Business

The EBRD: What role does it have to play 20 years on?

Sarajevo International Airport
Image caption A loan worth 25m euros ($36m; £22m) from the EBRD is financing the expansion of Sarajevo International Airport in Bosnia-Hercegovina

Twenty years on from its creation, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) may think it is time to reconsider, or at least extend, its remit.

The bank was founded in London in 1991 to help fund the rebuilding of Russia and the former Communist bloc after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In its own words, it "fosters transition towards open and democratic market economies".

But there are now calls for it to go beyond its original statutes and extend lending to North Africa and the Middle East.

The bank itself says it would be willing to provide assistance to Egypt (which is an EBRD shareholder and has already applied to become one of its "countries of operation").

So is it time for the bank to amend its mandate?

'Still a way to go'

EBRD president Thomas Mirow is adamant that its initial mission of supporting projects from central Europe to central Asia is still relevant.

"The transition process in central and eastern Europe has very much progressed but has not been completed," he says.

"There's still a way to go, probably less so in central European countries like Poland and Hungary, but certainly so in eastern Europe."

The EBRD, which is owned by 61 countries, the European Union and the European Investment Bank, works mainly through local partners, extending credit to private companies to improve infrastructure and core industries.

It played a role in helping with the clean-up from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and since its establishment has committed over 60bn euros ($87bn; £53bn) to projects and secured third-party financing of nearly 180bn euros ($261bn; £159bn).

Last year it was the single biggest international investor in Russia.

But critics of the bank see the fact that it is still working towards its initial mission as a failure.

"After 20 years many of the EBRD's countries of operation are still far from being either market economies or functional multi-party democracies," says Fidanka Bacheva-McGrath from Bankwatch, a non-governmental organisation that monitors foreign banks in eastern Europe.

Similar situations

With regards to the current political turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East, Mr Mirow says the bank has the experience to extend its operations to the region.

Image caption Mr Mirow says the bank's shareholders will ultimately decide what direction it takes

"The headline is, of course, that Europe and the west have a strong interest in the situation there and stabilising the market economy system," he says.

"But we would say the kind of things we have experienced in eastern Europe is quite similar to the situation in Egypt."

Any lending to Egypt would not come at the expense of the countries the EBRD already operates in, he says.

So will Egypt's request be approved?

"It is for our shareholders to decide and should they want us to engage we would have the skills and resources to do so," Mr Mirow says.

Extended life?

More broadly speaking, Vanessa Rossi, associate fellow at the think-tank Chatham House, thinks the EBRD should move on from its original mission.

"I think from the original mandate you could almost say it's come to the end of its life," she says.

"However, there's been a change in conditions which suggests that there's potential for a new mandate to extend its life.

"This happened because of the crisis of 2008-09 when we saw the financial problems that emerged and, of course, the further economic problems that emerged in these 'client states' in central Europe and central Asia."

She believes that the EBRD could still provide a "financial bridge" that aims not only at infrastructure issues but also at resources development and business development.

And Mr Mirow, too, admits that there are "new sectors coming in", climate change mitigation, for example.

"It might be that our shareholders would like us to enlarge our activities," he says.

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