What next for the EU’s neighbourhood policy?

In June, Alert submitted a contribution to the EU European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) review civil society consultation process. In this blog, written with my colleague Frederike Engeland, we summarise some of the main points.

The ENP was established in 2004 as an alternative way of engaging with countries in the European neighbourhood that were not looking for or not entitled to accession to the EU. Its objective is to create a region of prosperity, stability and security.

The formal instrument of the ENP is ‘Association Agreements’, whereby countries to the south and east benefit from privileged relationships with the EU, including political association, deeper economic integration and increased mobility. In return, they commit to common European values, including democracy and human rights, rule of law, good governance, market economy principles and sustainable development.

However, questions regarding its impact, especially in light of the most recent crisis in Ukraine, have raised criticism of the current approach. The EU has been criticised for its inability to adapt the ENP framework and engage with a changing environment. At the same time, inherent tensions within the ENP are becoming more pronounced, between the short-term political interests of their governments, and what individual partner countries need, to become more stable, secure and prosperous. Linked to this is a perceived trade-off between dealing with security issues in the short and long term.

Against this background, Alert produced a number of recommendations for re-shaping the ENP from a peacebuilding perspective, drawing on discussions with other organisations and EU staff. These recommendations are designed to enable the ENP to adapt to a changed and fluid security environment in its direct neighbourhood, and thus ultimately fulfil its objective of contributing to strengthening the stability and raising prosperity in the broader region.

Avoid focusing on siloed, technical approaches to political challenges

The effectiveness of the ENP has been inhibited by the lack of focus on underlying causes of instability. The current approach in the form of Association Agreements tries to apply technical approaches to fundamentally political challenges, ending up with an assortment of technical activities, often tackling different issues (e.g. economic governance, infrastructure, law and justice, security sector reform (SSR)) that rarely add up to a mutually reinforcing approach.

It is essential that the EU look at the overall political economy of each partner country and identify a cohesive strategy that encompasses current and future drivers of conflict as well as the factors that are needed and the opportunities that are available to promote sustainable social and political stability. In other words, the EU should apply a progressive peacebuilding approach to the partnership objectives and interventions it develops.

Apply a conflict-sensitive approach

The ENP review team’s consideration of conflict-sensitive approaches is welcome but needs to be fully articulated and more broadly applied. A focus on conflict-sensitising activities perceived to relate to ‘security’ will not be enough to promote stability and societal progress. Going down this path falls into the trap of overly technical approaches and overlooks the interconnections between activities, interventions and context.

The ENP needs to apply conflict-sensitivity at several levels. Firstly, it needs to look at how its policy decisions and interventions impact at the regional level, and how regional conflict dynamics interact with these decisions. For example, looking at creating compatible models of cooperation in the eastern partnership. Creating a zero sum game between the EU and Eurasian Customs Union reinforced tensions within the region. In the Middle East and North Africa, regional approaches should consider the regional implications of the Syrian crisis (in particular in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey), and how this conflict and refugee crisis interacts with pre-existing local structural and governance issues.

Secondly, it needs to be applied at the national and sub-national levels. It is important to avoid reinforcing governance structures that are oppressive or corrupt. For example, there is a live question about how the EU can strengthen Ukraine without reinforcing the oligarchical patronage networks that contribute to distrust in government and prevent a state–society contract from evolving progressively.

Thirdly, there is a need to look at the conflict-sensitivity of individual or sectoral interventions. For instance, how will infrastructure development impact on local communities’ access to land and livelihoods, how will economic reforms reduce or produce inequalities such as between ethnic or religious groups, and what are the consequences of ‘professionalising’ a security force in the absence of strengthening capacity for civilian oversight?

It is important that conflict-sensitivity is integrated from the beginning, prior to the point of agreement with the relevant government and stakeholders. This must flow into the design process and then be monitored throughout the life of the programme to anticipate and respond to changing circumstances. This process needs to be underpinned by rigorous analysis shaped by input from both the partner government, but also other stakeholders within the country.

