Brexit threatens Britain’s reputation as an agenda-setter for foreign aid

Article by Balazs Szent-Ivanyi, originally published in The Conversation on the 26th September 2016. For the original article, please visit: https://theconversation.com/brexit-threatens-britains-reputation-as-an-agenda-setter-for-foreign-aid-64999

The world is facing a host of complex challenges, from climate change to migration to the spread of infectious diseases. No nation acting alone can hope to solve them. Britain has been serious about tackling these problems, but to do so it needs to influence and shape the international development system to reflect them and make efforts to get other donors on board to pursue similar goals. But Brexit means Britain’s ability to do so hangs in the balance.

Britain is currently a highly influential actor in the international development system, due to a combination of its financial clout and soft power, which enables influence without resorting to force or money. The UK has been one of the most important donors to multilateral initiatives such as the World Bank’s International Development Association and the EU’s European Development Fund. This gives it a lot of input into decisions on how these funds are spent.

Britain’s soft power stems from the reputation it has developed in the past 20 years as a highly generous and effective bilateral donor of foreign aid. This reputation has increased British influence even further in the international development system. The previous Labour government’s support for increasing British aid spending, and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s commitment in 2010 to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid, enshrined in law in 2015, have been instrumental in building this reputation.

The UK is now the world’s second-largest foreign aid donor after the US, providing £14 billion (US$18 billion) to more than a hundred developing countries in 2015. The Department for International Development has emerged as an internationally respected aid agency, amassing considerable expertise on development issues.

Until now, Britain has had a huge influence on the EU’s aid policy and aid delivery, and it was instrumental in transforming EU aid from one of the worst in the world at the turn of the 21st century into a global agenda setter today in terms of its usefulness and helpfulness. And the goals of the EU’s aid policy are well aligned with British interests: prioritising global poverty reduction, combating climate change, or addressing state fragility. The UK has been able to use the EU to project its national interests through EU development policy, achieving disproportionate influence.

There is some hope that the EU’s development policy will remain aligned with UK interests after Brexit. There are a number of “like-minded” EU members, such as the Nordic countries, who share a similar vision of international development to the UK.

But there are also a number of EU members who would want aid policy to change direction after Britain leaves the bloc. The Central and Eastern European members, for example, would prefer more aid to be spent in the countries on the EU’s eastern borders, such as the Balkans and Ukraine. The southern members would prioritise spending in the Mediterranean.

The migration crisis has also strengthened calls for diverting EU aid away from the poorest regions of the world to be spent on helping migrants and refugees arriving in Europe. All this would decrease the poverty-reduction focus of EU aid, and so go against British interests to date. The EU will also lose Britain’s substantial contribution to its aid pot, forcing it to scale back expenditure on international development.

Without the ability to project power through the EU, Britain’s influence in other international forums will also diminish. Brexit also threatens the UK’s reputation as a generous donor for three reasons.

It’s not clear what will happen with the money that the UK contributed to the EU’s aid efforts – about US$2.1 billion in 2015 according to the OECD. There is no guarantee that the post-Brexit government will use these resources for aid. And although it hasn’t quite hit yet as forecasted by experts, a Brexit-induced recession is still on the cards. A major recession would put significant pressure on any government to abandon the 0.7% aid commitment. There are already strong voices arguing for this.

The campaign leading up to the referendum has also revealed how parts of British society have become more inward looking. Together with increasing hostility towards immigrants and the EU, the British public’s support for foreign aid has been decreasing – a poll of 2,000 people published in The Telegraph suggested 57% of respondents wanted to see the 0.7% commitment scrapped.

All is not lost however, and the challenges caused by Brexit can be turned into opportunities. The emphasis Brexiters have put on making Britain a global trading nation outside of the EU can hold a key role for foreign aid with its ability to boost trade. Aid can increase incomes in developing countries and so also markets for British products and services. At the same time, there have also been talks about using aid for leverage to secure trade deals.

