Why does human development matter to the EU’s strategic priorities?

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Education and health get little attention in EU politics, however, investing in human development worldwide benefits Europe and can strengthen its role in partner countries. In the fifth commentary of our series 'To the new leaders of Europe', Pauline Veron and Katja Sergejeff argue that the next European Commission should build on the EU’s track record and added value and keep human development on the agenda. 

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    Economic and security concerns seem to dominate European political parties’ manifestos (S&D, EPP, Greens, ALDE), with health and education receiving some, albeit scant, attention from most groups. These priorities are virtually absent from the ECR group’s priorities for 2024-2029, a political group projected to make significant gains in the next European Parliament. 

    Investments in health and education are important to voters, even if they are somewhat overlooked in political debates. For example, the Eurobarometer’s latest survey shows that supporting public health is one of the top issues for voters before strengthening the economy – and after fighting poverty and social exclusion. The survey does not explicitly talk about the priorities for the EU’s external action; however, one of the most crucial lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic has been the importance of international cooperation to prevent and combat health threats.

    On the level of external action, the current narrative around the EU’s global presence tends to overlook its vital support for human development worldwide and the reciprocal benefits it brings to Europe. Yet, beyond being an investment in future prosperity, education and health are areas in which the EU delivers a clear added value to partner countries and their citizens and where the EU’s contribution is appreciated. Furthermore, the support in these sectors can benefit the EU’s standing in the world, and they are fundamental to the success of EU initiatives such as the flagship Global Gateway. Evidence also shows that investments in social sectors bring reputational benefits to the EU that may reverberate beyond these specific sectors and show the EU’s added value and goodwill in a moment in which both are questioned.

    To be a truly geopolitical actor, the EU will need partnerships with countries that share similar objectives, and supporting health and education in those countries is a prominent way of fostering these relations.

    Human development as an asset for EU credibility and soft power

    Partner countries acknowledge and value the EU as a champion of human development. It has been ranked as one of the most influential and helpful donors in social sectors, ranking 6th and 5th, respectively, according to leaders in the Global South in 2021. Other major geopolitical players, including the US, UK, China and Russia were considered both less influential and less helpful in social sectors. The future EU leadership should build on this positive assessment of the EU's contribution to global prosperity to ensure progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to enhance partnerships with countries outside Europe. To be a truly geopolitical actor, the EU will need partnerships with countries that share similar objectives, and supporting health and education in those countries is a prominent way of fostering these relations.

    Just as the US garnered improved public opinion through its support to combat HIV/AIDS, evidence shows that the EU's and member states’ dedication to human development in partner countries has also contributed to a positive image of the EU as an international actor (see e.g. support to the health sector in Central Asia). 

    Previous ECDPM research in Guinea, Kenya and Zambia has also indicated that European support to the health and education sectors is highly appreciated by local stakeholders and helps to bolster the EU’s position as a reliable and serious partner. These types of positive perceptions can contribute to facilitating the creation of crucial alliances based on mutual interests with different partners and essentially promoting the EU’s soft power globally.

    Global health is a case in point. In a moment in which the Europe-Africa policy agenda meets challenges at every turn, health has a lot of potential to be a tangible area where European and African interests converge and one that can strengthen the EU-AU partnership. The EU and the African Union made several commitments on health, such as agreeing to establish new modalities and areas of cooperation, during the high-level event on the EU-AU health partnership and high-level dialogue before that. This is no minor feat, given the importance that the African continent holds for European objectives in terms of migration, trade diversification, influence and multilateral fora or stability, to name just a few areas.

    Ensuring that social development is central to EU external action – and communicating accordingly – can sustain the EU's wider credibility as a value-driven partner. While Europe has become more outspoken about its interests in international cooperation, the idea of a value-based offer that ultimately sets Europe apart from other players, such as China or Russia, has been one of the crucial selling points of the EU’s major initiatives, like Global Gateway. 

    Human development is a key enabler for Global Gateway

    The forthcoming EU leadership is poised to address prominent topics such as the green and digital transitions and the creation of sustainable jobs. These areas require investments in both education and health, not only within Europe but also in partner countries. They also provide the ‘basics’ and form part of the enabling environment for the successful delivery of Global Gateway, whose investments in hard and soft infrastructure need to go hand in hand. Health, education and research are already covered under the Global Gateway, which aims at “supporting countries in transitioning to an innovation-led, knowledge-based economy, achieving a fair green and digital transition, and proposing relevant skills for young people to take up and create jobs”. The electoral manifestos of the EU political groupings also briefly acknowledge the importance of education and health as enabling factors to digital and green transition. For instance, in its manifesto, the EPP urges Europe to become the innovation hub of the world in the health sector, harnessing the potential of big data and AI. 

    As the Global Gateway is set to remain as the EU’s key ‘offer’ under the next European Commission, it will be crucial to ensure that the new leadership taking office sees investments in those areas (internally as much as externally) and in providing opportunities to people as part and parcel of advancing its priorities. 

    Linking health and education to the EU’s domestic concerns

    The EU’s external priorities tend to mirror its internal priorities. The domestic agenda on health currently mainly focuses on medicine and health workforce shortages – these are likely to remain a high priority for the next leadership, which will also influence its external action agenda. Regarding education, new investments announced at the Global Gateway high-level event on education include support to research and skills development in the pharmaceutical sector and learning mobility in Nigeria, a new Team Europe Initiative on vocational education and training in Africa, the launch of an Africa-Europe Youth Academy and 15 new projects supporting academic mobility inside Africa.

    The next European Commission should build on the EU’s track record and added value and keep human development on the agenda.

    The emphasis on vocational training, higher education, research and youth/academic mobility is in line with the Global Gateway’s emphasis on economic transformation and employability. They are also justified by a perceived need to address the root causes of irregular migration – by providing employment opportunities to the youth in partner countries – as recalled in the recently leaked EC draft briefing on international partnerships. But the realisation of the Global Gateway ambitions also relies on more basic, patient investments in primary education and healthcare. While bridging the skills gap is fundamental, labour productivity and vocational and academic training still fundamentally rely on basic competencies in literacy, mathematics or science

    Outlining European priorities for the next five years calls for a rebalancing between the short-term and the long-term, as well as between internal and external priorities. The next European Commission should build on the EU’s track record and added value and keep human development on the agenda. Otherwise, the EU will run the risk of having a counterproductive approach and ultimately being a less credible actor internationally.

    The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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