The suggestion that EU policies towards Northern Europe could serve as a potential model for the EU’s relations with its other neighbours has emerged in recent years, both in the Convention on the Future of the EU in 2002-03 and in some of the proposals for the EU’s new ‘European Neighbourhood Policy’ (ENP). This paper focuses on two particular EU policies towards non-EU members in Northern Europe: the Northern Dimension (ND) initiative and the European Economic Area (EEA). These two policies are analysed in light of two broader themes: first, how the EU organises its policy towards its neighbours more generally and, secondly, the enlargement process and how the EU has attempted to developed alternatives to EU membership.
The Northern Dimension represents a regional approach to the EU’s neighbours, and stands in contrast to a bilateral approach whereby the EU relates to its neighbours on a country-by-country basis. A number of arguments can be raised for and against a regional versus a bilateral approach. These will be analysed in light of the experiences of the Northern Dimension, as well as EU policies towards other regions in its immediate neighbourhood.
The Agreement on the European Economic Area between the EU and the three EFTA states (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) is the most comprehensive agreement between the EU and any third country short of full EU membership. The EEA has recently been discussed as a possible long-term model the EU should aim for in its relations with other neighbouring countries. The prospects of this, and how this is linked to past and possible future EU enlargements, will be analysed by comparing the proposals for a European Neighbourhood Policy with the realities of the EEA.
1 The Northern Dimension Model(s)
In order to analyse the Northern Dimension initiative as a potential model for EU policy towards other neighbouring regions and states, it is necessary first to have a clear idea of what the Northern Dimension is. Diverging views on the ultimate scope and purpose of the initiative have been voiced since its gestation in the late 1990s. In view of these conceptual differences it is more correct to speak, not of one Northern Dimension model, but of several partially overlapping models.
In the speech that put the Northern Dimension on the EU’s agenda in 1997, Finland’s Prime Minister, Paavo Lipponen, claimed that the “ultimate goal of an EU policy [for the Northern Dimension] is peace and stability, with prosperity and security shared by all nations [in the region]” (Lipponen, 1997). Such ambitious objectives were supported in a number of academic studies that called for a radical re-organisation of the EU’s relations with neighbouring countries. A ‘Europe of regions’ in a structure of ‘Olympic circles’ would complement or even transform the current dominant approach of hub-and-spoke diplomacy in a structure of ‘concentric circles’, with the EU at the core, accession candidates occupying the ‘inner circles’ and non-candidates relegated to the outer circles (Emerson, 1999; Joenniemi, 1999). Such a regional approach, it was argued, could counteract the trend towards the creation of new dividing lines in Europe and create stronger incentives for the countries in the ‘outer circles’ to converge on European norms and values.
While stating the need for a “comprehensive strategy, an institutional framework and adequate financing arrangements”, Lipponen (1997) pointed out that cooperation in Northern Europe was “already organised well enough to make major new institutional arrangements unnecessary” and that therefore no new financing was required. Some observers noted early on in the process of establishing the Northern Dimension that a certain “scaling down” of the initiative had occurred (Joenniemi, 1999). This was evident in the official documents from the EU on the Northern Dimension, one of which stated that “the Commission considers that neither new permanent structures nor new budget lines should be considered” (European Commission, 1999). According to the first Action Plan for the Northern Dimension (2000-2003), adopted by the Feira European Council in June 2000, the “aim [of the Northern Dimension] is to provide added value through reinforced co-ordination and complementarity in the EU and Member States’ programmes and enhanced collaboration between the countries in Northern Europe”.
There were thus two clearly distinct Northern Dimension models proposed in the early phases of the initiative. Meanwhile, it appears that the ambitions concerning the Northern Dimension initiative have been lowered and that the discrepancy between these (perhaps) overly ambitious aims and the resources the EU has been willing to put into the initiative has been reduced.
