Chapter 1. The European Union’s global efforts for sustainable development

Efforts to support global sustainable development

Peer review indicator: The member plays an active role in contributing to global norms, frameworks and public goods that benefit developing countries

The size and reach of the European Union make it a unique and influential player in efforts to support global sustainable development, both as an actor and as a promoter of collective norms and standards. Since the last review, the Commission has strengthened its co-ordination and convening role with member states, driving common positions in the negotiation of key global agreements. However, these gains are under threat from rising nationalist pressures in a number of member states.

A global leader under new pressure from the rise of nationalism

The European Union (EU) plays a key role in shaping and supporting global sustainable development. In addition to being the world’s largest aid donors (in terms of combined Official Development Assistance (ODA) of EU and member states), it exerts a high degree of influence on global trade arrangements, is an important leader in the fight against climate change, and exercises a critical role in global peacekeeping. These actions help promote sustainable economic growth and peace globally, bringing benefits within and beyond EU borders.

The 2012 DAC peer review, recognising that the Lisbon Treaty1 offered opportunities to reinforce the EU’s global leadership role, recommended its institutions to build a common strategic vision with member states. The adoption of the Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy in 2016 (hereafter the Global Strategy) and the new European Consensus on Development in 2017 (the Consensus) constitutes important progress in the EU’s efforts to co-ordinate external action (Chapter 2). Furthermore, the development of common positions has strengthened the EU’s leadership role in global debates, including through forging strategic alliances in regional and multilateral institutions to find collective solutions to global challenges. For example, common EU positions for negotiations leading up to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda were found to be instrumental in securing these agreements (Bodenstein, Faust and Furness, 2017). In addition, the EU played a decisive role in reaching an accord on the Paris Climate Agreement through its work in establishing the High Ambition Coalition - a group consisting of 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, the United States and all EU member states - which forged a strategic alliance among developed and developing countries (Schneider, 2017).2

However, while collective action in external policy has long been a central challenge for European integration, the EU’s potential for exercising global leadership on international development is increasingly threatened by the rise of nationalism in some of its 28 member states, particularly those affected by economic crisis, and by both real and perceived increases in migration and refugee flows (Eurobarometer, 2017). The status of development policy as a shared competence,3 with an underlying division of labour among EU institutions and member state actors, reflects the need to find a balance between collective EU objectives and the individual national interests of EU member states. While the impact of Brexit on the EU’s development finance budget and global leadership role in sustainable development is yet to be tested, the loss of British diplomatic, security and development assets could be a challenge for the EU (Castillejo et al., 2018; Olivié and Pérez, 2017).

Support for global agendas and commitments

The EU is widely recognised for its positive impact on global agendas and commitments to sustainable development in an increasingly complex international environment (Bodenstein, Faust and Furness, 2017; Olivié and Pérez, 2017). Since the last DAC review in 2012, the EU has been instrumental in advancing the negotiation of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by insisting that these be universal in nature. The EU’s Global Strategy takes into consideration the SDGs in order to make Europe strong by promoting the security and prosperity of its citizens. This is to be carried out by strengthening security, resilience, integrated approach to conflicts and crises, regional orders and global governance. In particular, for a more prosperous Union, it calls for greater co-ordination between the EU and member states, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the private sector.

The Consensus, on the other hand, is fully aligned with the 2030 Agenda. The agreement, structured around the five key pillars of the SDGs (people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnerships), supports a comprehensive approach to implementation by underlining the link between development and other policies. It also reiterates the commitment by EU member states to reach the goal of 0.7% of ODA/GNI by 2030 and to allocate 0.15%-0.20% of ODA/GNI to least developed countries.

A focus on addressing global challenges where the EU can have greatest influence

In line with the priorities set out in its Global Strategy and the Consensus, the EU has a broad-based approach to engagement on global challenges. Among these are:

  • fighting climate change, resource scarcity, and environmental degradation

  • development finance (combining traditional aid with other resources)

  • transnational crime and tax avoidance

  • migration and population movement

  • pandemics and other public health crises

  • global insecurity and violence.

To support implementation of these priorities, the EU has put in place a number of flagship initiatives aimed at mobilising additional resources and innovative solutions to achieve the SDGs. For example, it has demonstrated leadership in promoting domestic revenue mobilisation and improving efficiency in public spending through its Collect More - Spend Better initiative4 by focussing on allocating national budgets for social spending (EC, 2015d). As a founding member of the Addis Tax Initiative, the EU also works actively with the Group of Twenty (G20), the OECD, international finance institutions and the United Nations to support the Platform for Collaboration on Tax to improve co-ordination and capacity of developing countries on global tax issues (OECD, 2018). The EU plays a critical role in global peacebuilding and is widely recognised for its staying power, leadership and sustained support for joined-up regional security efforts, as was evidenced in Mali (Annex D). The recently published EU Global Strategy Implementation Report provides a range of other examples of how the EU is responding to global risks - developing a new EU action plan on sustainable forest management,5 supporting developing countries to meet international standards on anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism finance, and creating the European Medical Corps for heath crisis responses (e.g. pandemics) within and beyond EU borders (EEAS, 2018).

