Unlike people, countries cannot choose their own neighborhoods, and the countries of the European Union are surrounded by some pretty turbulent suburbs. Yet, collectively, the EU has not been content to give in to the geographic hand it was dealt. Rather than simply putting up a barbed wire fence – though it has tried some of this as well – the EU set out to actively reform and beautify its neighborhood, slowly transforming it in its image. Or at least that was the plan. As the past few months have shown, the EU’s European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) has been an abject failure.
The ENP is the EU’s institutionalized tool for engaging countries along its periphery. Today it is conveniently divided into mainly* two parts: the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), which joins the 27 EU member states with the littoral Balkans and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and the Eastern Partnership (EaP), which covers the post-Communist states of Europe’s East (EE) and the Southern Caucasus.
The UfM and EaP are very different institutions with non-analogous institutional structures. Yet, their underlying goal is the same: to assist and pressure the countries bordering Europe to become more like Europe. By spending billions of euros in assistance programs and holding out the possibility of greater access to the EU’s coveted common market, Brussels has tried to use the UfM and EaP to encourage its neighbors to open up politically and economically. A similar soft power approach dramatically succeeded in liberalizing and reforming former Soviet Bloc countries, which joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, but the ENP has failed miserably in both Europe’s East and the nearby Muslim states.
Despite the high hopes at the launch of the Eastern Partnership, by now it is obvious that the program has had little if any impact on its members. Following the 2010 presidential election of Victor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s democracy and justice system has steadily regressed while its foreign policy is increasingly at odds with Europe.
Belarus has been even more illustrative of EaP’s failure, which became crystal clear when President Alexander Lukashenko brutally cracked down on opposition and demonstrators protesting his fraudulent reelection last December. Not even offering to bribe Lukashenko had succeeded in extracting any reforms out of Minsk. Indeed, across EE and the Caucasus, there are few signs that the EU managed to Europeanize the region at all.
The so-called “Arab Spring,” which for months has been sweeping across MENA, represents a separate example of Europe’s political irrelevance. MENA is suddenly democratizing, but the ENP and UfM had nothing to do with it. The people’s mass revolts were a home-grown response to their own governments’ failures in protecting individual liberties and encouraging a dynamic economy. The masses learned protest tactics from each other by watching Al Jazeera, and it seems that even the Balkans had affected the protesters more directly than the EU. Moreover, as the scale and significance of the “Arab Spring” movements became apparent, the EU’s position and response has been uncoordinated, slow, and schizophrenic. The Europeans’ continual mea culpas now admit: the UfM foolishly engaged only MENA’s autocratic governments and put no pressure or incentive on reforming them.
It is little wonder that Europe’s approach to its south and east has failed; the EU has thoroughly underfunded, neglected, and politically ignored both its Union for the Mediterranean and Eastern Partnership initiatives. Spain was supposed to hold a UfM summit during its presidency in 2010, but was then forced to put it off and eventually cancel it completely. On the other hand, the first EaP summit was ignored by most EU leaders, with Chancellor Angela Merkel being the only Western leader to attend. With much fanfare, a second EaP summit was planned for May 2011, during the current, Hungarian presidency. However, it has now been quietly postponed until the Polish presidency later this year.
An irresolute ENP has thus significantly undermined Europe’s voice in EE and MENA. Yet, the problem goes much deeper. The EU’s loss of soft power in its neighborhood is also exacerbated by Europe’s increasingly isolationist mentality. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the EU’s enlargement process was by far the most effective tool for reforming post-Soviet bloc countries. But, those states were only willing to undertake the painful, though necessary reforms because they knew they could count on eventually becoming full members. Since 2007, however, ‘enlargement fatigue’ and severe financial troubles within the EU have largely closed the door to most other potential candidates – the Western Balkans notwithstanding. And, by shutting the door to further enlargement, the EU has undermined its best tool for wringing reforms out of its neighbors.
Thus, to reanimate its positive influence over its neighborhood, the EU should acknowledge and invite in those countries which made significant strides. In particular, Georgia and Turkey need to be integrated into Europe. Georgia’s post-Rose Revolution reforms have been profound, while its population overwhelmingly identifies itself as European and seeks EU (and NATO) membership. Turkey, on the other hand, has been in European membership talks for several decades, and the majority of its population supported the process – at least until recently.
While neither country has been making much of a case for EU membership readiness lately, clearly, the Europeans’ dithering and, at times, open hostility actively discourage Georgians and Turks. This in turn has dissuaded other EU neighbors from requesting closer relations at the cost of greater democratization or liberalization. Why put in the hard work when there is no promise of payoff? Unlike Eastern Europe, the countries of MENA do not necessarily make obvious candidates for EU membership today or in the future. But, even so, tighter economic integration and more robust social ties would be healthy for both sides of the Mediterranean.
Luckily, the ENP’s failings have finally forced Brussels to reevaluate its relationship with its neighborhood. The recently proposed Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity is a terrific start. Its incentive-based approach – “more for more” – should indeed have been codified and enforced in UfM and EaP assistance programs from the start. But, with autocrats like Mubarak and Ben Ali swept aside by millions of protesters, there is hope that the ENP will finally include robust aspects of civil society promotion, democracy support, judicial training, university exchanges, and economic development at local levels.
A difficult but vital task before European diplomats and EU bureaucrats is now to ensure that PDSP funding and political support does not end up eroding or becoming as similarly misappropriated as previous ENP programs. However, an equally important – if much less straightforward – task simultaneously stands before Europe’s policy thinkers and grand strategy planners. Europe must regain its magnetic pull, which encouraged others to voluntarily become more like Europe in exchange for getting closer to it. Reenergizing the enlargement process for the front-runner candidates is an obvious place to begin.
* In fact, there is also a third geographical element to ENP: the Northern Dimension. The Northern Dimension seeks to enhance security, economic, and environmental cooperation between the EU, non-EU Nordic countries Norway and Iceland, and Russia. As the Nordics were already established liberal, free-market democracies with strong ties to the EU, the initiative is not controversial. However, the Northern Dimension has contributed nothing to encouraging democratization in Russia.
Matthew Czekaj is a research associate with the Atlantic Council’s International Security Program.