EU must not neglect development aid over defence, Commissioner Urpilainen warns


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For Urpilainen, it is “important” that the next seven-year EU budget “keep at least the same amount of funding for external relations”, the former Finnish finance minister said. [Jutta Urpilainen/X]

The EU’s increased defence spending priorities must not come at the expense of development aid, as this could risk isolating the continent geopolitically, the Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen warned in an interview.

“I am concerned that, while Europe is very much focusing on investments in defence and our military capabilities, military industry, that we, in parallel, [do not] keep our investments in external relations and external cooperation,” Urpilainen told Euractiv.

“So that we avoid a risk and scenario where, in five years, ten years, Europe can be, in terms of defence, more secure, but in terms of geopolitics, more isolated,” she said.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, almost all EU member states pledged to increase their military expenditure, and the EU also re-focused resources towards defence.

As the EU’s current seven-year budget comes to an end in 2027 and is up for mid-term renegotiation soon, some have cautioned against cutting social funds in favour of defence, as European Commissioner for Cohesion Elisa Ferreira told Euractiv.

The EU is the biggest donor of development aid in the world. Ander its ‘Global Gateway’ scheme, the EU aims to invest €300 billion – through public and private money – into infrastructure and social projects in third countries, it announced more than two year­s ago.

It is pitched as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which Bejing uses to expand its global influence, while laying ‘debt-traps’ in building connecting infrastructure and leaving national governments saddled with large debt.

The EU’s role is often hardly visible, as it is slower and comes with more strings attached.

Development aid is, however, already under threat in several EU countries. Finland’s new government has planned on cutting €1 billion of aid from its budget. Germany, the EU’s largest economy, also announced cuts above the €1 billion mark.

In addition, the EU Parliament’s expected shift towards the right – following a trend in national governments – is likely to harm the size of the EU budget for third-country assistance – unless it is linked to migration management, which is a priority across the political spectrum.

Meanwhile, Russia is pushing the narrative that Europe is turning inwards, the commissioner said, but investment into security “doesn’t mean that we are turning our back to the rest of the world”.

According to Urpilainen, it would be important that the EU’s next seven-year budget “keeps at least the same amount of funding for external relations”.

“Hopefully, we can increase the EU budget” for the Global Gateway, she added, looking at the next financial framework for 2027-2032.

One of the goals would be to keep the level of external budget dedicated to education at 13%, which Urpilained had increased from an initial 7% during her time in office.

The Commissioner said she hopes the Global Gateway will continue to include “human development initiatives” in fields related to education for teacher training in depopulated areas, as well as in research and health, and not only hard infrastructure projects around digital connection, transport, climate, and energy.

While investment in defence is important, she said, security should be seen beyond just the threat of a war.

“It is important that, parallel to military capacity, we also invest in our international partnerships because security is a much broader question and challenge than only hard security,” she said referring to issues such as climate change, migration, and terrorism.

Those “challenges” require international cooperation, she said.

The EU may be the biggest donor of development aid, the Commissioner warned, “but because of the geopolitical competition, we can not take that for granted”.

“So that is why we also need to invest more in international partnerships and have that balanced approach. And I am concerned, whether we will have a next parliament and political decision-making in general in our member states who really understand that.”

[Edited by Alexandra Brzozowski/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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