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France, Europe and Development Aid. From the Treaties of Rome to the Present Day

Gérard Bossuat
Gordon D. Cummings

Questioning the European Approach to Development (1995-2010)

France, Europe and Development Aid

Bernard Petit

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1In what are deemed to be troubled times for Europe, it is important to be aware of Europe’s leading role in expressing solidarity on a global scale. First, because development cooperation is the sphere which best symbolises the founding values of the European project: respect for others, commitment, and solidarity. Next, because globalisation has inevitably brought developing countries and Europe closer together: their welfare and ours, their stability and ours, their future and ours, are increasingly closely linked.

2The challenges facing Europe in today’s world are too great and too complex for any individual Member State to address them on its own. Europe has no choice but to pursue a coherent, concerted, coordinated policy based on shared values and a common development vision.

3And France has certainly realised that, as is clear from a document produced in 2010 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs entitled “What should Europe’s policy be on development?”: “France is convinced that European action on development is appropriate and beneficial, so it has chosen to design its development aid policy within a European framework and has always worked to affirm the Union’s competence in this field”.

4That is quite a statement! I am not sure that it was always like that. For a long time, France exhibited some mistrust, a certain lack of interest in Community policy. That changed some years ago. Probably because of the awareness that it is no longer possible nowadays to influence global policies or the international debate without a strong, coordinated Europe. Probably also because over a quarter of French aid is nowadays channelled through Europe. So the French authorities certainly thought it desirable to take a more active part in defining European policy and influencing it from the inside.

5Looking back, I think the defining feature of this 1995-2010 period was that it was the culmination of a debate which led to development becoming a really central focus. And all long-term responses to the challenges of globalisation hinge on that central point. Today, development is the best structural response to questions such as migration, security, protection of the earth’s natural resources, and quite simply international stability.

6Development has become a fundamentally political issue.

7Awareness of the long term has prevailed.

8I have the feeling that it is this political dimension which, at European level, lies behind the three major events that characterised this period (even if I can only give you an outline):

  • the Cotonou Agreement;

  • the European Consensus;

  • the Lisbon Treaty.

I. The Cotonou Agreement

9Concluded on the night of 3 February 2000, it was the culmination of a long process, which had begun in 1996 with the publication of the Commission’s Green Paper on EU-ACP relations, then continued via the wide-ranging debate which it triggered, and ended with the negotiations proper, which were protracted and difficult. Protracted and difficult because the mixed results of 25 years of cooperation, the international upheavals and the scale of the poverty-related challenge necessitated a fundamental review of cooperation goals, instruments and practice.

10Without going into all the details of that agreement, I would like to mention three radical innovations.

11First, the reinforcement of the political dimension of partnership: foreign aid cannot have a significant impact without a stable political environment, underpinned by respect for human rights, the rule of law, democratic principles and good governance (including the fight against corruption).

12Next, the involvement of new players in the partnership: one major lesson of the debate on the Green Paper concerned the considerable benefits of involving civil society in the development process. That is, after all, an essential element in the consolidation of democratic processes. An ambitious partnership should go beyond relations between public authorities. It is in that spirit that Cotonou has included some particularly innovative provisions based on informing and consulting civil society, institutional support for civil society, and the direct access which it now has to EU resources.

13Finally, the commitment to a new approach to trade cooperation: this was the most difficult, most controversial part of the negotiations and what followed.

14The negotiators began with three findings:

  1. For thirty years, ACP countries enjoyed unilateral trade preferences vis-à-vis the Community market; the preferences were eroded and did not promote production, diversification, or export expansion. On the contrary, the ACP countries lost market share in Europe in favour of their Asian and Latin American competitors, who did not enjoy the same preferences.

  2. Poverty has increased, particularly in Africa.

  3. Trade preference schemes were no longer compatible with WTO rules.

15The only way to preserve the benefits achieved and at the same time create a stable, predictable environment, capable of encouraging economic operators and potential investors, seemed to be to negotiate economic partnership agreements (EPAs) which aim at gradual trade liberalisation on a reciprocal but asymmetrical basis.

16France, the biggest EDF contributor (25%), with a vital interest in the African continent, naturally played a very active part throughout these negotiations.

17Today, there are 145 countries receiving EU aid, in addition to Member States’ bilateral arrangements. But the Cotonou agreement is clearly the point of reference, because it is the most thoroughly thought-out and sophisticated example of European development policy, and the only example in the world of a cooperation agreement negotiated between a group of industrialised countries and a group of developing countries.

II. The European Consensus

18This is a real revolution in European development policy.

19The European consensus was a historic decision taken on 20 December 2005 by the heads of State or Government, the Parliament and the Commission. For the first time in 50 years of cooperation, the consensus united the Member States and the Commission around a common vision of development, a vision based on common values, principles and goals and considerably augmented resources. It was high time!

20Europe has long been the world’s biggest donor (55-60% of ODA). Europe is the main trading partner of poor countries, and imports more agricultural products from developing countries than the United States, Japan and Canada combined.

