By Anna Terrón Cusí, Director of the International and Ibero-American Foundation for Administration and Public Policies (FIIAPP)
“Policy first” is an emerging concept in the European Union’s (EU) external action and development co-operation. The idea is that shared policies and political priorities between the EU, EU Member States and partner countries should guide the EU’s external action and development co-operation, as opposed to former approaches more driven by the legal and administrative aspects of external financial instruments rather than policy.
The concept builds on the European Consensus on Development and is a guiding principle of the new Global Europe instrument (the EU’s main financial instrument for external action) and for the Team Europe approach to strengthening partnerships by identifying shared priorities and building collective responses to common challenges. This principle is especially important today given the increasingly interlinked context and growing list of shared global concerns such as climate change and the just transition, the digital transition and digital governance, gender, security, etc. The aim is for policy dialogues led by EU delegations together with Member States to jointly identify shared priorities.
A framework to guide financial co-operation
The concept of policy first is also connected to ongoing changes in the European development financing architecture aiming to ensure that financial institutions and public development banks such as the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and others are more strongly oriented towards policy objectives. In other words, policy first serves as a guiding instrument to drive EU co-operation (including financial co-operation) and private investment towards sustainable and inclusive development. In the same vein, the new Global Gateway strategy for worldwide connectivity emphasises the need for value-based, policy-driven investments towards building the infrastructure required to create sustainable prosperity, jobs and services for local communities.
A strategic compass for EU co-operation
As a guiding principle, policy first has the potential to be deployed more broadly and with greater ambition, guiding the whole range of EU co-operation modalities and funding instruments. For instance, policy first could be a means to build institutional partnerships around policy dialogues with a whole-of-government approach. Mobilising the expertise of EU Member State administrations in policy dialogues with their counterparts would allow for more structured co-operation. That is, co-operation that can adapt development action to emerging needs and offer tailored responses in support of longstanding processes of institutional strengthening and policy design and reform. A structured and demand-driven policy dialogue between peers has, therefore, the potential to guide and adapt the whole range of development tools.
This requires extending the scope of policy first beyond programming into the implementation phases and further than the guidance of financial co-operation and private investments. Although in line with the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, assuming a correlation between leveraged funds and development impact risks creating trade-offs between values and interests, on one side, and European supply and partner countries’ demands on the other.
Conversely, embedding peer-to-peer knowledge exchange and institutional partnerships into the programming and implementation phases of the EU’s external financial instruments allows for mission-driven, equal-footing partnerships that deliver inclusive and sustainable development, while nurturing political relations. Regional co-operation programmes between the European Union and Latin America and the Caribbean, for instance, which apply a Development in Transition logic, are proving the potential of peer-to-peer knowledge exchange and institutional partnerships to operationalise the policy first approach.
A pillar for value-based EU co-operation and external action
Putting the policy first approach into practice brings greater development impact, a better use of European taxpayers’ money, and reinforced links between policy and political dialogue.
Today, Europe is more aware than ever about the role of its values in guaranteeing stability, and the policy first principle can become a building block for the European way of building international partnerships and rules-based multilateralism.
 In the 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework, this translates into renewed (Team Europe) guidelines for joint programming and implementation, as well as internally in the inter-service Group for External Coordination (EXCO).