It is clear that, by stepping up efforts to better respond to global challenges over recent years, the EU plays a key role in the provision of certain global public goods, such as climate change policy, security and support for innovative research.6 At the same time, the EU continues to attract criticism for spreading its efforts too thinly across too many global public goods agendas without a clear strategic focus (Castillejo et al., 2018; Gavas, 2013).7

Policy coherence for development

Peer review indicator: Domestic policies support or do not harm developing countries

Collectively, the policies of the EU and its member states have an immense impact on developing countries. In recognition of this fact, the EU is deepening its overall commitment to policy coherence for development, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including by strengthening its screening mechanism to encompass ex-ante impact assessments and allowing public scrutiny. However, challenges remain in the extent to which all policies with potential development impacts are screened across EU member states.

A high level of political commitment to policy coherence for development, but further efforts required in implementation

As a global development actor and policy-making system, the EU has an impact on developing countries that extends well beyond its contribution to ODA. For example, as Box 1.1 shows, over the past decade, the EU has worked to transition to a partnership model based on trade rather than solely aid, including in Sub-Saharan Africa where two-way trade by member states exceeds USD 300 billion annually (Schneidman and Wiegert, 2018; Eurostat). Accordingly, the EU is expanding its financial instruments to address a new range of issues, most recently through the establishment of trust funds on migration, security, humanitarian and development issues. This has led some policy analysts to assert that the EU is diluting its commitment to development while others have welcomed a broader policy reach based on achievement of the global goals and promotion of global public goods (Castillejo et al., 2018; Custer et al., 2015; Di Ciommo and Sayós Monràs, 2018).

The EU has a longstanding political-level commitment to policy coherence. This concept was first referenced in the EU’s Maastricht Treaty in 1992, further reinforced in the Lisbon Treaty (European Union, 2010), and more recently, in the 2016 Global Strategy. At the same time, policy coherence in the Maastricht Treaty and the Global Strategy refer to the consistency of EU’s external activities within diplomacy, security, economic and development policies - not necessarily policy coherence for development by aligning all policies to the interest of developing countries. On the other hand, the Lisbon Treaty, the 2005 European Consensus on Development, and the 2017 Consensus promote the coherence of EU’s policies to development by taking into account the objectives of development co-operation in all policies that are likely to affect developing countries. The EU, as well as its member states, have also committed to implement the OECD Ministerial Declaration on Policy Coherence for Development as well as the Recommendation of the Council on Good Institutional Practices in Promoting Policy Coherence for Development (OECD, 2010, 2008).

The Commission has monitored progress in the EU and its member states in biennial EU Reports on Policy Coherence for Development since 2007. The most recent report (European Commission, 2015) covers both cross-cutting and thematic issues, presenting examples of progress across different policy areas, such as reduction of agricultural subsidies and improved access for developing countries to EU markets (Box 1.1). The OECD’s report on agricultural policy, however, indicates that, despite progress, about 27% of the Producer Support Estimate in the EU is still provided in a highly trade distorting manner, which affect import and export prices and market access for all countries, including developing countries, on commodities such as rice, poultry and sugar among others (OECD, 2018a). Thus in response to the demands by the Council and the European Parliament for an independent ex-post assessment of how the Commission implements its legal and political commitments, an independent and comprehensive evaluation on policy coherence for development was launched in February 2016. The final report is expected to be published in the second half of 2018.

Given the EU’s ongoing challenges in translating political commitments governing policy coherence for development into outcomes (Carbone and Furness, 2016), incentives for change are likely to require stronger EU-wide systems for identification and analysis of priority issues and consideration of more robust accountability mechanisms.

Box 1.1. Efforts toward policy coherence for development on agriculture and trade

As the world’s largest agri-food importer and exporter (i.e. member states collectively), the EU has been subject to criticism regarding the development impacts of its trade and agricultural policies, notably around the market-distorting instruments of its Common Agricultural Policy (Blanco, 2018). Over recent years, the EU has therefore introduced the following reforms to address negative spillovers.

  • Agreeing to remove all agricultural export subsidies at the 2015 World Trade Organization conference, it reformed the Common Agricultural Policy to reduce market-distorting effects by removing production constraints and ending export subsidies.1

  • It adopted a new Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP) in 2012 to reduce duties on 66% of all EU tariff lines for imports from low income and lower-middle income countries, with zero tariffs on these imports from countries that implement core human rights, labour rights and other sustainable development conventions.

