EU urgently needs new neighbourhood policies

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Sir Michael Leigh [German Marshall Fund]

There will never be a common foreign and security policy worthy of the name unless the EU manages to redefine its neighbourhood policies, writes Michael Leigh.

Sir Michael Leigh is Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a former Director-General for Enlargement in the European Commission

In the wake of the Paris attacks and the refugee crisis, Federica Mogherini, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and the European Commission, has issued a much-awaited revision of the “European Neighborhood Policy” (ENP), which aims to strengthen stability, security and prosperity in 16 countries in the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Southern Caucasus. The review effectively acknowledges that the ENP has failed in its goal of building a ring of well governed states around the EU. Most countries covered by the ENP are more unstable today than they were a decade ago. Violence and instability have, tragically, spilled over into the EU itself, the very risk the ENP was intended to avert. What’s more, the ENP was the pretext, if not the cause, of the tense standoff with Russia over Ukraine.  It has brought the EU little or no increased influence while complicating efforts to achieve a new strategic balance in Europe.

Today’s review recognizes that the ENP’s attempt to export the EU’s model of society to the Middle East and Eastern Europe has foundered. The review calls for more “local ownership” and “differentiation” between “partner” countries, as well as an end to intrusive annual reports and “action plans” which are largely made in Brussels. Europeans have learned to their cost that outside efforts to impose the rule of law and democracy will not succeed unless rulers and citizens genuinely wish to embrace EU “values.”

In practice, values founded on ethno-nationalism, intolerant, sectarian forms of religion, and social conservatism are prevalent in many ENP countries. ISIS and other violent extremist groups, claiming to act in the name of Islam, have further destabilized Syria and threaten Jordan and Lebanon, all countries in principle covered by the ENP. Egypt has returned to authoritarian rule and Libya faces state failure. The ENP includes both Israel and the Palestinian Authority but the Middle East Peace Process has made no progress.

The Gulf states, Iran, Turkey, Russia and China increasingly compete for influence in the EU’s neighborhood. Several of them provide substantial funding without western-style political conditionality. Strings may be attached but they are linked to goals that have little to do with “European values”. Citizens of the Gulf States finance extremist groups active in ENP countries, Turkey and the EU itself, with appalling consequences.

Faced with threats of this order, the ENP follows no coherent political or geographic logic.  The countries included are not all terrestrial or maritime neighbours of the EU. Several pose challenges also present in countries outside the notional reach of the ENP, for example, Syria (ENP) and Iraq, Libya (ENP) and Mali, Azerbaijan (ENP) and Turkmenistan, Egypt (ENP) and Sudan. The ENP framework creates an unhelpful policy barrier between countries posing related problems for the EU.

The ENP is superimposed on a tangle of overlapping policy frameworks including the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, Union for the Mediterranean, Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity, Eastern Partnership, and Black Sea Synergy. This creates confusion for all stake holders. The EU should cut through this tangle, proposing instead effective policies addressing specific challenges and countries.

The maxim “more for more,” whereby the EU rewards partners for implementing pro-democracy reforms, has proved ineffective. Member states do not practice “more for more” in their bilateral relations. Indeed, they often provide “more for less,” engaging with countries for reasons related to security, trade, or access to energy, regardless of the nature of their regimes. A more joined up approach by the Brussels institutions and the member states is required.

The review recognizes that the ENP’s main policy instrument –  a new generation of Association Agreements, incorporating Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTAs) – may not be for everybody. Such agreements have proved inappropriate for most countries to which they are addressed. Regulatory convergence with the EU is not high on their priority list.  The review acknowledges that a lighter form of engagement will often be more appropriate. However, it is hard to step back from DCFTAs with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova under Russian pressure.

There will never be a common foreign and security policy, worthy of the name, unless the EU manages to act effectively in the part of the world where its potential influence is greatest. Well-designed neighbourhood policies would also help to check the growing radicalization of young people within the EU itself. Yet today’s review does not go far enough and may remain a paper exercise. Europe cannot afford inertia when facing challenges of the magnitude of those unleashed by the Arab uprisings and by failed or partial transitions to the East. The EU should move away from high sounding strategies towards well-targeted initiatives with real impact and effectiveness. 

Subscribe to our newsletters