21However, this had never given it the ability to exert influence, or the role and the visibility which it should have had in the development sphere. For too long, Europe left others across the Atlantic to define policy and engage in diplomacy, and contented itself with paying for the consequences: Europe the cash dispenser!

22Outside the Community microcosm, when people asked you: “So what exactly is European development policy?” one had to admit that it did not exist. There was a French development policy, a British policy, the Commission’s policy, etc., but no European policy.

23It was time to legitimise a statistical reality by turning it into a political project. That is what the European consensus does. It comprises two parts:

  • The first part forms the framework of shared values, goals and principles, methods and resources within which Member States and the Commission implement their development policies. The central aim is poverty reduction. The principles are based on the concepts of ownership, partnership, alignment, political dialogue and coherence. As regards resources, the consensus confirms the commitment by the heads of State or Government to devote 0.7% of national income to official aid by 2015.

  • The second part of the consensus sets out guidelines for the implementation of development policy at Community level by the Commission, which is acknowledged as having a number of comparative advantages in certain areas: support for economic and institutional reforms, infrastructure, regional integration, agriculture, environment, etc.

24France played a key role in the consensus negotiations. I remember that, on the day I found myself presenting the Commission’s proposal to the relevant Council group , on that very day seven Member States (the Scandinavians, the Dutch and the British, in particular) had just sent a joint letter to the commissioner in charge of development saying that what they wanted to discuss was guidelines for the Commission, and certainly not guidelines that would apply equally to the bilateral policies of Member States.

25Thanks to France as well as the new Member States, the Commission’s proposal was eventually accepted.

26Translating this European vision into reality will probably involve some considerable challenges. But the consensus has fundamentally transformed the way of working at European level. In the past, when the Commission presented a proposal to the Council of Ministers, the conclusions adopted by the Council applied to the Commission, and the Commission alone, and related to the resources that it managed. Today, they are also binding on the bilateral policies of Member States.

27In fact, it all comes down to political will.

28The consensus implies changing cultures and behaviours which understandably still gives rise to resistance from within the system. We all tend to think, at times, that we are better than our neighbour, and as such we are not particularly inclined to base our action on a European vision. But the momentum is there.

29And those who, from time to time, still tend to hold back should think about this very wise African proverb: “He who paddles against the current makes the crocodile laugh”.

III. The Lisbon Treaty

30Entering into force on 1 December 2009, the Lisbon Treaty – in addition to the new rules which it introduces on the internal functioning of the Union – contains some particularly innovative provisions on external affairs. It aims to make the Union an influential player on the international scene, a strong, ambitious player, speaking with one voice. Some recent examples cast doubt on the feasibility of such an ambition. People can judge for themselves. But that is not the point. The intention here is to assess the impact of the treaty on European development policy.

31In that respect, the treaty probably contains some useful provisions, such as those establishing the central goal of eradicating poverty, or those on coherence, complementarity and coordination.

32But it is essentially at an institutional level that the treaty is innovative, creating this person with a dual role, at one and the same time, High representative of the Union for External Relations, assisted by an external diplomatic service, and Vice-President of the Commission in charge of External Relations.

33France argued that this external service (which does not come under the Commission) should be in charge of allocating aid per country and of strategic programming, under the authority of the High Representative. France got its way, since that is what will happen. I respect that position, but I do not agree with it. Of course, development is an essential element of the common foreign and security policy, but development can only be approached according to a long-term vision. That is not true of foreign policy, which often requires action in the short term, in the face of crisis situations.

34Mixing the two or, to be more precise, making development subordinate to – or an instrument of – foreign policy goals is not a good idea.

35Regardless of the appeasing statements by a number of well-meaning figures, I am still afraid that development policy will be instrumentalised. We shall soon see how this will all come about and whether “diplomats” and “developers” will have the intelligence to work together in pursuit of the same goal: combating poverty. But there is still considerable tension between them.

36We have made mistakes in the past, and doubtless we shall continue to make mistakes from time to time. No one person has the solution to development; everyone knows that! And Voltaire was well aware of that, writing 250 years ago, thinking of us, thinking of you: “We are liable to make mistakes in what we do. In the morning we make plans, and the rest of the time we do foolish things.”


Bernard Petit is an Honorary Director General of the European Commission, a consultant for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Chairman of the board of directors of the Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative Foundation (TBVI) and a member of the board of directors of the Fondation pour les Études et Recherches sur le Développement International (FERDI). He worked at the European Commission for 37 years (1971-2008), dealing exclusively with development questions. His duties included working as Director of Global and Sectoral policies, responsibility for various divisions dealing in particular with funding, planning, macroeconomic policy, fiscal support and forecasting. In charge of the “Task force”, he was responsible for negotiating the Cotonou agreement (1998-2000) and was the chief negotiator of the first revision of that agreement (2004-2005). He was a Deputy Director General at the Directorate General of Development until December 2008. Bernard Petit holds a doctorate in European law from the University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, a degree from the European Communities Research Centre of the Paris Faculty of Law and a degree from the Marseille Business School. He is a chevalier de l’Ordre national du mérite [Knight of the National Order of Merit].

© Institut de la gestion publique et du développement économique, 2013

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