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The Future of European Humanitarian Aid

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In an increasingly difficult global geopolitical context, the European Union (EU) stands at a pivotal crossroads: current developments could lead towards a logic of confrontation between blocs in which the EU has everything to lose.


The future of European humanitarian aid

Introduction: a fragmented geopolitical context

In an increasingly difficult global geopolitical context, the European Union (EU) stands at a pivotal crossroads: current developments could lead towards a logic of confrontation between blocs in which the EU has everything to lose. The looming spectre of power politics, combined with the gradual erosion of Europe’s soft power, underscores the urgent need for the EU to consolidate its role as a reliable partner worldwide. Amidst this context, the only viable alternative is a rules-based multipolar system, wherein the EU assumes its role as a significant pole among others —neither dominant nor dominated— and safeguards its strategic autonomy, thus avoiding any alignment or dependency.


Humanitarian aid as consolidation of EU position on the global stage

The consolidation of the EU’s role as a global power is not contingent on the increase of its defence assets (the sum of the military resources of the 27 far from equals the resources of the Pentagon), but rather the size of its market, the regulation that goes with it (the ‘Brussels effect’), its capacity for innovation (EU as a prime mover on the Green Deal or the Digital Agenda) and, last but not least, its external spending and the way it is implemented.

This shifting global power dynamic, which is moving away from the central role of the West, incidentally coincides with an increase in large-scale conflict, unrest, and suffering. The current humanitarian funding gap, widening due to fast-growing needs and increasingly constrained global funding capacities, now threatens the ability of at least 120 million people to meet their most basic needs.[1]

In this context, humanitarian aid takes on a ‘geopolitical’ dimension: without being instrumentalized, the way it is delivered — per the principles enshrined in the Treaty — is a compelling ‘soft power’ argument for the EU to consolidate its role as a global power.


The “aggiornamento” of the EU’s humanitarian strategy

When it comes to setting priorities, it is time for the EU institutions to mourn the passage of the so-called “principle of neutrality”: a necessity illustrated by the hard-to-refute accusations of double standards within the EU’s stance on both the Ukraine and Gaza crises. The EU is not the ICRC. This situation also highlights the far-reaching need for reform within a multilateral system dominated, shaped, and imposed by the Global North.

In this context, the EU has a major strategic interest in promoting humanitarian aid adapted to the world of the 21st century. Here as elsewhere, “a safe and sovereign Europe” presupposes internal work and an external approach for an EU humanitarian response that efficiently addresses short- and long-term needs.

Reconsolidating the EU’s humanitarian strategy therefore necessitates an “aggiornamento”, both internally and externally. Internally, a restructuring of the governance of external relations and funding instruments is imperative. People suffering the most from the funding gap are primarily living in neglected —often protracted and complex— crises, therefore requiring a coordinated approach between the humanitarian, development, and peace streams to efficiently address their needs. While a few donors have started adapting their strategies to better respond to these crises, silos have remained untouched at the EU level: current regulations are dogmas preventing donors from truly proposing flexible approaches. This current siloed approach must give way to a more coherent, effective, and flexible institutional framework that encourages coordination and transparency between the instruments.

Externally, the EU must integrate humanitarianism into the framework of new, genuinely balanced partnerships. Indeed, the “international” aid system is almost fully funded by less than 15 to 20 mainly DAC country donors and supported by aid operators almost exclusively based in the Global North, thus completely disregarding the international solidarity mechanisms of the remaining 175 to 180 countries. Over the past decades, efforts have been made to “bring on board non-traditional donors”, without considering that what was portrayed as the “global aid system” was not necessarily meeting the expectations of countries staying outside of it. Long-term solutions will need to connect the global aid system with other international solidarity efforts without merging them, but rather seeking mutual reinforcement through balanced partnerships.


The right time, the right space

The EU, as demonstrated in Towards cutting-edge European humanitarian leadership – Egmont Institute, is in a unique position to convene important discussions on the future of the aid system. The recently created European Humanitarian Forum (EHF) provides the ideal setting and platform for discussing the existing model and taking stock of its current challenges and limitations. As an EU electoral year, 2024 provides a unique opportunity to support innovative approaches. The EHF 2024 must allow us to work as a booster for policy change through courageous discussions, and refrain from becoming yet another talk show.

As the geopolitical landscape is moving towards a more fragmented world, now is a critical time for the EU to reassert its role as a reliable global partner and actor. Simultaneously, the increasing number of people in need highlights the necessity for reform within the humanitarian system. The EU must capitalize on this opportunity and enhance its humanitarian strategy, which can be done with improved governance of instruments and a recalibrated external approach built on balanced partnerships.

While many humanitarian workers and thinkers refrain from engaging in these discussions —mostly due to the complexity of having an open political discussion with their humanitarian principles embodied — it is crucial that they recognize their role in these debates. Their voices are essential in crafting a system that bolsters an effective humanitarian strategy, more so than ever on the eve of European elections and the formation of a new Commission. It is in the collective interest to forge a resilient system that addresses the surging humanitarian needs and solidifies the EU’s position as a leading provider of aid and global actor.



[1] This figure represents solely the difference between the 245 million individuals targeted for assistance and the total of 363 million people identified as in need in the revised Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO) of November 2023. It excludes those not having received assistance due to HNO’s final funding coverage of 35% (as of February 2024). Data is sourced from the OCHA (2024) Global Humanitarian Overview 2024 – Results from 2023


(Photo credit:  EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, Flickr)