Engagement should be less state-centric

The ENP also needs to be less state-centric. This has to happen at two levels. It needs to expand its vision to more fully consider regional and cross-border issues. It also needs to deepen its engagement to reach citizens, the private sector and civil society – essentially those beyond the government. This is critical if the partnership is to create incentives within society to adopt liberal and progressive values over time.

Regional strategies are essentially regional in name only. ENP engagement is generally undertaken on a country-by-country basis, with a national focus. Promoting stability in some countries will be challenging and probably unsustainable unless the regional dimensions of instability are identified and mitigated. So as well as seeking to mitigate the internal impact of regional issues, there is also a need to engage with neighbours of neighbours in more flexible ways, for example through incentives such as regional economic cooperation.

Engaging beyond the state will be essential, as the absence or breakdown of the state–society contract is at the core of many challenges in Europe’s neighbourhood. It will be increasingly important to access and engage with citizens, civil society, political and religious groups, diaspora networks, non-state actors, and the private sector. There is also a need to consider sub-national disparities, often not a focus for national governments, and engagement with the institutions that operate in these spaces.

A particular challenge for the ENP has been how to deal with unrecognised or disputed territories. These often lie at the heart of conflict dynamics, and working out how to deal with them is admittedly very complicated, but previous policies have not always been effective in reaching and engaging with such entities, so it is worth looking at this issue again.

Contemporary security challenges require a multifaceted response

In defining the ENP broadly and forging partnerships individually, it will be important to avoid falling into the trap of adopting the dominant theme of the day, whether this is with regard to Russia, ISIS or migration. This leads to a reactive approach. As such, the eastern partnership should take account of but not be defined by Russia. Similarly, in relation to the Mediterranean, migration and Islamist extremism are important issues, but not the only or definitive ones. The approach needs to focus on addressing the underlying challenges to peace and stability, which are multiple and different in each place.

There is also a need for more holistic, long-term approaches to security challenges within the EU and in the European neighbourhood. Issues such as radicalisation, violent extremism, transnational organised crime and mass migration cannot be dealt with through security responses alone. Such efforts require a complementary approach that pairs such responses with efforts that tackle the multiple and interconnected underlying causes associated with these issues.

For example, in MENA, development assistance which aims to remove some of the social, political, and economic drivers of violent radicalisation over the medium term can be linked with and mutually informed by shorter-term measures designed to limit the risk of harm to people in MENA and the EU from violence – and these can be linked to programmes devised and implemented with members of the MENA diaspora in Europe.

Inclusive approaches to security in MENA should also address socio-economic and political marginalisation of border communities in the Middle East and North Africa, where disengaged and neglected communities turn to illicit trade across borders to support themselves. Genuinely inclusive approaches to this problem would look beyond partner states to create space for civil society and communities, including the most marginalised and non-formal security providers, to engage them in decision-making and provide civilian oversight of the security sector.

There will be instances where partner governments are simply unprepared to engage through the ENP. In these instances, and to promote a comprehensive approach, it will be necessary to draw on and apply other tools of EU foreign policy (e.g. the Common Security and Foreign Policy, the Common Security and Defence Policy, the European External Action Service, and EU development cooperation) in a complementary way. This is further reinforced by the understanding that greater challenges to European security, such as its difficult relationship with Russia, should not be left just to the ENP to play out, but should be addressed in a more comprehensive, integrated manner.

The ENP should also carefully consider its own comparative advantage, especially within the security sphere. There are other players, such as NATO, probably better equipped to engage in collaboration on ‘hard security’, such as SSR. This would also minimise the risk of supporting governments that act against European values of democracy and human rights, which is a common concern for some member states.

Ultimately, the ENP should reflect a human security approach and look at all dimensions of individuals’ security needs and wellbeing. This encompasses their safety on the streets, their national security against external aggression, and the strength and accountability of their government institutions. This will help strike an appropriate balance between responses to local, national and regional security challenges.

To conclude, the overwhelming consideration for those reframing and improving the ENP must surely be that many of the countries to the east and south of the EU are tinderboxes within unstable regions, and must be handled with great care and attention. EU neighbourhood partnerships must therefore be designed to promote a combination of stability and progress in its neighbours and within the EU itself, improving human security and the capacity of citizens and societies to flourish, economically, socially and politically.