After Brexit, Britain will also remain part of other key forums which set the global development agenda, such as the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, where the UK can make efforts to increase its influence. Being outside of the EU doesn’t mean that a constructive dialogue with the integration on development policy matters will not be possible – but Britain will have to do it outside of the channels it has grown most accustomed to.

Lessons from the Berlin state election – for politics in Germany and beyond

Last Sunday, just two weeks after a punishing defeat in the state election in Mecklenburg West Pomerania, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) faced another unwelcome electoral challenge in the country’s capital, Berlin.  In the end, the results proved a disappointment not only for the CDU (which secured just 17.6%, -5.7% compared to the last election in 2011), but also for the social democratic SPD, which headed the state’s government (a CDU / SPD coalition), and fell to 21.6% (-6.7%), a remarkably low total for a party topping the poll.  For both the parties, these were record low results in the post-war period.  Back in 1990, the CDU and SPD (known as the Volksparteien, in recognition of their support coming from a cross-section of society) together secured over 70% of the vote.  Now, they are reduced to barely half that amount.  Green Party support held pretty stable (15.2%, -2.4%), the Left Party (15.6%, +3.9%) recovered some ground in a state in which it was historically strong, the liberal FDP regained entry to the state parliament (6.7%, +4.9%), and the Pirates showed that their success in the 2011 election was a flash in the pan (1.7%, -7.2%).  Most strikingly, the populist right Alternative for Germany (AfD) showed that it could make a breakthrough (14.2%) even in a state which was previously expected to be socially too liberal, too tolerant, to witness such a result.

While it is always unwise to read too much into the results of an individual state poll, there are a few claims which can be advanced on the basis of these results (and the usual excellent polling by Infratest dimap alongside them).

  1. While bad for the CDU, it is far too early to write off Angela Merkel. The CDU in Berlin was unpopular, and was felt to have performed poorly in government, with an inept leader, Frank Henkel. Voters preferred the SPD’s mayor, Michael Müller, by a 53% to 23% margin, and indeed even on the issue of refugees, whilst this was a major factor for AfD voters, 57% felt Angela Merkel was right to stick to her approach on the issue (compared to 39% who wanted her to move towards the hardline positions of the Bavarian CSU). For all the criticism of her, there is no obvious successor, let along internal challenger, to Merkel.

2.The CDU increasingly struggles in urban areas. If you roll the clock back 20 years, the CDU held the mayoralty not only of Berlin, but of Frankfurt (now SPD) and Stuttgart (now Green), and was competitive in elections in other major cities, such as Hamburg (where its vote has since collapsed). Now, the party is not in power in any of the country’s major cities, and seems to have little appeal amongst liberally-minded, urban voters. Much has been written of the difficulty faced by centre-left parties in integrating traditionally-minded working-class voters with those of the “new left”, but Christian Democracy faces analogous problems, at least in Germany.

3.The AfD may benefit largely from protest votes, but they look set to enter the federal parliament next year. Although 69% of AfD voters in Berlin said they decided on the basis of disappointment with other parties, compared to 29% who were convinced by the AfD itself, it remains the case that it has successfully overcome the 5% hurdle for representation in every state election since the 2013 federal election. Its election to the Bundestag looks to be only a matter of time.

4. State elections are more than just a judgement on the performance of the national government. There is a lively debate in political science about whether regional or national factors are decisive in regional elections. But in Berlin, there is no question that major dissatisfaction with the performance of the SPD/CDU coalition there (just 36% were satisfied) contributed to those parties’ historically bad performance.

5. The SPD’s involvement of members in deciding policy didn’t seem to give it great traction. Politicians elsewhere might be interested in the decision to allow all party members in the city to vote on such questions as the legalisation of cannabis (narrowly rejected), whether to focus on the number or quality of new flats (members favoured numbers), more police on the streets (supported), and continuing to ban headscarves amongst state employees like teachers (strongly supported).   These answers would then flow into the manifesto. But this enterprise did not really capture the public imagination. What recent successes the SPD has had have tended to be down to having a very popular state premier at its head (such as Malu Dreyer in Rhineland-Palatinate and Erwin Sellering in Mecklenburg West Pomerania).

