Quo vadis European Neighbourhood Policy?

The Vilnius Summit, dedicated to the Eastern Partnership, that took place in December 2013 would have given reason to celebrate 10th anniversary of the European Neighbourhood Policy accompanied by the presentation of achievements, such as the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, as well as by the introduction of optimistic plans for the future. The fiasco that happened in Vilnius and subsequent events in Ukraine were nevertheless merely (and hopefully) the symbolic final chord of the events of past five years that exemplified once again the malfunction of the existing principles of the European Neighbourhood Policy in practice both in Southern and Eastern Dimension and signalled the need for an immediate change.

Frankly, it's hard to imagine how things could have turned out any worse in the EU neighbourhood from 2008 to this day: although having spent deliberately and accordingly to all the rules (to promote peace and welfare) 11 billion Euros over the period 2007-2013, there is only one success story to show for it (Moldova), a large number of stagnant partners, and a series of escalated conflicts both in Northern Africa as well as former Eastern Bloc. For the sake of objectivity it must be said that it would be unfair to see Europe's failed policy as the culprit in the events of Georgia, Ukraine, Egypt, Libya and several other neighbouring countries – global rivals, conflicting interests of the Member States and of course the actions of the target countries themselves played a major part there.

Reforms are therefore needed, but before reinventing the neighbourhood policy (which unfortunately has already started based on old values), policy makers should overcome their embarrassment with the present results and systematically review the shortcomings, so that in five years there will be no need to state that the plans looked ambitious on paper, but in fact there were few, who believed in their feasibility from the start.

In hindsight it can be asserted that the creation of the neighbourhood policy was first and foremost a symbolic and reputational act that wasn't aimed at practical results. In 2003 the interest in creating a new ambitious policy was greater than in making it work and that is how all neighbouring countries  (from Algeria to Azerbaijan) that from one hand didn't have an accession perspective and on the other hand were not fit for strategic partnership were crammed into one universal framework. The marvellous virtual notions of Eastern and Southern Dimensions were invoked, creating an uninterrupted buffer zone of countries that in a way constituted a conceptual part of Europe and were supposed to contribute to our security and welfare, but that didn't have the right to sit at the table with decision-makers as equals.

Alas, practices could not be consolidated with ambitious plans over the course of 10 years, although policy-makers had employed all the enlargement and external policy components, that had so far been successful as well as favoured by the Member States. The target countries are definitely disappointed as well – they were hoping to use the neighbourhood partnership as a stepping stone to a privileged relationship, reciprocal partnership and in some cases membership in the EU, but also instruments for national reforms.

The second reason behind the failure of the neighbourhood policy is the belief in the existence of a “one-for-all” solution that would work equally well in all target countries, eradicating corruption, obliterating religious fundamentalism, and establishing functional democracy and the rule of law as  well as encouraging further integration of the neighbouring countries with Europe. In retrospect it remains unclear, why the standardisation of the neighbourhood policy was cherished in a situation, where it wasn't fulfilling the set goals and even became an obstacle for presenting the partner countries with motivational special packages. Therefore, one of the keys to success of the future neighbourhood policy is the ability to adapt to the special needs of the target countries.

The implementation of the neighbourhood policy has also been hindered by the bureaucratic nature of the EU institutions, where convenient, safe and tried-out solutions are favoured over reaching substantial goals, often stemming from the logic that if some instrument doesn't work, then its volume needs to be increased by 7%. Instead of low density distribution of assets, which results in low effectiveness, clear priorities should be set regarding both objectives as well as geographical areas that would significantly increase the chances of achieving the intended goals. Rather than trying to adjust the different needs of neighbouring countries with the uniformity of plans and standards for the sake of historical consistency or budgetary convenience, more attention should be paid to the different target countries' development potential, capabilities and intent to approach the European Union.

The lack of appeal to target countries coupled with the imbalanced nature of partnerships has been the fourth obstacle for the implementation of the neighbourhood policy – as well as the reluctance of the EU Member States to admit the fact. Criticism has often been countered with the claim that the reforms required in the framework of the neighbourhood policy are in the best interest of the target countries and do not require any additional motivation. Based solely on its historically dominant approach to colonial territories as well as its economic and security interests, the EU paid obviously too little attention to the interests of the neighbouring countries and their wish to participate in such partnership. It was hoped that scarce financial assistance and a vague promise of privileged relations (but not the EU membership) is enough to convince the neighbouring countries to fulfil demanding reform and modernisation packages tailored by the European Union. When the target countries reached the conclusion that there is no hope of being accepted to the club and that the meagre financial assistance is not likely to be increased, social tensions arose as a reaction and alternative partnerships were sought with Russia, for example.

Where to start reforming the European Neighbourhood Policy and what to focus on more in the future? First the common ground of the interests and objectives ought to be retrieved in the framework of the ENP. Rather than asking, which activities in the domain of security can institutionally of financially be undertaken in the framework of the neighbourhood policy, thought should be put into which commitments the European Union is willing to take and which interests are behind them. The Member States need to have it out, whether it's the publicly stated values of democracy, respect of human rights, the rule of law and inclusion of the civil society to the decision-making processes that's at the core of the neighbourhood policy, or it's the economic interests of the Member States, regional political influence and stable and inexpensive access to natural resources and transport routes. Another question is, whether a neighbourhood policy based on common interests of the Member States can have democratisation, modernisation and adherence to human rights in its neighbouring countries as its main objective. Which country would finance such a policy adequately in the long-term perspective and how would the added value of such a policy be measured? Furthermore, it must be kept in mind that the main contributors to the policy (e.g. Germany and Benelux countries) do not border any of the ENP partner countries.

While reshaping the European Neighbourhood Policy, subsequently the EU accession potential needs to be restored for the Eastern Dimension countries and for the Southern Dimension counties attractive economic incentives need to be proposed. Although the aggressive interest of Russia in the Eastern Dimension countries has increased, the future impact of the ENP is still largely in the hands of the European Union.

In conclusion, for Estonia as well as many other small states at the borders of the EU a functioning neighbourhood policy would be essential, while for the core countries of the EU it's just one of many strategic initiatives, the failure of which can be indemnified, if needed. In practice it's the big Member States that have been derailing joint initiatives most actively, when common interests have conflicted with national interests. Therefore, reflection on the neighbourhood policy as well as contribution to its substance ought to be one of the priorities of Estonia's European Union policy in coming years.

Publicēts 13. aprīlis, 2015

Autors Viljar Veebel