Monday, May 23, 2005

Aiding Africa - or helping ourselves?

The Portuguese pepperpot, José Manuel Barroso, was at the LSE on Friday. I had to go along, especially to ask him if he felt happy with his position given that it was unelected. Long time readers of my blog will know of my one-man – OK, one-letter – campaign to democratise the European Commission. But would you believe it, with a full lecture theatre I never got called to speak.

So what did the European Commission president talk about instead? His brief was to cover the EU’s role in aid and development. And since that is supposed to be the theme of Britain’s presidency for the EU for the second half of the year, he played a blinder. I fact, I started to wonder whether he was Blair’s new mouthpiece, so close to the script he was.

We got about 45 minutes from Barroso about the importance of concentrating on Africa, not just because of the humanitarian crisis of AIDS and conflict in individual countries, but also because it’s in our own self-interest. In essence an EU-funded Africa is a happier Africa and an Africa which won’t let its citizens invade our shores. Oh yes, and a more peaceful Africa provides a more secure market for European exports. As Barroso so clearly put it himself, self-interest indeed.

Barroso noted the steps being taken by Africans to improve their situation including the creation of the African Union and aid funds through Nepad. He said he wanted to push EU aid towards the 0.7% of GDP target from the 0.56% it currently is. But aid can’t only be more, but better targeted and relevant too.

In the subsequent question and answer session, a man who had worked in east Africa since the 1960s asked him the question which I’m sure was nagging many minds, but there didn’t seem to be a politically correct way of asking it. I don’t think he cared too much about such niceties and asked it anyway. Given the record of many African leaders, how could we be sure that the money would be used properly? He responded by saying that compared to 20 years ago the African leaders he was dealing with seemed more prepared to address the problem of corruption. But unfortunately Barroso had nothing more to offer than a form of modified conditionality, proposing mechanisms to ensure good governance. As any student of Latin America knows, ‘good governance’ has often been a veil to pressure structural adjustment, open up markets and economic liberalisation along a set of common policy subscriptions endorsed by the international financial institutions.

And we’re supposed to believe that all this has changed. Barroso was taken to task over the extent to which there was political will to make a difference in Africa, especially when the EU had shown its unwillingness to compete on a level playing field in the past. The president argued that the EC had announced an end to export subsidies, unlike other developed countries. He claimed the EC was ‘generous’ in this respect and that at the WTO ministerial in December the EC would press the US and Japan to produce a similar commitment. Furthermore, he emphasised ‘fair’ trade over that of free trade, but he rather spoiled his copybook by pointing out that the G20 (the middle-income countries like China and Brazil) would have to open up their markets too.

Personally, I’ll believe the EC is committed to free and fair competition across the board when it finally bites the bullet on the CAP. And the last time I checked (around two years ago), they had kicked discussion about its future cost into touch for a further decade.

There were questions from BBC journalists about the French referendum which elicited much hissing from the audience – I suspect you won’t find too many eurosceptics at an institution like the LSE. Barroso said once again there was no Plan B and that no matter how much he was pressed, he wouldn’t say anymore; that would seem like interference in a national election from Brussels. Personally, it seems to me that notwithstanding the political sensitivities, they really have no idea what happens if the referenda in France, Holland and Britain are lost. But as the companion to my right said, it will probably carry on as before. It’ll make little difference whether the constitution is approved or not. As for me, I think it’s rather poor when it appears to be all things to all men; what does it stand for? If the French think it’s too Anglo-Saxon, and the British think it’s designed to create the French dream of a super-state, then who’s right?

I’m almost tempted to vote no, just to force them into a Plan B; and perhaps to get them to think once again about fixing the democratic deficit at the heart of the Commission. Me for EC president? Who knows?

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