Tuesday

25th Sep 2018

Opinion

EU faces tough choices in the neighbourhood

  • Egypt uprising: Europeanisation is in many cases a destabilising process, at least in the short term (Photo: Globovision)

The old European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) has failed to achieve its goal: to transform the EU’s neighbourhood into a sphere of liberal democracy and market economy.

Instead of having built a “ring of friends,” the EU is now surrounded by a “ring of fire”, as The Economist has put it.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

Many of the ENP’s 16 target countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa are now worse off than they were in 2003 when the policy was first outlined.

The EU faces tough choices: it needs to decide whether it has enough political will to make a real difference in its neighbourhood, and to what end - as a driver of change working with reformers or as a guardian as a status quo working with the ruling elites.

The ENP was conceived at a time when it was broadly assumed that the EU’s neighbourhood was already on a historic path toward liberal democracy and market economy.

The general view was that with “the end of history” and the triumph of a globalisation, driven by the economy and civil society, politics would become increasingly transnational and the EU would provide a model of the future world order.

The ENP, while lacking the promise of EU membership, would nevertheless make use of the EU’s immense attraction and would help to direct and reinforce the process of Europeanisation in the EU’s eastern and southern neighbourhoods, by offering all kinds of support and guidance.

Europeanisation - a destabilising process?

At the end of the process there would emerge a close, sympathetic, like-minded “ring of friends,” an “area of prosperity and good neighbourliness, founded on the values of the Union and characterised by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation,” as the Treaty of the European Union (Art 8,1) states.

This optimistic view wasn’t entirely wrong. Europeanisation indeed took root in the EU’s neighbourhood: there was a growing desire by many people to become part of the EU’s economic and political success story, either by moving to the EU or by adapting the EU’s achievements in their own countries.

The colour revolutions in the east and the Arab Spring in the south were driven by the wish to live like people live in the heart of Europe, with a prosperous economy; with a decent, fair state; with the freedom to express oneself; and to live the way one chooses.

It was not by accident that the EU’s flag was waving over the Maidan and that the refusal of the Association Agreement with the EU was what triggered the fall of the old Yanukovych regime.

But the problem with the EU’s approach was the failure to recognise that Europeanisation is in many cases a destabilising process, at least in the short term.

In countries where a small number of people control economic and political power by using corruption and force, liberal democracy and market economy are threatening the ruling classes.

Most of the elites in the EU’s neighbourhoods apparently didn’t share the wish of the broader population to Europeanise.

They wanted to enjoy the benefits of cooperation to the extent that this helped to stabilise their rule, but were against any move that would empower the broader population. When it came to political modernisation, those in power often paid lip service to the respective parts in agreements with the EU without honouring them.

When clashes between status quo-oriented elites and reformers erupted in Ukraine, and earlier and throughout the Arab Spring, the EU had no plan on how to respond.

ENP’s children

The ENP and its “children” (the 2009 Eastern Partnership, and 2008 Union for the Mediterranean) were built on the assumption that no such fundamental conflicts existed in the target countries. The EU was seeking comprehensive modernisation by working with the governments regardless of the character of their rule.

The implicit idea was to implement modernisation from above, or what has been called “enlightened absolutism” in the 18th century: wise rulers who are benevolent enough to embrace a structural change even if that would ultimate undermine their own power base.

The ENP is conceptually flawed as it assumes that transformation is a joint interest of elites and broader population in the target countries and as it has no strategy for dealing with the instability and power struggles that come with political and economic modernisation.

In the wake of the violence and instability that has emerged across the EU’s neighbourhood, Europe is now slowly waking up to the reality that the “way of life” that it represents is a contested model, and one that needs to be defended and fought for.

Autocratic elites reject comprehensive modernisation as they feel threatened by it.

The conflicts which have been ingrained into the political systems in the European neighbourhood have become more visible, more acute, and more dramatic in the last years. This is a direct consequence of Europeanisation, of the attractiveness of the EU’s way of life.

The internet, increased travel and migration, and increasing interaction between the EU and its eastern and southern neighbors have brought in sharp relief the lack of opportunity and freedom in many countries around the EU.

The EU needs to realise that its neighbourhood policy is not a technical tool but a political instrument, that it is operating in a highly politicised environment where major conflicts take place.

The ENP carries both huge potential and carries great risks. As the EU now reviews its neighbourhood policy, several adjustments are overdue.

More than Brussels

First, the ENP cannot be executed by the institutions in Brussels alone. EU member states with a strong foreign policy, but others as well, must take on much more ownership of those policies.

Member states cannot sign up to policies agreed in Brussels and then return home and continue to do business as usual; they must put their own full weight behind such policies.

Berlin’s lack of engagement was an important reason why the Eastern Partnership has failed: in 2008 Germany agreed to the program but failed to put its political weight, especially its close relation to Moscow, behind it.

Second, the EU needs to develop a clear vision of what it wants from the ENP, and who the policy addresses. There are three potential goals of a neighbourhood policy: integration, transformation, and co-operation.

Some countries have a chance to become EU members in the nearer or more distant future; they are small enough to be integrated without forcing the EU to change itself substantially; they are willing to undertake deep reform and to adapt themselves to EU standards; and the current member states are likely ready to accept them as future members. For such countries, the current ENP and the EaP policies make sense.

But there are not many who’s membership path is possible, let alone clear.

