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Dealing with troubled neighbourhoods

Neighbourhood policy / COMMENTARY
Rosa Balfour , Antonio Missiroli

Date: 12/02/2009
It is only a few years since the ‘Big Bang’ enlargement stimulated a redefinition of the EU’s relations with the countries just beyond its new borders. Yet there have already been more or less vigorous attempts to redefine, enhance or even kill off the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP).
Over the past year or so, further initiatives have refocused the debate on two macro-regions: the South, through French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), and the East, through the Swedish-Polish proposal for an Eastern Partnership (EaP) due to be finalised at the March European Council and officially launched in May. 
Meanwhile, the EU’s ‘neighbourhoods’ have seen three revolutions (Rose, Orange and Cedar) and three wars (Lebanon, Georgia and Gaza) in which the Union had - and still has - a big role to play. It displayed its capacity for crisis management in the Orange Revolution and Georgia conflict; can exercise economic clout as the most important trade partner for most of these countries and as a key energy customer; and can deploy an increasingly diverse toolbox, from police and border missions to enabling students from the neighbourhood to study in the EU.
Yet there still is a mismatch between the Union’s common policies in terms of ‘low politics’ (agreeing short- and long-term aims, identifying benchmarks to achieve them, clarifying the prizes to be ‘won’) and its involvement in the ‘high politics’ of neighbouring regions, which has been conducted more through the activism of individuals (EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, President Sarkozy) than through the structured relationships established by the Union as such.
Indeed, the Union is still far from achieving the objectives it has set itself: to stabilise the countries east and south of its borders while at the same time supporting their transformation into peaceful, democratic and friendly states.
The criticisms are well-known: that the EU does not have the institutions to provide leadership; that it lacks political will and/or unity of purpose; or even that it is pretty irrelevant given the substantial power of other players, old and new.
True, the EU has just had a ‘good’ few months, thanks to a unique combination of factors (American weakness, French decisiveness, global shakiness). This favourable constellation has now gone. The endless waiting for institutional reforms to enter into force has also left the Union in a state of uncertainty, and the Lisbon Treaty may not per se solve this structural mismatch between ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics overnight. Recent events have also further emphasised the inadequacy and volatility of the current state of affairs.
Between East and South
The ENP was built upon an ‘acquis’ on how to deal with countries in transition: much of the ‘low politics’ of the ENP stems directly from the European Commission’s experience in handling the accession of the countries which joined the EU in 2004/07.
The EaP proposes to strengthen the incentives by putting some appetising carrots on the table: more mobility (visas), more participation in EU programmes, more and freer trade, and support for administrative reform. Of course, whether the EU is prepared to pay for this is another matter – but, for once, in this case the Commission has suggested liberalising even much-protected agricultural and industrial goods.
Conversely, rather than giving rewards in exchange for reforms, the practical aspects of the UfM focus on laudable projects to be developed or to receive additional impetus through donors beyond the usual Commission funding (of which there is none to spare). The development of solar energy and transport infrastructure would no doubt benefit the South Mediterranean as well as the EU, although it is lamentable that the list of projects avoids key issues such as the management of natural resources, agricultural land and water, all of which are behind conflicts in the region.
To the East, the EaP initiative introduces a new multilateral dimension that was missing from the ENP.
Regular meetings between Heads of State and Government, between Foreign Ministers and between senior officials are planned with a view to institutionalising the EaP as a permanent forum, in an attempt to match the stronger regional and institutional set-up created by the Barcelona Process in 1995 to manage EU relations with the South. But it also highlights once again the intrinsic tension between East and South (and their respective sponsors inside the EU) that has affected the ENP from the outset.
The UfM also builds upon Barcelona’s summitry and diplomacy, introducing a higher level of contacts, with annual Heads of State and Government meetings. It gives the Southern partners more say through the co-Presidency and includes the Arab League among its members.
In July, at the UfM launch summit in Paris, this approach seemed to pay off. But in January, the scheduled meeting of officials dealing with the UfM was cancelled, underlining the inability of the parties to talk to each other about the running of their partnership/union. On the EU side, moreover, confusion over its UfM co-Presidency led to two different missions seeking a ceasefire in Gaza at the start of 2009.
To the East, the record is slightly better, but still tainted. The EU’s success in supporting transition by offering accession has not been replicated outside the enlargement process, and its skill in underpinning economic and political reform have been far less noticeable. The EaP blueprint seems to offer too little to such countries as Ukraine, whose aim is the bigger prize of EU membership, and too much to Armenia and Azerbaijan, wary of any external attempt to ‘transform’ their domestic set-up.
At the same time, an increasing number of EU governments realise that strengthening the Union’s influence and presence in Eastern Europe may have a greater stabilising effect than NATO’s.
Where next
What is still missing is an assessment of the reasons for the EU’s limited success.
To the East, the EaP does not force EU Member States to confront the elephant in the room: will Eastern European countries ever be eligible for EU membership? The problem is not just related to the EU’s alleged “absorption capacity”, but also to how the Union views the strategic position of these countries sandwiched between it and Russia - another key question the EU is reluctant to discuss.
To the South, the key issue is how to achieve a peaceful settlement of the conflicts that have ravaged the wider region. Here, the differences between Member States go back further: colonial pasts, privileged historical bilateral ties, World War guilt, and national approaches to the integration of Muslim communities, all get in the way of a debate on how to handle relations with the South Mediterranean. As a result, the Union appears almost schizophrenic: it has increasingly friendly relations with authoritarian regimes it claims to want to reform and avoids engaging with some political actors despite its commitment to intercultural and interfaith dialogue.
There is no institutional magic to solve these questions. But there are lessons to be learned from the past five years of an ENP weakened as much by the South-East cleavage as by being neither an enlargement nor a foreign policy proper.
The appointment of a new Commission later this year, and - Ireland permitting - the Lisbon Treaty’s entry into force, may provide good opportunities to address these questions, at least indirectly. For instance, why not decouple the East and South more explicitly, as the objectives and instruments of EU policy towards them are different anyway?
Within the new Treaty framework, the necessary coherence and coordination would be provided by the “double-hatted” High Representative/Commission Vice-President (HR/VP). Under his/her supervision, there would be ample scope for articulating regional foreign policies more effectively and consistently - at Commissioner as well as Directorate-General level - thus potentially reconciling and joining up ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics.
Rosa Balfour is a Senior Policy Analyst and Antonio Missiroli is Director of Studies at the European Policy Centre.

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