By Ethan Bilby
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union should be careful not to cut itself off from the developing world by reducing development aid almost 10 percent, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a speech to the European Parliament on Wednesday.
"A few thousandths of a percent less for the European Development Fund and humanitarian aid is, for the most vulnerable of the world, a matter of life or death," Barroso said.
The latest European Union budget proposal for the bloc's seven-year spending plan calls for a 9.6 billion euro ($12.3 billion) decrease in aid projects.
It also envisages an 11 percent cut to the European Development Fund (EDF), used to support low-income countries in Africa, the Caribbean, and Pacific, many of them former European colonies.
Barroso could end up the only voice strongly against aid cuts, pitting him against a budget outlined by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.
"No one has really taken up the cause for aid. There are friends of cohesion, friends of growth, but aid has been off the radar," an EU official told Reuters.
The official said Barroso was putting personal emphasis on defending aid spending, which is one of the EU's main tools of wielding "soft power" in distant corners of the globe.
Even staunchly pro-aid countries like Denmark and France have been silent on the matter, and EU diplomats said it was hard to see how all aid funding could be maintained at this late stage in the negotiations.
NGOs such as Oxfam, ONE, Plan International, and Concord have said the proposed cuts would hit aid harder than any other area by proportion and that reducing aid was a false economy.
A report published last week by the Overseas Development Institute said EU aid paid for itself in economic benefits for member states, and European taxpayers would make a 20 percent return on their investment.
"Cutting aid to the world's poorest countries by almost 10 percent is a damaging attempt to balance the EU's budget on the backs of the world's poor," said Oxfam's EU head Natalia Alonso.
(Reporting By Ethan Bilby; Editing by Sophie Hares)