  • It reformed the Everything but Arms2 initiative to support more imports from LDCs by reducing competitive pressures. During 2016, EU member states imported EUR 24 billion from the 49 countries benefiting from the initiative, making the EU members the world's most open market for LDCs.3

  • It signed nine economic partnership agreements with 50 African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries.4

  • The EU provided support to member states’ farmers estimated at USD 96 million (EUR 86 million) in 2015-17 (OECD, 2018a). After successive reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy since the late 1990’s, the trade and production distortions of support to agriculture have been reduced.

1. However, voluntary coupled support (VCS), which allows member states to finance certain sectors that are experiencing difficulty, remains a matter of concern. All member states except Germany have opted to apply VCS in some sectors (e.g. animal products and sugar), generating market distortions in both the internal and international marketplace, reaching up to 15% of direct payments in some countries.

2. Under the EU’s Everything but Arms  initiative, all imports to the EU from LDCs, with the exception of armaments, are duty free and quota free. The initiative entered into force on 5 March 2001.

3. For further information, see the report on the GSP covering the period 2016-2017,

4. In line with the 2001 ACP-EC Partnership Agreement (Cotonou Agreement), economic partnership agreements offer provisions to help developing countries trade with EU member states, including: long transition periods or exclusions from market opening while EU markets are opened up; special safeguards for the development of infant industry and on food security; and voluntary EU restraint on World Trade Organization safeguards and the use of dispute settlement.

Defined priorities for engagement

Over the past decade, the EU has focussed its efforts toward policy coherence for development in five key areas where it faces particular challenges:

  • trade and finance

  • addressing climate change

  • ensuring global food security

  • making migration work for development, and

  • strengthening the links and synergies between security and development.

While these priorities are in line with the 2030 Agenda, the EU has yet to undertake gap analysis to examine whether additional elements related to the Sustainable Development Goals should be considered. Internally, the European Commission has worked to address its Lisbon Treaty obligations on policy coherence for development, including by taking account of the 2030 Agenda. At the beginning of its mandate in 2014, the Juncker Commission re-organised the Commission’s policy coherence work around projects managed by Vice-Presidents in an attempt to break down the traditional silos between sectoral policy fields within the Commission. As part of this initiative, policy coherence for development has been included as a regular agenda item in the inter-service steering group for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, with policy coherence for development as a standing item for discussion - a particularly positive development in mainstreaming focus towards impact on developing countries across institutions. In addition, the Commission is promoting a whole-of-society approach through the establishment of a multi-stakeholder platform to exchange experience and best practice for implementation of the internal and external dimensions of the 2030 Agenda, with the OECD as an observer.

Furthermore, through the implementation of the 2015 Better Regulation Package, the EU is working to strengthen its approach to impact by introducing a dedicated system - regulatory impact assessments - to ensure that economic, social and environmental impacts are considered in all of the Commission's analytical work. This mechanism has recently been strengthened, including a dedicated tool to assess possible impacts on developing countries, which is open to public scrutiny. These developments indicate considerable progress for policy coherence for development efforts.

However, the scope and criteria of the EU’s assessments across different policy areas requires clarification. Based on 2016 data, among all the policy proposals accompanied by an impact assessment which were likely to have a significant impact on developing countries, only 24% could be said to have looked sufficiently at such impacts. Furthermore, the EU’s Regulatory Scrutiny Board, an independent body that checks the quality of draft impact assessments, has reviewed only 10% of the drafts that concern developing countries (CONCORDE Europe, 2017). Updated data on the EU’s efforts for policy coherence for development and implementation of impact assessments is expected to be released in the EU’s forthcoming independent evaluation on policy coherence.

To meet EU-level commitments, member states are required to report on efforts toward policy coherence for development to the Commission. However, the extent to which EU member countries prioritise policy coherence for development in their domestic policy making appears uneven (OECD, 2015). For example, some EU members, among them Finland and the Netherlands, have put in place a policy framework and mechanisms to implement their EU-level obligations (OECD, 2016). Other EU members have yet to put in place any plan or mechanism to assess and remedy incoherence (OECD, 2018b). Therefore, ensuring more systematic follow-up on these issues across member states is likely to require further high-level engagement from the Council, Parliament, the Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS).

Global awareness

Peer review indicator: The member promotes whole-of-society contributions to sustainable development

The European Union has a comprehensive approach to building global citizenship, working closely with member states, civil society organisations and local authorities to raise citizen awareness and to promote whole-of society contributions to global public goods and sustainable development.

New efforts to raise awareness of global issues across the European Union member states

The EU places a high priority on developing and maintaining global awareness to support sustainable development. As Figure 1.1 shows, a recent public opinion survey found support for development co-operation across the EU is strong at 89% (European Commision, 2017c), with the highest level of support found in Sweden (98%) and the lowest levels in Bulgaria (75%). The 2017 survey results indicate greater public support in this area than in 2009, when around 80% of Europeans surveyed considered development aid important. In a related question, the same 2017 survey finds the level of public awareness of the Sustainable Development Goals ranges from a high of 73% in Finland to a low of 24% in the United Kingdom (Figure 1.2).