6. 27 years on from the fall of the Berlin wall, eastern and western voting behaviour is distinct, in Berlin and elsewhere. Most obviously, the Left Party did better in the eastern part of the city (23.4%) than the west (10.1%), as did the AfD (17.0% east, 12.1% west – with the party coming first in some of the outlying, high-rise estates in the east), while the CDU, Greens and FDP did significantly better in the west. Such differences can also be clearly observed when comparing state polls in western and eastern Germany.

7. And last but not least, grand coalitions lead to a rise in support for smaller parties. When the major parties of centre-left (SPD) and centre-right (CDU) are in government, whether at a state or a national level, the combined total of their support is almost guaranteed to fall, with the smaller coalition partner especially vulnerable. When it comes to Germany’s federal election next year, it appears likely that minor parties – of left and right – will profit at the expense of CDU and SPD. In Berlin, this has now meant that no two parties have a majority, though, in contrast to the national level, the Left Party (along with the Greens) is likely to be invited to join a coalition with the SPD, thus bringing the period of grand coalition to an end.

Ed Turner is Senior Lecturer and Head of Politics and International Relations at Aston University, based in the Aston Centre for Europe. He has written widely on German party politics and federalism. This blog was initially published, in slightly edited form, at Left Food Forward.

The hidden costs of closed borders for migrants stuck in Serbia

 

Originally published by The Conversation, 19 September 2016. 

Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik (Aston University) and Marta Stojic Mitrovic (Ethnography Institute, Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences)

In Spring 2016, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia “closed” their borders to migrants who had been transiting these countries via the “Balkan route” on their way further into the European Union. The closures follow other attempts at shutting EU borders: Hungary built a fence along its border with Serbia, while the so-called “EU-Turkey” deal was intended to prevent people from reaching EU borders by sending those who had crossed the Mediterranean back to Turkey.

Despite the border closures, the Balkan route is still active – a problem recognised at an EU leaders’ meeting in July. Now those refugees not able to get any further are stuck in limbo. Non-governmental organisatons (NGOs) and the UNHCR estimate there are at least 200 arrivals per dayin Serbia, with around 5,000 people stuck in Serbia alone.

Even though the number of people stuck in Serbia is comparatively small, our interviews throughout the summer of 2016 showed that a lack of resources and attention is precipitating a secondary humanitarian crisis: a growing refugee population is living in increasingly precarious conditions and is almost wholly reliant on smugglers to leave. The UNHCR believes that border closures divert problems and aggravate living conditions, while Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) told us they see a correlation between the closures and increased levels of violence against refugees – both by smugglers and border authorities.

The situation in Serbia

Serbia became a focal point of the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, when an unprecedented number of new arrivals crossed into the country on their way to Western Europe via Hungary and Croatia. Typically, most people stayed in Serbia for only a few days before moving towards the EU. In contrast to measures employed by its neighbours, the Serbian government adopted an official policy stating that it would not erect fences and would respect international laws on human rights by not restricting movement of people searching protection. This changed dramatically a year later, and although Serbia has not completed sealed its own borders, policy has shifted from protecting rights to protecting borders.

These attempts at sealing borders have been accompanied with a complex and fragmented regional regime of asylum registrations and so called “push backs”, where people crossing the border into Hungary, for instance, are intercepted and returned to Serbia. The official and “legal” way to cross into Hungary is via one of the waiting lists operated by local authorities. But one local NGO working with refugees in Serbia said the information about how these waiting lists operate is unclear and contradictory.

