Making the Most of the European Neighbourhood Policy Toolbox
BRUSSELS—The review of the European Neighbourhood Policy, unveiled in Brussels on November 18 after a year-long process of reflection and consultation with a broader community of stakeholders in Europe and its neighboring countries, did not offer many surprises. While acknowledging many of the ENP’s flaws and the changed domestic and international environment in which EU institutions operate, the review failed to produce a radical overhaul of the relations between the EU and the 16 countries that surround it, from Belarus through the Southern Caucasus and the Middle East to Morocco.
This was a missed opportunity. The nature of the challenges and the impact they have on Europe would have required far bolder solutions. Evidently the time is not ripe, in the midst of multiple domestic and international crises, to deconstruct existing policies and approaches and find new consensus to bring EU action to a higher plane. The institutions are also engaged in another exercise to devise an “EU global strategy,” led by the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, which was not dovetailed to the ENP review.
This low-key approach entails important risks, as explained by Michael Leigh. But if the ENP cannot be changed, of what practical use can it be in the near future? The EU institutions’ role in external policy and a pot of €15 billion are at stake.
In the short term, the ENP needs to demonstrate its relevance first and foremost to European states. This may appear a tame statement, but it is at the heart of the problem, as EU institutions and EU member states have spent the past ten years going about their own business. For historical and geographical reasons, European states have a collection of often diverging interests and relationships in the broad EU neighborhood. The ENP’s ambitious vision to transform the neighborhood into a “ring” of well-governed prosperous countries was sufficiently vague and agreeable to member states that did not want to share the specifics of their relations with individual nearby countries. This has weakened the EU together with its member states. And the result is now in front of the world’s eyes.
Without a strategy, the ENP needs to demonstrate that it can at least be a useful toolbox. Few objectives should be identified, around which EU institutions should seek to build support — from other member states and institutions, but also non-European actors — to pursue them. Supporting Tunisian security sector reform in line with human rights legislation or helping Ukrainian anti-corruption legislation are priority areas where the EU has the expertise to make a difference. Creating alliances around specific aims and channeling resources toward them may help inject some energy in a dwindling policy.
Related to this is the need to make good use of the financial resources available. The ENP financial instrument has a budget of €15 billion for the period 2014-20, 28 percent of the EU’s external budget — not much, and will it not be increased. If this budget were managed in coordination with national bilateral aid, it could be put to better use. The European Commission, which manages all this, also has a good track record in attracting further contributions from other donors such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. It has done so when gathering additional resources in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring and the crisis in Ukraine. This is another area where institutions and states could work far better together.
Relevance also needs to be demonstrated with respect to the countries involved in the ENP, which today are subject to the influence of other donors, investors, and models of development, including those of China, Russia, and the Gulf states. The ENP is moving toward a policy in which the EU and its “partners” can cherry-pick areas for cooperation. This means that only a handful (Tunisia, Morocco, perhaps Jordan, Ukraine, Georgia, and possibly Moldova) will continue to be interested in what the EU has to offer — progressive integration in the EU market — while most will opt for ad hoc cooperation on select issues.
For Europe, this signals the start of a more “pragmatic” approach to foreign policy, which might bear some fruit if and when an overall approach materializes. Of course, in a conflict-ridden environment, the EU will need to talk to governments it is not fond of. But instead of showering all 16 ENP countries, the EU may do well to put its words into money and invest its financial and political resources in worthwhile projects and countries, and limit relations with other countries to diplomacy and political cooperation.
These proposals need to be seen as in-between measures designed to bridge this crisis period in which EU institutions and its member states are seemingly retreating in the face of external challenges. But an eye toward the future needs to be kept. For all its inherent flaws, the ENP had an ambition to project order beyond the EU. That ambition has dissolved, as have some of the enabling conditions. But the need for order — a rights-based, pluralist, and participatory one — has not. If it is not Europe to work on shaping a different environment in its neighborhood, then who?
Rosa Balfour is a Senior Fellow in GMF’s Brussels office.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.