and be part of a European solution to a shared challenge. Instead of standing on the side-lines, the EU should use the summits on refugees and migration, convened by the UN and President Obama, in September to call for a global refugee resettlement strategy, and to revise its own outmoded asylum system. As a group of countries with ageing populations and impending labour market shortages, the EU – Britain included – should also be developing more flexible labour market arrangements to tap into the growing work forces of Africa and other regions.

As we approach referendum day the choices facing voters are increasingly clear. Turning inwards and drawing up an illusory drawbridge separating Britain from Europe is not an option. People across the UK and the rest of Europe have a shared interest in building an EU that delivers real benefits at home in the form of decent jobs, infrastructure investment and security, while working towards a fairer, more sustainable model of globalisation.

This is about more than a vote to remain in the EU. As Gordon Brown has powerfully argued in his recent book Britain: Leading, Not Leaving the EU could play a vital role in generating jobs, supporting investment in infrastructure, building a renewable energy grid and combatting cross-border terrorism. Achieving these outcomes will require far-reaching reforms, including the early abandonment of austerity economics and strengthened cooperation in areas of collective interest, including international development. The UK is uniquely well-placed to lead, but only if engagement with Europe is placed at the centre of policy.

Disengaging from the EU would not be a good starting point.

Kevin Watkins is executive director of the Overseas Development Institute