The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) review released in mid-November 2015 has defined a new overarching goal for the EU – ‘stabilising the neighbourhood’. Does this shift in objectives signal a new era for the EU’s relations with its neighbours? Will the ‘new’ ENP become more political, more strategic and more impactful after its failure to transform the neighbourhood in the past decade?

By Gergana Noutcheva


Many commentators have interpreted the pragmatic turn in the ENP discourse as the arrival of realpolitik in EU’s relations with the neighbours. Indeed, the revamped ENP promises a U-turn in EU’s willigness to develop partnerships with just about every country in the neighbourhood notwithstanding the quality of its democratic institutions. Notable is the retreat from the rhetoric of “shared values” as a core principle of EU engagement with the partners. And although rhetorically the ENP review insists on the EU’s commitment to promoting democracy and human rights in the neighbourhood, the normative language is subdued and conspicuously toned down compared to previous ENP communications and strategic papers.

In all fairness, the ENP has always been seen as a security-driven policy irrespective of the Brussels-led rhetoric on democracy and human rights. Research on the neighbourhood has convincingly demonstrated that the normative ENP discourse has been for the EU’s ears only. In practice, the protection of EU interests has taken precedence over the support for democratic principles and actors on the ground. And while the new emphasis on security and mutual interests in the ENP may sound like a new policy line, the reality of EU relations with the neighbours has always conformed to it.

What the ‘new’ ENP is noticeably silent about is how to engage the authoritarian rulers in the neighbourhood while remaining faithful to the EU’s own democratic identity? This is an old policy dilemma but one that has become ever more pertinent with the worsening prospects for democratization in both the east and the south. Half of the polities in the eastern neighbourhood are classified as consolidated or semi-consolidated authoritarian regimes. Two thirds of the polities in the southern neighbourhood fall in this category.

Why should the EU care about democracy in the neighbourhood? For two reasons: First, because this is what Europe is and the EU stands to loose a lot of its international clout if it did not stand up for its values. And second, because it will have more success in achieving its other policy goals, if it worked with other like-minded governments in the neighbourhood.

Can the EU make a difference when the space for democracy support is closing down throughout the neighbourhood? Four issues stand out as paramount when devising future policies aimed at encouraging democratic change in neighbourhood.

First, as the EU moves further away from its core, it is encountering societies that have different ideas about what democracy means and what it entails for the organisation of political life. The EU has to show how flexible and prepared it is in accepting and supporting different variants of democracy that depart from the liberal democracy model but are better geared to the specific conditions of societies in the neighbourhood.

Second, the EU needs a better understanding of the menu of policies that contemporary authoritarian regimes use in order to counter and neutralise external democracy support. Autocracies today are far more global and sophisticated compared to what they used to be. The first step towards proposing effective external policies that can undermine authoritarian rule is knowing better how these regimes in the neighbourhood function.

Third, the EU needs to consider more seriously the policies of other external (non-Western) actors in the neighbourhood that hinder democracy support and de facto support authoritarian rule. Resistance to political change nowadays comes not only from within the authoritarian regimes. It is also encouraged from outside by powerful autocracies with strategic stakes in propping up friendly authoritarian rulers. The EU policy cannot be devised in vacuum without taking into account these broader regional dynamics.

Finally, it is important for the EU to understand better how societies and societal actors can get empowered and pose challenges to authoritarian rulers. Societies in the neighbourhood have revealed a potential to at least upset authoritarian rule if not overthrow it. The EU needs fresh thinking about how to support societal actors and structures outside the regimes that hold the promise of bringing about political change from within.

The silence of the ENP on these crucial issues suggests a lack of strategy on how to go about pursing values in an admittedly difficult climate for that. Yet, the retreat from the goal of democracy support will do no good to the EU’s overall objective of ‘stabilising the neighbourhood’. If stabilising the neighbourhood means stabilising the authoritarian regimes in the neighbourhood, the EU should recall the short-termism of its own policies before the Arab Spring and the Euromaidan as well as the consequences today of its failure to act more forcefully in support of democracy in the past.



Gergana Noutcheva (CERiM member) is Assistant Professor in International Relations and European Foreign Policy in the Political Science Department of Maastricht University. For her personal page see here.





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