10th Apr 2021


Is the EU neighbourhood model still relevant?

On 4 March, the EU’s neighbourhood commissioner and its foreign affairs chief issued a joint consultation paper titled “Towards a new European Neighbourhood Policy”, meant to trigger a debate with member states and other stakeholders on how to revive the EU’s decade-old neighborhood policy (ENP) - i.e. relations with countries spanning from Azerbaijan to Morocco and from Belarus to Egypt.

The paper is long on questions (74 of them) about policy proposals but much shorter on strategic thinking.

Read and decide

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  • It is also feeding the Syrian regime (Photo: james_gordon_losangeles)

Yet, in 2014, the EU’s geographical environment took a sharp turn for the worse: in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, in Syria and Iraq, and in Libya.

The political landscape across EU border regions has transformed radically and the east and south of Europe are undergoing even deeper political and societal changes than what meets the eye. Pre-existing EU assumptions about the neighborhood are now obsolete.

From Russia, bullying and open hostility have become the new normal, while successive eastern Ukraine ceasefire “negotiations” have turned into tragic farces.

Russia’s air force routinely challenges the integrity of Western European air space, while weekly Russian resupplies of Syrian leader Bashar alAssad’s forces are keeping the Damascus regime afloat, fuelling an unprecedented human tragedy.

Through military actions, political rapprochements, and massive propaganda, Moscow is doing its utmost to drive a wedge between both EU and Nato member states. EU policies are directly challenged by Russia in Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

Across Europe’s southern neighborhood, Islamic conservatism is becoming more deeply rooted than ever before, not just within Islamist parties but throughout entire societies, including those long perceived as predominantly “secular” and “modern” such as Tunisia and Turkey.

Their societal, scientific, and legal norms, long-inspired by Europe’s, are now regularly challenged or reversed. A different concept of society and state is being introduced.

There is also deep resentment across southern Europe toward the EU for its lack of influence on events in Palestine and Syria, and over the massive loss of life among irregular migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.

In addition, the self-proclaimed caliphate of Daesh - with its territorial control, its military aptitude, its unimaginable violence, and its cultural revisionism - presents a challenge that no Western diplomacy has had to cope with before.

These developments render the EU’s traditional model (liberal democracy) and methodology (personal high-level talks and financial incentives towards good governance) largely ineffectual.

EU leaders are now suddenly confronted with situations in which they can no longer trust their intruding interlocutors (Putin); cannot be sure that their counterparts are able to talk openly (Moldova or the South Caucasus); cannot decently negotiate with (Assad); and cannot even conceive to interact with (al-Baghdadi).

Elsewhere, as in Tunisia, the EU is now dealing with an unprecedented governing coalition between liberals (Nidaa Tounes) and Islamists (Ennahda) with radically diverging societal objectives.

What the EU should do

This eminently mobile - and often hostile - environment requires radical policy changes to the ENP. The EU should:

- relinquish the “more for more” approach (more aid for more alignment on EU values), which is euro-centric and has become largely obsolete. While the EU should continue to defend and promote its fundamental values, it should take on board a lesson in humility: in Sidi Bouzid, Tahrir Square, or Maidan, citizens didn't wait for the EU to stand up for their freedoms.

- be ready to adjust its policies swiftly and frequently in response to changing circumstances. There is no longer one set menu for all neighbors. Long-term trends concerning gender equality, science, economy and culture must be watched carefully and policies adjusted accordingly.

- combine the promotion of EU values—where relevant—with a more assertive defense of EU interests. This means differentiating not only between countries depending on how EU interests are best served, but also, within countries, between governments and civil societies (as some governments become more authoritarian or unruly, civil society often remains the EU’s best investment in the future).

- use the full array of instruments, from trade to financial support (humanitarian, socio-economic, civil society, Erasmus+, etc), from visa facilitation and readmission agreements to counter-terrorism cooperation and military operations, in an integrated manner.

- better integrate EU policy vis-a-vis neighbors and its enlargement policy. Turkey, which is bordering the South Caucasus and the Islamic State, should be treated more strategically, combining the defense of EU interests (sealing the border with Daesh, counter-terrorism cooperation) with pragmatic advances where and when they are possible (trade, visa facilitation, Erasmus+).

The comfortable days of dealing with like-minded liberal interlocutors are largely over: the “EU model” is becoming less sellable in today’s global environment and the EU brand of democracy and civilization is fundamentally challenged.

It is high time to adjust to these new realities. Yes, the EU needs to continue promoting its values but should also defend its interests and watch long-term evolutions.

Marc Pierini is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and the EU's former envoy to Turkey


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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