In a Belgrade park, fenced off so migrants can’t camp there, people wait for free meals provided by local NGO. Jelena Obradovic-WochnikAuthor provided

Only 30 people are admitted  into Hungary legally each day via two border points point with Serbia, but the number of people arriving in Serbia each day far exceeds the number “allowed” to leave, so people are staying for longer periods of time (in some cases, several months). Refugees are also reporting to aid workers that they are facing increasing violence against them by Hungarian border police. Similar reports are also being collated by activists working with refugees in Belgrade.

Crossing borders into Hungary or Croatia now takes several attempts, both for people attempting to cross legally and illegally. The prices paid to smugglers have, according to our informants, increased dramatically: crossing the Serbia-Croatia border with a smuggler, we were told, now costs €1,500 per person. Deaths have also occurred along the Bulgaria-Romania border, as refugees try to find alternative routes, following the “closure” of the Macedonian border.

Pressures on resources

The Serbian state is partly unwilling and partly unable to provide adequate support and welfare for the growing number of refugees. Politically, its policy has shifted away from supporting refugees towards controlling borders in an effort to appease voters who are no longer sympathetic to the refugees’ stay in the country. In practical terms, the state has a support system in place – a state-run Commissariat for Refugees and Asylum, which oversees distribution of aid and runs “asylum reception centres”. But the infrastructure in place is not wholly adequate in meeting the actual needs of the refugees.

UNHCR reports that 87% of refugees are housed in official centres. But the need for shelter far outstrips supply, and homelessness – particularly among single men – is growing. The state-run “asylum reception centres” are located near Belgrade, the Hungarian-Serbian border, the Croatian-Serbian border and in Presevo, near the Macedonian border. Information on the centres is contradictory.

An informal camp near the Hungarian border, June 2 2016. Marta Stojic MitrovicAuthor provided

 

 

The government claims that reception centres with a capacity for 2,000 people are not full. But during our visits to the centres between June and August 2016, it was clear that in at least four of them, people were being accommodated in tents pitched outside of the centres themselves, suggesting overcrowding.

It’s also possible that refugees are choosing not to go the official camps, as it is unclear to most people – including aid workers – whether refugees staying there would be allowed to leave Serbia later. Informal camps and settlements along the Hungarian border have also sprung up, and we saw families with small children living in these settlements.

Pushed out of public places

In places like Belgrade, people, mainly single men unable or unwilling to access official camps, are sleeping rough in parks and squats. Ever since the crisis unfolded, public parks have been important hubs for sharing information about the route, and establishing contacts with other refugees and activists. Parks have free public wifi, free meals distributed by the NGO Refugee Aid Serbia, and various activists – some who speak Arabic and Farsi – who help refugees access information, answer questions and provide free tea.

This summer the local authorities started to clear the city of refugees by discouraging people from sleeping in the two centrally located parks – the Luka Celovic Park and Bristol Park – both located near the central bus station, via which many refugees arrived into Belgrade. In July 2016, all the grass in the central parks populated by refugees was dug up, and the parks fenced off, which precipitated a hunger strike by them.

For a while, people sleeping rough in the park relocated to decrepit buildings in a nearby derelict storage yard, living in a squat with no facilities, except for a single hosepipe. But on September 16 2016, local authorities evicted refugees as some of the buildings were being demolished to make way for a controversial development scheme, Belgrade Waterfront.

Refugees living in squats and parks rely on food donations by Refugee Aid Serbia for survival, and wait for a chance to cross the borders. Longer stays mean that many are running out of money and must either wait for money to arrive from family abroad, or seek increasingly desperate means of procuring it.

The fencing off of the parks has led to vocal protests by activists who see this as an attempt to break up the refugee communities, push them to the margins of the city and disable them from contacting smugglers, who use the parks as places to establish contact with refugees.

The support networks to help refugees are continually under threat: all NGOs must register with the commissariat in order to operate, but the official policy towards them is becoming increasingly hostile. Volunteers are also starting to report police harassment of activists aiding refugees in the park, particularly those not officially affiliated to NGOs.

Local tensions

Another perceptible change has been the shift in public mood. While outright xenophobic attacks against refugees are rare in Serbia, there have been some local anti-refugee protests.