Another potential goal is transformation, which the ENP has largely failed to deliver on. In the East, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Armenia remain largely unchanged; Ukraine has just started to reform; Moldova has made more progress on paper than in reality; and Georgia’s reforms have largely been driven by its own political will, not on an EU ticket.

In the South, only Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan have made some visible steps towards reform; ENP has achieved very little in the whole region, from Morocco to Syria.

The EU needs to recognise that it cannot drive reform even in small countries without offering a major commitment on its part.

The third potential goal of a neighbourhood policy is co-operation. While integration and transformation imply a fight against ruling elites in most countries, a change of the political and economic system, cooperation is a “realist” approach, building on the acceptance of those who are in power as the relevant interlocutors on the other side.

Joint interests

Such co-operation is based on seeking joint interests while widely ignoring the question of legitimacy. Focusing on co-operation acknowledges the lack of will or lack of capacity to set in motion a process of change. It also means to privilege short-term interests in co-operation against longer term interests in systemic change.

To become a consistent, efficient actor in the neighbourhood, the EU must offer its neighbouring countries a clear understanding of what the EU is interested in: future integration, transformation without accession, case-by-case co-operation?

These are questions that cannot just be answered in Brussels.

They will require a lot of soul-searching in the member states: to what extent are capitals ready to back up a transformational agenda in neighbouring countries, knowing that this can lead to conflicts, internal and with other neighbors?

How important is the goal of having liberal democracies and market economies in the neighbourhood?

Is the EU ready to take on a more muscular, confrontational approach in its neighbourhood, will it support reformers once they clash with autocratic elites?

Can the EU live with autocratic states where corrupt elites mismanage their countries?

Is co-operation with those elites a strategy that is viable over the long-term, or are the costs higher than the benefits?

How does implicitly backing-up autocrats fit with the EU’s values and its understanding of itself as a value- and law-based system?

Clear-eyed

A new EU neighbourhood policy must be clear-eyed, accept risks, and make a choice between competing, mutually exclusive goals. It must rely on a broad consensus inside the EU, and it must be wholeheartedly supported by key member states.

The decision the EU will take about the future shape of the neighbourhood policy is going to shape the EU’s identity as an international actor. How does the EU react to the return of geopolitics and conflicts, will it become more “realist,” in the sense that it plays power politics based on narrowly defined interests?

Or does it indeed want to become, as it claims to be, a transformational power in the service of a rules-based liberal-democratic world order?

Ulrich Speck is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, a think tank in Brussels

Eastern Partnership: In search of meaning

Twenty-five EU leaders and six former Soviet states are meeting in the shadow of the Ukraine crisis and amid divergent views on future relations.

EU reaches out to former Soviet states

EU countries have acknowledged Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova's EU aspirations but stopped short of giving a clear enlargement perspective.

No chance of meeting EU renewable goals if infrastructure neglected

Following the 2030 renewable target of 32 percent, chair of the European Parliament's environment committee Adina Valean argues in order to reach our climate and energy goals, we need both public and private investment over the next decade and beyond.

News in Brief

  1. ECB's Draghi set to clarify role in secretive G30 group
  2. Half of EU states at risk of missing recycling target
  3. Commission refers Poland to EU top court over rule of law
  4. Open Society Foundation takes Hungary to court
  5. EU court asked to rule on halting Brexit
  6. EU threatens Switzerland on stock trading
  7. Italy's new basic wage restricted to Italians
  8. UK tycoon offers to create pro-Brexit party

Will the centre-right stand up for EU values?

Time for Christian Democrats in the EP to show where they stand on Hungary and on the EU's founding principles, say Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in a joint text.

Europe needs more modern leadership

If Europe wants to be a global leader, our political leadership has to change dramatically. Power needs a new face in Europe, and it needs to get legitimacy from the people, argues liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  2. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  3. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  4. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs.
  5. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  6. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  7. IPHRCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  8. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  9. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  10. IPHRCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  11. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow

Latest News

  1. Missing signature gaffe for Azerbaijan gas pipeline
  2. Every major city in Europe is getting warmer
  3. No chance of meeting EU renewable goals if infrastructure neglected
  4. Brexit and MEPs expenses in the spotlight This WEEK
  5. Wake-up call on European Day Against Islamophobia
  6. Sound of discord at 'Sound of Music' Salzburg summit
  7. Salzburg summit presses for bigger Frontex mandate
  8. UK's post-Brexit plan 'will not work', EU says

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  3. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  5. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  6. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  8. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future
  9. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersCooperation in Nordic Electricity Market Considered World Class Model
  11. FIFAGreen Stadiums at the 2018 Fifa World Cup
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Work Together to Promote Sustainable Development

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman Requests More Lending Transparency from European Investment Bank
  2. FIFARecycling at the FIFA World Cup in Russia
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  4. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and Reconciliation Is a Process That Takes Decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  5. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up
  6. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOld White Men are Destroying Macedonia by Romanticizing Greece
  7. Counter BalanceControversial EIB-Backed Project Under Fire at European Parliament
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersIncome Inequality Increasing in Nordic Countries
  9. European Jewish CongressEU Leaders to Cease Contact with Mahmoud Abbas Until He Apologizes for Antisemitic Comments
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual Report celebrates organization’s tenth anniversary
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Cooperation Needed on Green Exports and Funding
  12. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li Confirms China Will Continue to Open Up

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us