A Tangible Idea for U.S.-EU Summit -- Coordinate Development Assistance     Print Email

By Anthony Luzzatto Gardner

Top-level focus on the single topic of better transatlantic teamwork on humanitarian assistance and development aid could help re-energize the anemic institution of U.S.-EU summits.

On November 20, on the heels of a NATO Summit, U.S. President Barack Obama will be meeting European leaders in Lisbon at a U.S.-EU Summit. It will be the first such summit since the entry into force early this year of the Lisbon Treaty which reforms EU institutions with an eye to streamlining decision-making, particularly in some foreign policy areas.

Obama was reported to be "fairly unimpressed" with the U.S.-EU summit in Prague in April 2009. After an uneventful summit in Washington in November 2009, the president decided not to attend the one Spain was eager to convene in May 2010 during its six-month rotating presidency of the EU Council. Little wonder: these summits have increasingly lacked substance. Already, during the last years of the Bush administration, they were being held once a year rather than the earlier rhythm of twice a year.

A fundamental problem is that since their inception in 1990 the summits have generated "laundry lists" of vague and wide-ranging commitments for transatlantic action that have not led to concrete results – a trend fostered, too, by the proliferating number of consultative bodies that get represented. This pattern has suited the European Commission, which considers process to be as important as results. The commission also sees summits as an opportunity to expand its areas of competence vis-à-vis other EU institutions, especially in foreign policy. The heads of government participating from the EU side often view the summits as photo opportunities with the U.S. president. An unfocused dialogue does not advance U.S. objectives of engaging the EU to address specific global challenges, specifically when the domestic agenda is so pressing.

If these summits are to survive usefully, it is time to redefine their purpose. These agenda-setting meetings of transatlantic leaders should focus exclusively on issues which clearly fall within the competence of the EU institutions (as opposed to the member states), especially of the European Commission; they should be cut down in size to include only a relatively limited number of decision-makers on both sides; and their targets should be matters that can be addressed in the short to medium term with a reasonable likelihood of success.

The topic of humanitarian assistance and development aid is apparently on the agenda for the Lisbon summit, but only as one among many topics including transatlantic trade, the global economy and a wide range of other issues. Instead of being just one topic among many, it should instead be the cornerstone of a refocused U.S.-EU dialogue.

Together the U.S. and the EU institutions and member states are by far the largest donors globally. The European Commission spends a significant amount from its own budget for humanitarian aid and manages significant development aid resources on behalf of the member states. The U.S. and EU have significant leverage with recipient countries, as well as with multilateral and non-governmental aid organizations. In light of the budgetary pressures faced on both sides of the Atlantic and increasing humanitarian aid demands, it is increasingly important to find means to reduce waste by reducing or eliminating inconsistent or redundant policies.

In practice, the focus should shift from simply providing more aid to improving the coherence and effectiveness of U.S.-EU policies. Efforts at improving U.S.-EU cooperation on humanitarian assistance and development aid have produced only limited results so far. The prospects for achieving a far more regular, institutionalized and substantive cooperation are enhanced by the Obama administration's treatment of these activities as core to U.S. foreign policy and the prospect that the Lisbon Treaty may enhance the EU's effectiveness as a global actor.

As part of its far-reaching review of U.S. foreign aid, the White House has recognized the urgent need to focus priorities, improve coordination across governmental agencies and with other major donors to eliminate areas of overlap or inconsistency. The Lisbon Treaty may make the EU a better partner in achieving these goals because its application of majority voting, rather than unanimity, may speed up EU decision-making. The treaty also provides significant powers to its High Representative, the title used for the new post amounting to EU foreign minister. The Commission has a Commissioner responsible for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response, as well as a Commissioner responsible for development – and the High Representative has the explicit authority to ensure consistency among all the strands of the EU's foreign policy.

This concentration offers a meeting point for the U.S. and the EU to cooperate in this specific sector. Leaders should seize the opportunity of their summit to announce a concrete plan to improve humanitarian and development aid coordination. Such a plan should include an assessment of the savings and greater efficiency that could be achieved by the U.S. and EU each taking the lead in particular countries and/or particular issues where each is uniquely experienced.  This could be accompanied by a commitment to assert their collective leverage with aid recipients to ensure accountability for delivering results. As a follow-through, the two sides should pledge to hold regular bilateral meetings to address key policy differences (such as the proper roles of the military and the private sector in humanitarian aid, and the best way of delivering food aid). The plan should seek to engage non-Western donors and increase multilateral aid and support regional integration in Africa (particularly the reduction of customs bureaucracy and improved transportation networks).

This cannot be achieved simply by annual meetings at summit or even ministerial level. On these issues, transatlantic coordination on these issues can only take root if the two sides agree to establish more regular meetings at working level and to promote joint trainings, missions and staff exchanges. The summit could initiate a process moving in this direction.


Anthony Luzzatto Gardner, a Managing Director at Palamon Capital Partners, served as Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council during 1994-95.