In the border town of Sid, residents are petitioning for the removal of the refugee camp, and in Belgrade, a group of residents carried out a daily protest throughout August 2016 against refugees living in the park. This marks a drastic departure from a broadly sympathetic public attitude in 2015 and the emergence of solidarity networks. The change in mood can partly be attributed to the population’s own economic woes, mass unemployment and generally poor welfare provision, and the feeling that refugees have now overstayed their welcome.

Our interviews this summer show how the border closures around transit countries come with hidden costs. Politicians are able to claim that specific routes are “closed”, so giving the impression that all problems pertaining to these routes have been dealt with. In reality, border closures simply mean that attention is diverted from the increasingly precarious living conditions in which refugees stuck in transit zones find themselves. The EU border closures have left a significant population reliant on volunteers, donations, aid organisations and smugglers.

Assessing the fallout from the Mecklenburg West Pomeranian election – is the party over for Merkel?

Land (state) elections have a high profile in Germany. They serve a dual purpose: on the one hand, they elect a Land parliament and then government, responsible for legislation in a range of policy areas – most significantly, education – and implementation of national legislation in numerous others. On the other hand, the Land government sends representatives to Germany’s national second chamber, the Bundesrat, which has a veto on any legislation that affects the Länder (states).

That being said, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania might have been perceived, to some extent, as a rather sleepy backwater, and its elections would not always have the highest profile. It stretches from the picturesque, sleepy state capital, Schwerin, through to the Hanseatic cities of Rostock (a major port and seat of an old university), Greifswald, Wismar and Stralsund.

It encompasses the island of Rügen, with its varied flora and fauna, a large number of lakes, and perhaps best known, its sandy beaches stretching along the Baltic coast towards the Polish border. Its population numbers just 1.66 million, thinly spread around the largely rural region, and the biggest industries are agriculture, fishing and maritime areas, and tourism. Unemployment, at 9%, is somewhat above the federal average of 6.5%, and youth unemployment, at 12.1%, is the highest in the country.

Politically, though, the significance of the election on 4 September was heightened by the fact the state is home to Angela Merkel’s constituency (including Rügen, Stralsund and Greifswald), and it was also home to the first formal coalition between the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the successor party to the East German Communist Party, at the time known as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and now called the Left Party (Die Linke). On a darker note, in 1992 the Land attracted notoriety following arson attacks on accommodation for asylum seekers in the Rostock district of Lichtenhagen, and the far-right NPD won seats in the Land parliament in both the 2006 and 2011 elections.

In the Land election campaign, the SPD (which had governed as the senior partner with the Christian Democratic CDU since 2006) focused strongly on the popularity of its state premier, Erwin Sellering, while the CDU struggled to make headway under Lorenz Caffier. Although early polls pointed to a lead for the CDU, towards the end of the campaign there were clear indications that the SPD had taken a clear lead and the CDU would struggle to make second place behind the right-wing, populist AfD (Alternative for Germany).

The actual results certainly caused serious ripples through the German political scene. As the table below shows, the SPD topped the poll with 30.6% (5% down on 2011); the AfD, standing for the first time in a Land election, polled 20.8%, and the CDU came a miserable third with 19.0 (-4%). The Left Party also fell to 13.2% (-5.2%). Both the Greens (4.8%, -3.9%) and the NPD (3.0%, -3%) failed to make the 5% hurdle for representation, while the Liberal FDP, with 3.0%, also failed to win any seats.

The dominant media narrative on election night was that these results, with the relative triumph of the AfD and a humbling defeat for the CDU, constituted a humiliation for Angela Merkel on her home turf, and in particular a reflection of the unpopularity of her policy (at least, the policy of 2015) of relative openness towards refugees. The staunchly conservative Bavarian Christian Democratic Party, the CSU, was almost gleeful in pointing to a “clear signal in Berlin”, and demanding faster deportations and a cap on the number of refugees.

