Transnationalism, technocracy and the EU’s international cooperation

by Sebastian D Steingass

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German Development Institute via Flickr

The European Union has long strived to act collectively in the face of international challenges such as poverty, migration and state fragility beyond its borders. Yet it is often portrayed as a cumbersome technocracy which seeks to meddle in international affairs and regularly fails despite its potential. Institutional reforms have added to the EU’s complexity but have failed to overcome a key problem: how to rally the member states behind EU common policies. Here, I argue that this challenge to collective action has its foundations in the way agreements are reached. Agreements are coordinated in transnational networks of policy professionals, bureaucrats and experts, which lack the institutional or political clout to keep member states in line. However, while the decentralised policy-making process implies that collective action remains a fundamental issue for the EU, I argue that the networked policy coordination also has important advantages: it strengthens transnational cooperation in Europe, provides a gateway for knowledge and expertise, and gives different policy communities a voice in a debate increasingly dominated by domestic security considerations.

Given the patchwork structure of multiple actors, competences and institutions across policy areas, it is surprising that the EU agrees at all. Its institutional complexity is a challenge for both academic observers and practitioners, and the relationship between the EU and its member states in areas of international cooperation is asymmetric and fragile. This makes policy making a decentralised and complex process, even without constant institutional reforms and internal and external challenges such as the financial crisis or backlashes of migration. Observers generally concentrate on the EU’s institutional design. As a result, we know little about those people who coordinate between EU institutions and member states on technical questions regarding poverty eradication and sustainable development before an agreement is formally passed by national ministers. Yet these informal mechanisms are important because the EU lacks reliable institutional arrangements for coordination in these sectors despite the high ambitions of its leaders. Knowing more about these informal processes also helps to paint a clearer picture about the prospects of EU-UK relations in international cooperation after Brexit. Lastly, this knowledge helps to decipher the frequently criticised EU technocracy and understand where issues of democratic accountability lie and how to engage with them.

German preferences for consensus and orderly global governance have been an engine behind EU agreements on the coordination of international cooperation.

European integration has long been a channel for national governments, civil societies and even EU and national bureaucracies to promote preferred policies by reaching out to potential allies and empowering them. For instance, the European Commission was empowered by the French administration to conduct common development cooperation despite opposition from the Netherlands and Germany who disliked the clientelist, post-colonial image. Yet the nature of the European project meant that other governments, the new European bureaucracy and civil society immersed themselves in the dynamics of policy making, which slipped from direct French control. The supranational administrators turned into a hub of networks of European bureaucrats, policy specialists and civil society representatives across institutions and member states. This also meant that not one government was able to dominate the EU’s international cooperation. Instead, governments, bureaucracies and civil society have since sought to steer the dynamics of these networks by strategically placing people close to the centre of the decision-making process, thereby spreading their agenda and creating alliances that make it impossible for competing voices to bypass them.

Research on EU policy making has taken little account of these networks, especially their overlaps with global and domestic processes. In my research, I concentrate on Germany and the United Kingdom. These two countries illustrate different ways in which domestic networks, institutions and preferences, and their global outreach, affect policy making by EU networks. German preferences for consensus and orderly global governance have been an engine behind EU agreements on the coordination of international cooperation. This engine has been fuelled by concerns for effectiveness of aid and development cooperation, which moved into the limelight after 2000 when the United Nations agreed on global goals for international development. In and around the EU institutions emerged a strong belief that the necessity of achieving the UN’s goals for the developing world meant that the EU must coalesce its development cooperation efforts. Subsequent German governments promoted better policy coordination to improve the efficiency of aid, which allowed them to showcase Germany’s contribution to international development effectiveness. This was important for German officials because aid volume and assistance modalities have long lagged behind internationally agreed standards, which has attracted criticism among peers.

How to achieve effective and sustainable development is a controversial task, which has been left to technical specialists, experts and policy professionals rather than politicians.

In the UK, coordinating development policies at the EU level has been seen more sceptically. Yet British policy professionals have also used effectiveness to promote EU policies. They have relied on common EU policies to defend national development priorities in a domestic environment which had been sceptical of EU engagement in development cooperation. It was under Tony Blair’s reorganisation of the UK’s development bureaucracy that British officials sought to transform the common EU policy into a global poverty eradication policy. At the same time, a concern for the EU’s accountability has always remained high on the agenda. The British aid bureaucracy became part of EU networks to advance UK policy priorities at the European level even as consecutive conservative(-led) governments became more sceptical of EU engagement. It is ironic that just before the Brexit referendum the British aid bureaucracy managed to push through a transparency framework – against opposition also from the German aid bureaucracy. British development officials achieved this through placing officials in the EU institutions as well as a global alliance with non-state actors. The transparency framework was to reflect the British insistence on keeping funds channelled through the EU as accountable as possible to the British taxpayer. As a result, the EU’s score improved on these accounts. Brexit now poses a challenge to future British participation and influence.

Concerns for ‘effectiveness’ in development cooperation brought actors in the EU together for a common cause. Yet it also allowed member states and EU institutions to promote different preferred policies at the European level, which have implications for the global role of the EU and its relationship to the member states. How to achieve effective and sustainable development is a controversial task, which has been left to technical specialists, experts and policy professionals rather than politicians. Advocacy for these different, partly competing policies has largely revolved around technical arguments over what kind of common policies contribute to the effectiveness of the EU’s international cooperation. This implies intensive working-level coordination, exchanges of arguments and the creation of evidence and knowledge. While this has led to common policies on division of labour, aid modalities, monitoring standards and so on, underlying disagreements in member states have persisted. The transnational engagements of policy professionals and experts across the EU make agreement more likely but do not change incentives for professionals at home to adjust, so that obstacles to common action remain.

The challenge of technocracy in international development exists beyond the EU at the global level where incentives for reaching agreements are high but implementation is impeded by domestic politics. This also reduces hope in the UN’s latest set of goals, the Sustainable Development Goals, to serve as an overarching, visionary framework. Engaging in a wider debate on a multilateralism that highlights mutual gains from cooperation may contribute to the coordination of an overarching vision. However, domestic political attention and priorities currently lie elsewhere, on protecting national borders and curbing migration through the securitisation of external policy. In times of failing multilateralism, there is a risk that these voices will prevail in the political discourse and subordinate international cooperation to narrow understandings of self-interest. Acknowledging the relevance of sustainable development, climate change and global justice will not suffice. It will be down to policy professionals and experts across the EU, in civil society and in national and international bureaucracies to reach beyond the narrow remits of development cooperation to other policy communities. They cannot wait for enlightened politicians to make their case.

About the author

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Sebastian D. Steingass has recently gained a PhD in Politics and International Studies from the University of Cambridge. His research interests include European integration, European politics, the European Union, EU external relations, aid and development cooperation and political economy.

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