The new Neighbourhood Policy is more transactional than transformative, abandoning the idealism of 2004's policy
The new European Neighbourhood Policy, released on 18 November, was always going to be a sombre affair. The review of the ENP was launched in reaction to the largely failed Arab Spring, the war in Syria, and Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. There was a realisation in Brussels and capitals that the neighbourhood policy had clearly not led to a prosperous and stable “ring of friends” as hoped for when it was first launched in 2004.
The new ENP now comes out in the middle of the refugee crisis and immediately after the terrorist attacks in Paris. This has only further brought home the point that what happens in the neighbourhood can have a direct and major impact on us. The neighbourhood has never been closer and more volatile. But the question remains whether the new ENP is configured to deal with these new challenges.
Here are ten talking points:
- Realism is in; idealism is out. Not surprisingly in these times of crisis, a major dose of realism – if not realpolitik – has been inserted into the new ENP. Back in 2004, the original ENP was based on a notion that the EU and its neighbours had common interests and shared values. The policy aimed to create a “zone of prosperity and a friendly neighbourhood”. The new ENP is based on the EU pursing its interests, of which promoting universal values is presented as one interest among many. Stabilisation, security, energy, economic development, job creation, and, of course, dealing with the refugee crisis are priorities.
- No great expectations. The ENP is no longer about transforming the neighbourhood. It’s about stabilising it. The philosophy of transformation that underpinned the big bang enlargement in 2004 was also the underlying philosophy of the original Neighbourhood Policy. Ten years later, it is clear that only a few of the 16 ENP countries actually want to be like us or will become like us thanks to the EU’s soft power. The new ENP is more transactional than transformative. It explicitly says that the EU cannot solve many challenges in the region and our leverage is limited. This is a welcome and necessary adjustment to current realities and our own limitations.
- Blurred vision. Promote stability, security, and prosperity in the neighbourhood is supposedly what the ENP is about. These are nice words that we can all sign up to but what do they actually mean? The transactional approach is necessary to handle the current crises, but it leaves open what the EU wants with the neighbourhood. There is little vision in the new ENP. If there is a vision, it is largely a negative one – avoid chaos, stop radicalisation, handle inflow of refugees, and so on. The question is whether the neighbouring countries will be excited by the new ENP.
- East and South still under one policy roof. This is good news. While the countries in the East and South are vastly different, splitting the policy into two would have undermined solidarity and increased the risk for divisions in the EU. Southern member states would have had less incentive to focus on the eastern neighbourhood and eastern member states less incentive to focus on the south. By keeping one policy, there is greater scope for east-south solidarity, deals, and compromises.
- Differentiation. The solution to dealing with differences among the various neighbouring countries, in particular those not interested in closer association, is differentiation. No more one-size-fits-all. Now it’s tailor-made (or at least made-to-measure). The EU will be less prescriptive and more responsive to what each individual partner country wants. This means talking more about security and energy and less about democracy and rights with Azerbaijan and Egypt for instance. The risk is that we betray our values in this differentiation.
- Nothing new for neighbours who actually want to be integrated. Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova aspire to become EU members one day. They have bought into the ENP and the more far-reaching Eastern Partnership. In the south, Tunisia and Morocco want closer relations. But in the new ENP there is nothing new for them. The revised ENP proposes a more flexible relationship with our neighbours who are not keen on the EU on issues such as free trade and values. But, the new policy offers little to those who actually buy into the transformative concept and carry out the reforms that we want them to carry out.
- The Russian elephant in the room. Russia’s desire to bring the neighbourhood into its orbit, including through the use of military force against Georgia and Ukraine, is a fundamental challenge to the neighbourhood policy in the East. The ENP makes a vague reference to strengthening the resilience of partner countries and their ability to make their own sovereign choices. Besides that the new ENP largely skirts around this core issue. And there is not only Russia but also Turkey, Central Asia, the Gulf Countries, and the Sahel. The new ENP seems to exist in a world devoid of geopolitics.
- Less paperwork, more politics. Gone are the simultaneous progress reports and action plans. Partner countries that want fewer strategic priorities to talk about will get fewer priorities to talk about. The trimming of the bureaucratic fat reflects the more modest ambition of the ENP, and also an awareness that the old approach was too rigid and technocratic for a diverse and fast-changing region. The new ENP also foresees member states being more actively engaged; this will make the ENP more political.
- Migration and refugees prioritised. This is as it should be. The crisis is massive and needs to be dealt with. The focus on stabilisation in the new ENP is central to this. The new ENP, however, does not really offer much new than what has already been discussed in parallel.
- Local ownership vs EU interests. Two points highlighted in the review could potentially conflict with each other. On the one hand, the EU seeks to concentrate that projects that meet the demands of local partners, which are obviously more likely to be carried through. On the other hand, it also seeks to focus its limited resources on issues that matter to Europe. The interplay between these goals will be vital to implementing the new system in practice. Get the balance wrong and we could end up supporting projects that simply serve the agenda of local elites; ideally the EU will take a long-term view and steer partners toward those issues that will contribute most to security, development and reform in the future.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.