Horst Seehofer, the CSU’s leader, talked about a “disastrous result” and a “dangerous position for [Christian Democracy], and the Bavarian Finance Minister and a possible heir to Seehofer, Markus Söder, commented that “Instead of [Merkel’s famous comment on refugees] saying ‘We can do it’, we need to say ‘We have understood and we will change it’”. Senior SPD figures chose to emphasise Sellering’s success and popularity, although one of its deputy leaders, Ralf Stegner, suggested that the CDU had been punished for opportunistically “fishing in brown [i.e. far right] waters”.

As ever, the election has been thoroughly analysed by Forschungsgrupppe Wahlen and Infratest dimap. It is possible to construct a case laying the blame for the defeat squarely at Merkel’s door and from that point to a strategic need for the CDU/CSU to reposition itself in a more conservative fashion, as the CSU urges. Such critics would highlight the fact that the AfD’s support base went beyond those associated with far right support in recent times: not only did it win the support of 33% of working-class voters and 29% of unemployed voters, but also 27% of the self-employed. It did better amongst those with lower-level qualifications (26%) than minimal qualifications (18%), and also 13% of the votes of those with degrees.

They would note that the public assessment of Merkel’s refugee policies was highly critical, and not just amongst AfD voters: 85% agreed with the statement that “The number of refugees should be limited in the long-term”, 46% that “more is done for refugees than the indigenous population”, 62% that “because of the influx of refugees, the influence of Islam in Germany will become too great”, and 50% that “the way we live will change too much”. Such views received near-unanimous support from AfD voters. Merkel’s satisfaction ratings nationally were at 47% in August, a far cry from the overwhelming ratings of yesteryear. All this seems to have led to a position where the CDU’s drift towards the political centre, under Merkel, has allowed the AfD to establish itself securely in the German party system (much in the way that Gerhard Schöder’s welfare cuts allowed the Left Party to flourish).

But there is another view, forcefully put forward, for instance, by the pollster Manfred Güllner, that attributing the AfD’s success to Merkel and proclaiming that her days are numbered is not justified. He points to polling evidence that, in a federal election, the CDU in Mecklenburg West Pomerania would have scored 33% rather than 19% (and come top); in this view the result simply points to the weakness of the local CDU in the Land. Such a view is supported by the fact that issues other than refugees (such as social justice – 53% – and the economy and jobs – 44%) were considered decisive by voters – the refugee question being named by just 20%.

It can also be argued that, in state elections where Merkel’s CDU has lost (Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg would be examples), another candidate has been better able to mobilise centrist voters on a Land level, but these will return to the CDU at a national election. Güllner argues that the AfD only gained support from the “minority of eligible voters [12.6%] who were always susceptible to anti-foreigner, racist, right-wing radical views”, and certain trends support that assessment: for instance, the AfD, like many right populist and far right parties, did far better amongst men (25%) than women (16%). Indeed, across Germany the assessment of Merkel’s policy on refugees is not overly negative: in August, 44% thought Merkel was doing a good job, 52% disagreed, and amongst CDU/CSU supporters, 66% supported Merkel’s policies. The CDU would still top the poll at a federal election with 35% of the vote, and there is no clear internal challenger or obvious successor to Merkel as party leader and chancellor.

In summary, the Mecklenburg-West Pomerania poll runs a serious risk of over-interpretation, notably by those with a particular, anti-Merkel or anti-refugee axe to grind. However, it would appear that the days have finally passed where there is, according to the imperative of one-time CSU grandee Franz-Josef Strauss, “no democratically legitimated party” to the right of the Christian Democrats, and the AfD has established itself in German politics, with entry into the national parliament only a matter of time.

Ed Turner is Senior Lecturer and Head of Politics and International Relations at Aston University, based in the Aston Centre for Europe. He has written widely on German party politics and federalism.

This article was initially published on the LSE EuroPP blog at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2016/09/08/merkel-cdu-win-in-2017/