Reviewing the European Neighbourhood Policy: a weak response to fast changing realities

Publication date:
Eduard Soler i Lecha and Elina Viilup, Research Fellows, CIDOB

Notes internacionals CIDOB, núm. 36

On an early morning flight at the end of January, heading to Brussels to discuss with his colleagues the EU’s response to popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted that the issue at stake was whether the EU can really be a force for reforms and the rule of law in its neighbourhood. A Joint Communication of the European Commission and the External Action Service, published on 25 May, aims to address this question by proclaiming the need for a “A new response to a changing neighbourhood”. This was also one of the issues on the agenda of the meeting of the EU Heads of State and Government on 24 June, and will soon be addressed by the European Parliament. Is it going to make nay difference this time?

The warm and mostly uncritical relations maintained for decades by the European governments with most of their authoritarian governments in North Africa and the Middle East, together with the hesitant response when the first protests erupted, have seriously compromised the EU’s credibility. In the Eastern Neighbourhood, which comprises countries from the Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, the EU’s attractiveness has also been eroded. The EU has been reluctant to offer a membership perspective, the hopes of the coloured revolutions have vanished and none of the Eastern neighbours are currently firmly on a path of democratic reforms, with the potential exception of Moldova. To put it bluntly, in the form of Lukashenka and Aliev, the East has its own Ben Alis and looks increasingly like the Southern Mediterranean before the revolts.

Since 2004, the EU has placed under a single policy umbrella, the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), its relations with this large and heterogeneous ring of countries that ranges from Morocco to Belarus and comprises exceptional situations like Palestine. These countries have differing political and economical relations with the EU and some of them are involved in open or latent conflicts, either internally or with each other. Most importantly, however, they have completely different expectations as regards the kind of relations they would like to have with the EU.

The official aim of the ENP is to promote reforms and even harmonisation with the EU norms and legislation in both the political and economic fields while the undeclared goal may be described as consolidating an area of political, economical and even cultural European influence in its southern and eastern borderlands. As to the policy results, there is an overall agreement among experts and practitioners alike that if not an outright failure the results are at least rather disappointing. The EU policy has failed to bring about progress in its neighbourhood, and we have observed the inadequacy of its tools to favour political, social and institutional reforms. The EU’s attractiveness, particularly in the South, has also diminished due to the emergence of new global powers, the divisions among Member States, and the projection of a “Fortress Europe” image. The Arab revolts have only made more evident the shortcomings and contradictions of this policy approach.