At the end of 2019, when the current College of Commissioners of the European Commission took office, several changes in the EU’s international cooperation policy were on their way. President Von der Leyen sent Ms. Jutta Urpilainen a mission letter for a new post: the Commissioner for International Partnerships (previously titled for International Cooperation and Development). That letter clearly stated the need to move away from a “donor-recipient relationship” to “partnerships of equals” between the EU and developing countries.
This week, about a year and a half later, in line with the proposed paradigm shift, another important change has become fully effective. The now-former European Commission’s Directorate for Cooperation and Development (DG DEVCO) has turned into the Directorate General for International Partnerships (DG INTPA). Several EU representatives have lauded on social media the move to new grounds. In her blog post, Commissioner Urpilainen spells out the urgency for the European Commission to scale up its ambition of being a geopolitical actor. In today’s global order, European powers seem to be losing ground to the benefit of some competitive, emerging countries – first of all China. Some priorities of her action, she argues, must reflect a more complex world and find a more important place in the EU’s external actions: these are digital transformation, the fight against rising inequalities, climate change.
DG INPTA’s new organigramme: an assessment
With a new label, DG INTPA launched a new organigramme. The structure reflects not only the vision that Commissioner Urpilainen put out in her blog post, but some recent broader trends in EU development policy. In December 2020, the EU finally agreed on a new instrument – the so-called Neighbourhood, Development & International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) – for the new EU budget cycle 2021-2027. The NDICI is, in many ways, innovative. Over 75% of its funds are geographic programmes – with an allocation of at least €29.18 billion for sub-Saharan Africa. The shift to geographic programmes (at the expense of the thematic ones) is mirrored by the DG INTPA organigramme: the Directorates first in line will now be geographic and deal with, respectively, Africa (A), Latin America, the Caribbean and OCT (B) and the Middle East, Asia and Pacific (C).
Thematically, the EU Green Deal and Digitalisation, two of the five new geopolitical priorities of the current European Commission, rose through the ranks and now have the whole Directorate F in charge. In the new structure, innovative and private finance for development have a more prominent space than in the past. But the EU is not unfamiliar with it: over the last few years, the European Commission has been putting emphasis on the role of the private sector in development and has increasingly replaced grants to partner countries with loans. This trend is reflected in the EU budget and part, for example, of the EU Global Response to Covid-19.
The unit in charge of the development effectiveness agenda (D1 in DG INTPA) will now be responsible for the Team Europe approach. In other words, Team Europe, which was a feature of the EU Global Response to Covid-19, is meant to remain a key part of EU development cooperation. This has to be read not only as a step forward in terms of effectiveness (aiming to improve coordination between EU donors in partner countries), but as part of some attempts to give a European face to aid projects and programmes on the ground.
A fresh start for EU international cooperation: is everyone happy?
The DG for International Partnerships aims to trace some new lines around EU international cooperation. Nevertheless, some EU stakeholders gave a less warm welcome to the new title. As Isabelle Brachet (advocacy advisor for the ActionAid EU office) wrote, a real shift to partnerships of equals requires more than changes in labels – it requires first and foremost accepting to more fairly share resources and power. While Commissioner Urpilainen defined as central promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law, none of DG INTPA’s new Directorates include them in their titles. Instead, the units dealing with engagement with civil society and local authorities (LAs) – which were separate under DG DEVCO – have now been merged under the new G2 unit. But LAs and CSOs differ deeply: worldwide, civil society and human rights defenders are facing growing restrictions on their participation in democratic spaces, which in many cases, threaten their own existence. The new Directorate-General must create more space and a better engagement with civil society worldwide if they want to keep faith with Commissioner Urpilainen’s pledge.
Furthermore, DG INTPA looks today much closer to how the European External Action Service (EEAS) functions – both in structure as well as in the narrative used to present it. While the latter should deal with EU foreign policy, the former should be truly led by the commitment to achieve internationally agreed agendas, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals. On a negative note, however, any references to Agenda 2030 or policy coherence for development – both commitments that the European Union engaged with – disappeared from the DG INTPA organisational chart. These concerns raise the question of whether DG INTPA will work more as an operational development agency (with the EEAS being more of a lead) or will act as a more political body, moved by the EU’s strategic interests – not by clear-cut development goals.
The year 2021 will show practitioners and stakeholders working in development which path the European Commission will take. As a matter of fact, the EU has in the pipeline two important opportunities to give shape to the new title of International Partnerships. After 3 years of harsh negotiations, a new EU-OACPS agreement will be ratified and launched. In the spring of this year, an African Union-European Union summit will be held under the Portuguese presidency of the EU. These two events are crucial to the EU to show the world a real paradigm shift – beyond changing names.
 European Commission: Mission Letter for Commissioner for International Partnerships, 1/12/2020
 Jutta Urpilainen: Geopolitical Commission builds on International Partnerships, 15/01/2021, consulted on 18/01/2021
 Directorate-General for International Partnerships: Organigramme of Directorate-General for International Partnerships, 16/01/2021
 European Commission: European Commission welcomes political agreement on future €79.5 billion for a new instrument to finance the EU external action and lead the global recovery through international partnerships, 18/12/2020
 European Commission: Private sector and Sustainable industries, consulted on 18/01/2021
 European Commission: EU global response to COVID-19, consulted on 18/01/2021
 European Commission: Team Europe steps up delivery to its COVID-19 recovery package up to €38.5 billion for partner countries, 24/11/2020
 Isabelle Brachet: EU name change masks new restrictions in development sector, EUobserver, 18/01/2021
 European External Action Service: European External Action Service – HQ Organisational Chart, 1/01/2021
 Council of the European Union: The new European Consensus on Development – EU and Member States sign joint strategy to eradicate poverty, 7/06/2017,
 Council of the European Union: Policy Coherence for Development (PCD) - Council conclusions, 16/05/2019
 LUSA: EU/Presidency: Josep Borrell expects this is a 'presidency for Africa', 16/01/2021