1.1 The Northern Dimension in practice
The Northern Dimension initiative could be assessed in terms of how it has dealt with the main contentious issues in the region. It is notable that many of these have been beyond the competencies of the EU as such, and that to the extent that they have been confronted, this has occurred without the direct involvement of the EU. Issues on this list include hard security matters such as the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Baltic States, NATO enlargement, first to Poland and then to the Baltic States, and the possible extension of the CFE Treaty (Conventional Armed Forces in Europe) in the region. On other issues, where the EU could have become involved, for example concerning the situation of the Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia and Latvia, these have been deferred to other international institutions, in this case to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its commissioner for minorities. This was in part due to the allocation of the Northern Dimension portfolio to the external relations department in the European Commission, which further limited the possibility of a more comprehensive regional multilateral approach by excluding questions relating to enlargement and the enlargement candidates. While the Northern Dimension contributed to putting the special challenges of Kaliningrad on the agenda, it did not provide sufficient impetus to find an early solution to the problem. This led to the ‘crisis’ of 2002, until then arguably the most serious crisis in the history of EU-Russia relations. While the regional approach has made inroads in Northern Europe, it is hard not to agree that the European Union is indeed a “reluctant regionaliser” (Haukkala, 2001).
In spite of this, the Northern Dimension arguably provided ‘added-value’ beyond the ‘minimalist model’ and the limited aims of many, if not most, EU member states (Selliaas, 2002; Bonvincini et al., 2000). In political terms, the Northern Dimension has been appreciated by the EU’s partners for its inclusive approach, with extensive consultations on priorities creating a sense of “joint ownership” (European Commission, 2004).
In operational terms, the main result of the Northern Dimension initiative is the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership and its activities in Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg, financed in part by the Commission and the European Investment Bank. The creation of an additional programme can be criticised as going against the aim of improving coherence between the various initiatives in the region. There has also been criticism that the EU has not made use of existing institutions such as the Council of Baltic Sea States (CBSS) and the Barents-Euro Arctic Council (Catellani, 2001). Despite the insistence that no new financing would be made available, considerable funds (€110 million) were promised to the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership in July 2002. Furthermore, the commitment to annual high-level conferences and the Second Action Plan for the period 2003-2006 ensure that the Northern Dimension has become a going concern.
The relative success of the Northern Dimension initiative may be attributed to the fortuitous sequencing of EU presidencies, rather than reflecting a principled change in the EU’s approach towards its ‘near abroad’. The three Nordic EU member states – Finland, Sweden and Denmark – held the EU Presidency in autumn 1999, spring 2001 and autumn 2002, respectively. Their active support for the initiative ensured that the Northern Dimension became a fixture on the EU agenda. Indeed, it has been claimed that the principal lesson of the Northern Dimension initiative is the way Finland managed to ‘customise’ the Union and use its EU membership and its Presidency to promote stronger EU policies in areas of national interest (Ojanen, 1999). The Northern Dimension has been seen as an example of how an EU member state could use its membership and the presidency to promote its national interest, by turning a policy question of national importance into an EU project. This ‘lesson’ was an important reason for the Polish proposals for an ‘Eastern Dimension’ during 2002 (Cimoszewicz, 2002).
The 2004 EU enlargement transformed the rationale on which the Northern Dimension is based, as most of the questions of coherence and coordination of policies and programmes will be greatly reduced. Whereas the task until 2004 was to coordinate economic assistance programmes targeting member states, candidates and non-candidates, this is now limited to coordination between EU internal assistance and aid to Russia. This is unlikely to change much in practice, as the key issues confronted so far in the Northern Dimension have been essentially bilateral EU-Russian affairs. From 2004 onwards, the Northern Dimension became essentially a regional element of EU-Russia bilateral cooperation.
EU enlargement does not, however, spell the end of the utility of the regional approach in Northern Europe. Some of the key outstanding issues on the Northern Dimension initiative’s agenda, such as energy and environmental security, involve third parties, notably Norway, but also Iceland, the US and Canada. This is reflected in the growing use of the term the “Arctic Window” in official texts on the Northern Dimension. These indicate that the regional approach of the Northern Dimension could remain relevant also after 2004, although this utility seems in part to depend on widening the scope of, and participation in, the Northern Dimension initiative.