Figure 1.1. Public opinion on the importance of development aid in selected EU countries

Note: Results of responses to the survey question: “In your opinion, is it very important, fairly important, not very important or not at all important to help people in developing countries?”

Source: European Commission (2017c), Eurobarometer 2017,

Figure 1.2. Public awareness of the SDGs in EU DAC countries, 2017

Note: Results of responses to the survey question: “Have you ever heard or read about the Sustainable Development Goals?”

Source: European Commission (2017c), Eurobarometer 2017,

In 2012, the DAC recommended that the EU strengthens its communication around development co-operation to deepen public awareness of aid programme achievements. In response, the EU has expanded its use of tools to build citizen awareness - including through the internet and social media - not just around development assistance but also on global sustainable development issues more holistically. This approach has also been applied to key EU-level communication events such as the high-profile European Development Days and, in partnership with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Kapuscinski Development Lectures for students from EU member states.

In 2018, the EU also launched the DEVCO Academy, its first online learning platform. The academy encompasses online courses, learning videos, webinars, and manuals developed by EU institutions and international organisations to enhance public and professional development education and to promote standardised development co-operation approaches and measures. In addition, the EU’s development education and awareness raising programme (DEAR) has provided new funding to civil society organisations and local authorities in member states to strengthen citizens’ understanding of global sustainable development issues such as poverty eradication, human rights, democracy, gender equality and social responsibility. This includes signing of framework partnership agreements with a range of global and regional CSO networks and Association of Local Authorities.

For example, the European Network of Local Authorities working in development (PLATFORMA) receives a grant of EUR 5.6 million to, inter alia, promote awareness raising and development education of European citizens regarding global development issues; the European Confederation of Relief and Development NGOs (CONCORD) receives a yearly operational grant of EUR 900 000 to raise citizens’ awareness of development and/or SDGs; and the European Network of Political Foundations (ENoP) is due to receive a grant of EUR 2.2 million over the next four and a half years. An initial impact assessment of the DEAR programme is underway, to be published by end 2018.

These efforts to increase development awareness and citizen engagement across the EU in support of global development represent significant progress. However, the EU lacks a clear narrative on many of the countries where it works which would communicate its efforts and objectives more clearly to all stakeholders, including EU domestic audiences, evidenced in Mali and the Plurinational State of Bolivia (hereafter, Bolivia). In this respect, EU’s efforts regarding joint programming may help in providing more comprehensive and transparent information on the EU’s work with partner countries (Chapter 5).


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← 1. The Treaty of Lisbon (referred to in this review as the Lisbon Treaty), entered into force on 1 December 2009, is an international agreement that amends the two Treaties that form the constitutional basis of the European Union, the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).

← 2. The EU has a long history in support for dialogue with developing countries on climate change. In 2008, it established the Global Climate Change Alliance (GCCA+), which now represents the main channel for EU support flor policy dialogue and climate action in Least Developed Countries and Small Islands Developing States.

← 3. According to Article 4(4) TFEU, development co-operation is a shared competence for the EU and its member states. It means that the Union shall have competence to carry out activities and conduct a common development policy. Nevertheless, the EU's exercise of that competence shall not prevent member states from exercising theirs. This means that while the EU actors are engaged in development co-operation and implementing the EU development policy, the 28 member governments also run their own development policy and programmes, subject to certain limits of local co-operation as prescribed by EU law and in the spirit of achieving maximum impact and complementarity (as reflected in The New European Consensus on Development).

← 4. This initiative aims to support developing countries in three critical areas: i) improved domestic revenue mobilisation, ii) more effective and efficient public financial management and iii) debt management. It first defines the challenges faced by developing countries, indicates an overall approach to address them, and suggests ways to assist developing countries in tackling these challenges.

← 5. EU has adopted, inter alia, an EU Forest Strategy, the EU Action Plan on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade, and the EU Action Plan to Combat Wildlife Trafficking.

← 6. The EU is a leading financial contributor to research related to global public goods. To give an example, at the One Planet Summit in December 2017, the Commission announced funding of EUR 270 million over 2018-2020 to boost climate change related innovations through research in agriculture, partnering with European research institutes and developing country farmers associations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have agreed to match this funding with a USD 300 million pledge over the same period. Other EU members - including France, Italy and Spain - have also announced contributions.

← 7. Kharas and Rogerson (2012) identify the EU as one of the donors least able to respond to the global public goods agenda, given its concentration on more traditional social sectors in its aid programme and cumbersome administrative processes. See

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