The next decade will see renewed efforts from the EU to address a number of pressing global trends by strengthening international partnerships. Yet the EU will also be faced with the challenge of building cooperation within Europe in the aftermath of Brexit. Sebastian Steingass examines British participation in EU norm advocacy in international development cooperation prior to the Brexit referendum. He writes that Britain’s role in shaping the EU’s aid and international development policies exposes overlooked channels of norm advocacy and contestation in the EU more generally.

As resentment between Britain and the rest of the EU dominates the debate in the context of Brexit, it is easily overlooked that the relationship between Britain and the EU has been a fruitful one. Despite the popular image of an ‘awkward partner’, Britain has effectively shaped EU policies. A case in point is aid and international development. When joining what was then the Economic Community, Britain supported the opening and transformation of the predecessor of the EU’s development policy. In the years before the referendum, Britain shaped the EU’s focus on international cooperation, including prioritising poverty and awareness on gender issues.

British influence has affected both the policies of the EU institutions and the informal norms that are intended to guide the international development cooperation of the EU as a whole. Due to the historical particularity of the integration process, both EU institutions and member states pursue their development cooperation independently, which has long been a challenge for their collective effectiveness.

Credit: European Parliament (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To respond to the lack of effectiveness, there have been debates about approximating policies in the context of the EU, which go back at least to the 1970s. While the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 created the legal foundation for better coordination, attempts to improve coordination only took off after the conclusion of the UN Millennium Development Goals in 2000. While member states often do not follow common policies, since the early 2000s, under the lead of the Commission, the EU has come up with common policy norms to improve the EU’s overall performance and effectiveness.

The UK had been a constant critic of the EU’s aid and development policies. In the years before the referendum of 2016, EU development cooperation shifted towards meeting the priorities of subsequent UK governments. This became obvious as EU policy improved against the measures set by UK governments between 2011 and 2016. These changes largely concerned a shift towards enhancing the transparency of international cooperation, which went against competing priorities in EU institutions and other member states. The European Commission for a long time tried to promote better coordination of EU and member state policies. Some member states, above all the French and German governments, also pushed to improve policy coordination, yet moving away from the Commission-dominated limits of development cooperation.

Britain, in contrast, after 2010 pushed accountability and transparency for improving the effectiveness of EU development cooperation. In 2015, the EU eventually agreed on a results framework to enhance the orientation towards results and accountability. Yet these principles were not new. They had already been codified as part of the OECD’s Paris Principles in 2005 to make international development cooperation more effective. What was new was the rigor with which the incoming Conservative-led governments pursued these principles based on their internal preferences.

However, British governments did not simply impose their preferences on the EU. While especially during the time of development secretary Justine Greening there was high-level pressure in the EU Council, this was complemented by more subtle advocacy processes. Understanding these processes is vital for understanding norm advocacy and contestation in the EU. British advocacy was part of a wider and longer construction process with British development professionals at the centre.

The size of Britain’s development sector and its accumulated skills gave it a strong voice not only in the EU but beyond. Already under Labour, since 2008, the department for international development supported civil society networks that promoted transparency, including the network ‘Publish What You Fund’, which advocates transparency in aid giving and international cooperation. The network provided technical support at the EU level and contributed to the overall discursive shift to highlight the relevance of effectiveness principles that had previously been neglected in the EU.

There are at least two more elements that were relevant for norm advocacy taking place at a working level (and hence are often overlooked). The first element is the secondment of a national expert to the EU of which Britain made comparatively little use. While the EU Council is the gatekeeper when it comes to the formulation of common policy norms, the Commission is the powerhouse of norm advocacy. Seconded experts to the Commission provide it with the capacity to absorb a wider discourse through formulating concrete standards from within.

The second element is focusing the attention of British policy experts in their engagement at the EU level. Expertise and knowledge are key factors in EU norm advocacy. The domestic pressure on accountability implied that policy professionals engaging within the EU could draw on expertise, including external experts, such as the Overseas Development Institute. At the same time, these officials had an incentive not to let the EU ‘look’ ineffective. The benchmarks for a common EU norm were thus those standards that emerged in the British domestic context, and the goal was to improve the EU’s image against these standards.

Ironically, in the end, Britain did not want to commit to an EU results framework, even one of its own making. While this story illustrates a specific case, it is illustrative of norm advocacy and contestation in the EU more generally. The analysis shows how politico‐administrative actors engage beyond inter‐state power brokering and across levels of governance to shape EU policy, especially in transnational networks and capacity‐building in EU institutions. These are elements that are central to processes of EU norm advocacy and contestation.

For more information, see the author’s recent article in the Journal of Common Market Studies

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the author

Sebastian Steingass – College of Europe, Natolin
Sebastian Steingass works as an academic assistant at the College of Europe, Natolin. Before joining the College of Europe, he completed a PhD in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, supported by an ESRC studentship. In his research he looks at norm advocacy and processes of informal governance between EU institutions and member states in the European Union’s external relations and international development cooperation.

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