Resetting European Policy towards the South: Why the European Neighbourhood Policy Review Needs to Address the Essential Questions

Four years after the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) known as the Arab Spring that changed the political and security landscape of Europe’s Southern neighbors dramatically, a new European Union (EU) Commission and High-Representative seeks to review and reform EU policy towards the region. Johannes Hahn, the new Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, is tasked with reviewing the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) in the first twelve months of his mandate.

While initially aimed at building a “ring of friends” through its Neighbourhood Policy, the past year in particular has revealed severe limitations and shortcomings of EU foreign policy towards its surrounding regions – through the Ukraine crisis, the Islamic State movement and continued war in Syria, destabilization in Libya, and fortification of authoritarianism in Egypt.

The realization is spreading in Brussels that Europe’s influence on its neighborhood is in fact much more limited than was previously assumed. If the ENP review is to bring about change, it needs to avoid a mostly technical approach and instead address the tough questions:

  1. What are differing interests among the EU and its various member states in the MENA region and how can contradictory and thereby self-defeating policies of member states be avoided?
  2. How can the EU support both stabilization and democratization without sacrificing one for the other?
  3. What are the neighboring states’ interests in their relation to Europe and how should a European policy look like for those countries that are not gravitating towards the EU?

 First: Aligning national and common European goals in the region

European policies toward the Southern neighborhood tend to be fragmented and work in parallel and sometimes contradictory ways. If indeed Europe is losing leverage in the region to other players, it has to put its weight behind a common set of goals. The ENP review under Commissioner Hahn should be a forum for working out such a strategy: What does the EU and its member states wish to see in the region? All interests need to be put on the table: human rights, democracy, security, migration concerns, as well as economic and trade issues. Only by recognizing and accepting these partly diverging interests can Europe formulate a strategy to reconcile them. The same is true within the EU institutions: The ENP will be most effective if EU policies in the fields of trade, home affairs, development and external action in the region reinforce rather than undermine each other. Instead of adding policies and instruments, reforms are needed.

Second: Supporting long-term inclusive stabilization rather than backing short-term authoritarian stability

The instability in numerous Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries is playing into the hands of authoritarian governments who justify human rights abuses by the need to provide security and stability. It is easy to fall into the trap of this authoritarian discourse by accepting that countries have to choose between supporting either democracy or security. Yet, what Europe learned through the Arab uprisings in 2011 was that authoritarian stability does not last forever. People throughout the region revolted and demanded bread, freedom and social justice. Europe must avoid falling back into the pre-2011 mode of backing authoritarian regimes for the sake of stability while putting human rights on the backburner. Instead, Europe must seek ways to work towards stabilizing the region in a manner that respects EU values, and is both sustainable and inclusive. This could, for example, include involving a broader range of state and non-state stakeholders in stabilization efforts. It could also mean tying financial support for security and especially counterterrorism to human rights monitoring and protection, or supporting dialogue between opposed factions of societies whose conflicts threaten to destabilize entire countries.

Third: Recognizing country-specific interests and conditions

It has become clear that the EU is not the evident model or even partner for many countries in the Southern neighborhood. Their policies are rather influenced by complex relationships with neighbors in the Gulf and Sahel regions, as well as regional and global players, namely Russia, Iran, and China. Domestic politics furthermore shape the countries’ foreign policy agendas. Commissioner Hahn should identify key interests on the European side and consider country-specific interests and conditions of the countries in the South. Tunisia is different from Egypt, which is in turn different from Morocco. This seems obvious but the concept of the Neighbourhood suggests that it is not. In Tunisia, the recent elections allow for cautious optimism concerning the transition process yet the country is in serious need of support for its economy and security sector to consolidate it. In Egypt meanwhile, the government is curtailing rights and quickly narrowing the space for free media and civil society under the banner of counterterrorism and the promise of being a guarantor of regional stability. Furthermore, while Tunisia has great interest in EU funding and is thus more responsive to conditionality, Egypt is instead turning to other donors such as Saudi Arabia, thus making it ever more difficult for the EU to exert leverage on its policies.

Conclusion

President of the Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and Vice-President Frans Timmermans identified “stocktaking and way forward” of the European Neighbourhood Policy as one of the priorities for 2015. A thorough ENP review is indeed crucial at a time where the neighborhood resembles a “ring of fire” rather than a “ring of friends” as the Economist aptly put it. In Europe’s best interest, it is essential that the review does not shy away from dealing with the tough questions elaborated above in a manner that is inclusive and transparent.

Photo by Eoghan OLionnain / CC BY-SA 2.0

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