Unexpected love for the European Union... in Central America

Following an EU delegation to Guatemala, Monitor correspondent Peter Teffer found welcoming crowds, full of gratitude for European largess. But is Europe's generosity starting to fade?

A few dozen Guatemalan children were cheering and waving blue EU balloons and flags upon our arrival at the village of Xecaquixcan, as if I was a member of their national soccer team that had just returned from a successful championship.

It was the first day of my visit to the Central American country, accompanying a delegation of the European Union, together with eleven other European journalists. The goal: to inspect the results of European development aid.

The scene at Xecaquixcan would be repeated by other Guatemalans in the following days. Children waved balloons and flags in the small town of Pamumus upon the arrival of the European Commissioner of Development and the country's vice-president. A group of coffee producers had traveled 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Huehuetenango to the capital Guatemala City to express their gratitude for the support that the European Union had given them.

“We have benefited from the solidarity of EU citizens. You are among people that appreciate and love you,” one of them said.

I felt increasingly awkward.

Not only because I, like most Europeans, am no longer used to experiencing the European Union as a popular institution – trust in the European Union by its citizens has slowly dropped to 31 percent, according to the most recent Eurobarometer poll.

But I also worry that “the solidarity of the EU citizens” that the Guatemalans are so thankful for might not be as large as they think.

Sure, verbal support for development aid is still very high: According to another poll, 85 percent of the surveyed said it is “important to help people in developing countries.” But that has gone down from 89 percent two years earlier – those who think it is not important went from 9 percent to 13 percent.

And more importantly, looking at the level of specific member states of the European Union, you can see that support for aid is under increasing pressure.

Around one in three citizens in Bulgaria, Greece, and Slovenia said that aid should be reduced because of the current economic situation. In my native country, The Netherlands, Mark Rutte's government, the second that the Liberal party leader has headed, has agreed to continue cutting funds for development contributions.

That Mr. Rutte's first coalition – which needed support from the party of populist Geert Wilders, a staunch opponent of development aid – had cut aid was not a surprise. But in the current coalition, announced a year ago this month, Rutte's sole coalition partner is the Social Democrats, traditionally a party of international solidarity. Nonetheless, they have accepted Rutte's push for more budget cuts to international aid.

After the tour in Guatemala, I sat down with the European commissioner for development, Andris Piebalgs, in a hotel in the capital.

“It's a pity,” he says of the languishing support for development aid. I ask him how he would increase solidarity in the European member states. “Basically, I don't know. I don't know. I just hope that....” He sighs. “Basically, I don't hope anything. What happens is: Whenever there are difficulties, countries are very inward-looking. The only answer I think, is if the economy recovers. Then solidarity will become stronger.”

For now though, the Guatemalans seem safe. During his visit, Mr. Piebalgs announced that between 2014 and 2020 the EU will provide 775 million euro ($1.1 billion) in bilateral assistance to Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador – if the European Parliament and the European Council, the body of government leaders, approve.

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